Between the end of July and the second week of September, Alison Fenway and Justin Liddle met just twice. On both occasions it was late in the evening, in the little lay-by close to Sterning Wood. They talked. Once, the first time, they made love, crushed together on the cramped back seat of the Peugeot like furtive teenagers, neither knowing quite why they went through this ritual.
Intimacy was difficult. Alison’s confession had changed the balance of their relationship. She wondered if Justin resented the weight of guilt she had passed to him. If that was the case, he didn’t show it. Justin seemed preoccupied, and not just by the untangling of the mystery. Two days after they met for the second time, he called again, while Miles was at work. She was busy on the accounts. The numbers kept climbing and climbing. There was some serious juggling of cash to be done, and the complexity of the business was getting beyond her.
It wasn’t the best of times to call. Curtly, she rejected his offer of a tryst. Alison was tired of the lay-by, tired of the needless deception. She wanted answers, still. Wanted to know how Marjorie Tyler — and perhaps the downtrodden John too — had engineered these misfortunes in her life. But Justin had few idea beyond those he had already proposed. Once a year, at Burning Man, someone went missing, perhaps alternately male and female. Miles, unwittingly by blood, and she, by relation, appeared to be the rightful heirs to Marjorie’s crown. Yet these were just motives and shadows, not the precise, cold facts she expected of the police. There was precious little anyone could do with them.
In some odd sense, too, this failed to concern her. Beulah was going through its waiting period, and the unravelling of the mystery was a part of that. Burning Man loomed on the calendar, the third Saturday of September. This was Marjorie’s opportunity to regain the momentum. She had to act, and when she did Justin would surely be there. Watching, recording everything in his little plod notebook. In some unseen, inexplicable way, the solution lay within the ticking of the clock, the constant revolution of the seasons. It was a question of patience, and being prepared.
Then, just over a week before Burning Man, when the date was starting to nag in her mind like a distant migraine, he called, asked for a meeting with her and Sara, and the world turned again.
It was a Thursday morning and the weather was particularly vile. The sky had turned dull and oppressive. The atmospheric pressure was palpable, a constant, aching presence on the skull. Low murmurings of thunder rolled unseen overhead, unable to work up the energy to pierce the torpid heat and reach the earth. As she walked across the Minnis to Crabtree Lodge — Justin’s chosen location for the meeting — she noticed how ill-kempt the cricket pitch looked. The grass that, last year, had been pristine green, as close-cropped as a skinhead’s pate, was now dry and brown, with the occasional molehill disturbing the surface. The sky groaned and a few meagre drops of rain fell on her head. Alison felt as if she were walking beneath a floating ocean of physical tension that strained to burst on the world, drowning it in an instant.
Justin was there already, in a tee-shirt and jeans, his own Ford Escort parked outside the house, the equivalent of a sign declaring “off duty”. He and Sara were drinking tea in silence side by side on the sofa while Jamie slept, an angelic bundle, in a basket near the kitchen. Alison looked at them and felt cold. Never, in all the time she had known them, had Justin or Sara seemed as deeply miserable as they did that day.
“Well?” she asked.
“I came to warn you,” Justin said. “I just want you to be aware.”
“Aware of what?” Alison asked. “You’re the policeman here. Can’t we expect a little protection?”
He frowned. “I don’t think I’ll be in the force much longer. I’ll see Burning Man out of the way and then I’m off. I thought perhaps teaching…”
Alison wished he would just look her in the eyes once. “What’s happened? Why are you behaving like this?”
“I’m not this person, Ali.” For a moment she thought he might burst into tears. “I can’t live like this. Lying. Hoping for something that’s never going to come.”
Sara put a hand on his knee. “Justin. I can see you’re upset but I think this is a private conversation between you and Alison. I can’t help. Please.”
“This isn’t about how I feel,” he said coldly. “I came here to warn you. And to say I won’t be around much longer to play these games.”
Alison watched the nervous, knowing glances they were exchanging and, in desperation, pleaded, “Will someone enlighten me here? I’m not getting the joke.”
“There’s an investigation going on,” Justin said. “CID I think. Perhaps from outside the force, I don’t know.”
“Good.” Alison stared at them still uncomprehending. “You mean they’re taking these disappearances seriously? Linking them to Burning Man?”
“No.” He sounded tetchy, impatient with her. “I told you. I’ve no evidence of anything about Burning Man. They’re keeping me in the dark, quite why I’m not sure, but I think it’s to do with drugs.”
Alison looked at Sara for a reaction and failed to gauge the emotion running across her friend’s face. “You mean Marjorie? Fine by me. Hang her as easily for a horse as a sheep, I don’t care.”
“I thought that originally,” he replied. “But I was wrong. Tell me, Sara. Exactly what is it you buy and sell through this company of yours?”
“I do the books,” Alison interrupted. “I can tell you down to the last damn number. Rugs and fabrics and gewgaws, bric-a-brac, curiosities, treasures from around the world, rare exotic delights, knick-knacks and…”
Her mouth went dry. Sara’s head hung down and there was a stream of tears coursing down her cheeks.
“Crap,” Alison added lamely.
“Oh stop it!” Sara scowled at her with a strange, intense ferocity that might even have contained a thread of hatred. “Please, Ali. Stop it. He knows. Can’t you see. He knows.”
“Knows what? Am I the only one outside this secret?”
“I think,” Justin said as tactfully as he could, “that what Sara is saying is that you’ve been selling a little more than that. You do the books, Alison. They know the kind of money you’re been turning over. Didn’t it ever occur to you that it’s an awful lot?”
She thought about the strings and strings of numbers and realised how deeply, stupidly wrong Justin was. These figures were abstract, distant entities, with no true meaning. All she had done was ensure that they stayed on the right side of the page and never wandered towards the danger zone that had to be written in red ink. Both of them took out a modest salary; the extra noughts on the figures were the distant cream on the cake, something to be thought about tomorrow.
“You mean…” She remembered going to London, the odd little scene in Camden Market, the hidden bundle of dosh. And meeting Marjorie Tyler on the train back. “You mean you’ve been peddling dope, Sara, and I’ve just been your stupid, goddamn bookkeeper all along?”
“Don’t say that!” The volume and ferocity of her voice woke Jamie from some inchoate infant dream. The child mewled. Sara raced to the basket, gently plucked him from the tangle of sheets and held him to her chest. Alison watched the expression on his face and it almost tore her apart. There was such unspoken love within their shared genes. Jamie gave a single burp, went back to sleep. With a tender, easy precision, Sara laid him back in the basket, gingerly tugged the sheet over his tiny frame.
Then she came back to the sofa and, with fierce, tear-filled eyes stared at Alison. “You don’t know what it’s like. I’m not complaining. I’m not envious. But you don’t know what it’s like, being on your own. No husband. No money. No hope. I spent years flogging all that crap that’s in the books. Working my fingers to the bone. And sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. Two years ago it didn’t work, not at all. I was in so much debt. They wanted to repossess the cottage. They wanted everything I owned. I didn’t know where to turn.”
Justin peered at her with a remoteness Alison found distastefully professional. “So,” he asked, “you started shifting drugs instead?”
“Oh yes, Justin,” she spat back at him. “Just like that. Cheap Moroccan rugs one day, fine crack cocaine the next. What do you think?”
Alison thought about it and knew she was right. “I think, in those circumstances, you’d do what anyone in Beulah would. You’d go to the person who’s supposed to help and ask her. You’d go and ask Marjorie Tyler.”
Sara looked relieved she didn’t need to name names herself. “It’s why she’s there. What else could I do?”
“Quite a lot actually,” Justin said demurely. “You mean Marjorie arranged all this?”
“She knew people. She’s just an old hippie herself. Her and John are always popping over to Amsterdam for whatever. And she got her cut. Oh yes.”
Alison examined her emotions. They shifted so rapidly in situations like this. “You got me involved. If all this comes down around your ears, it comes down around mine too. And I knew nothing about this, Sara. You could put me in jail.”
Sara stared at the Moses basket. “Don’t even talk about jail, please. I’m not stupid. I’ve been working out how we can ditch this whole thing. Just deal in what we’re supposed to be dealing in. It’ll cut the turnover but we can survive. In a couple of weeks, after Burning Man, after the village finds itself again, I was going to tell you. Not everything. Just enough to make sure we got through.”
“Thanks,” Alison replied, not minding the hint of sarcasm in her voice. “I’m really grateful.”
Justin watched the two of them and Alison was startled. Suddenly he did look like a policeman, something was running through his head. “Why did you get Alison involved?” he asked.
“She knows. I needed the help.”
He said nothing, waited.
“Please!” Sara looked as if she were in agony.
Alison stared at her friend, in shock, but in sympathy too. “Marjorie told you to, didn’t she? That was all part of the plan. To get her talons into me.”
“She could kill you, Sara. She could kill any one of us. Believe me.”
The long, convoluted chain of events began to unravel in Alison’s heads, and there were so many complex possibilities. “She told you to wrap me up in the business. And what else? The accident?”
Sara closed her eyes for a moment and, in spite of the betrayal, Alison hated herself for pressing these questions. “I ran off the road, Ali. That’s all. There was no other driver. Marjorie just wanted you scared. Scared and dependent, so that you’d rely on her for security, protection, just like the rest of us. That’s why she wanted me to wind you up about Paternoster Farm. Invent anything I could to make you more likely to see her as your guardian. She was frightened when Miles and you came to the house. Miles may not have a clue what’s going on here, but you’re smarter, you can see.”
That’s right, Alison thought. Blame it on me. Blame everything on me.
“You wound Marjorie up,” Sara continued. “All that stuff about your ancestors getting burnt at the stake and the rest. She went on and on about that. Marjorie’s got no sense of humour. No sense of irony. She took you at face value. You either became an acolyte like the rest of us or you got destroyed. You don’t believe this now but what I did was, in part, to protect you. I hate myself for all this, more than you can ever know.”
She hugged the baby, for her comfort, not Jamie’s. “That woman… Jesus, she terrifies me. Marjorie can make you do anything. Hurt, betray someone you love. Anything. That cow is a witch. I believe that, with all my heart.”
The two of them stared at each other and fell into silence. Finally, Justin said, “Get out of it now. Burn all the records. Destroy as much evidence as you can. They can’t have a lot to go on otherwise they’d be taking a sledgehammer to the door now. You might get lucky. I can’t promise much but I’ll do what I can.”
Could it have been just one, short sentence that began it? Alison was unsure whether she could live with that thought. A few words unspoken, a silly boast about an ancestral myth that was probably untrue. Could everything stem from that? Perhaps, she thought, but only in the sense that the words were a catalyst. It was Marjorie Tyler, her vast shadow hanging over the village like a cloud, who was the protagonist. It was her thirst for control, her despotic nature that had brought disaster upon them all. Nor was it quenched. She thought about the incident with the shotgun, the stand-up argument over Beth Jukes’ body. To view the world through Marjorie’s eyes was to see a Beulah replete with menace, and only one means available to deal with the threat.
Justin got up, thrust his hands in his jeans. “I’ll be here for Burning Man but that’s it. Let’s hope we can settle this once and for all then. It might be wise if you stayed away, Sara. Can you make an excuse?”
“The best excuse,” she said, looking at the baby.
He stared at Alison. “And you?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I’d like you around, Alison. I can call people in if I need it. But it would help to have witnesses.”
“I’ll be there.”
“And also.” Justin looked so sad, she thought. As if his world were disappearing in front of his eyes. “I can’t see you again. Ever. It’s not that I don’t want to.”
The words eluded her, and not for the ordinary reasons of guilt and embarrassment that went hand in hand with the act of adultery. The relationship with Justin had turned out wrong in more ways than one. The brief, ecstatic moment at Yule should have been the beginning of something that bloomed during the summer, after May Day and the cricket match, before reaching its natural end. What happened instead was this arid, poisoned season where everything seemed out of joint, in Beulah and the lives of its inhabitants. Now he was fading from her life and would, she knew, be gone from it entirely when the nights turned chilly and the blackthorn on the Minnis began to sport the deep, misted blue fruits of autumn.
“I love you,” he said. “I don’t know why. I wish I didn’t to be honest. I never knew it could be this painful. I just know I do and it was fated. There wasn’t a choice, not for me. Not ever.”
She stepped up and kissed him once on the lips. “I know,” she said again.
They watched him leave and Alison, to her relief, felt not a moment of regret. The season was changing already. Sara sat on the sofa, dry-eyed now, as miserable as sin.
“You must hate me,” she said. “I don’t blame you. I can’t say sorry enough. I can’t…” The tears came again, thick and fast. Jamie awoke on cue, as if Sara’s sobbing had carried through the ether on some invisible thread of despair.
Alison stood up, walked over to the Moses basket, and took out the writhing, forlorn child, kissed him once, then returned with him to the sofa. She sat next to Sara, passed her the baby, then wrapped her arms around both of them.
“You,” she said resolutely, “are my friend, my best friend. You both matter to me more than you’ll ever know. And anyone who has hurt you is my enemy.”
(c) David Hewson 2012