The night was close and airless. It was eight p.m. and Miles was about to drive to the station for the Eurostar to Paris. One business trip. She watched, wishing he would stay.
He stuffed his wash bag into the case. “I’ll be back tomorrow, love. Promise. It’s the big night after all.”
“Oh yes. The big night. How could I forget?” Poor Miles, she thought. He had such a short, narrow focus. The past was past. The future unknown. It was a simple, down-to-earth attitude she wished she could share. “You won’t let them keep you?”
“Of course not. Why?”
“I don’t know. I want you here, that’s all. Last year was so… It was as if everything bad started then.”
He stopped packing, came over and put his hands on her shoulders. “In that case let’s make a vow. After Burning Man tomorrow we start again. No looking back. No recriminations. Just a fresh beginning. And it will be all right, Ali. Promise.”
He kissed her, once, full on the lips. She felt a tremor, something of the old Miles, young, strong, never waning, never giving up the fight. “I don’t know if I can do that,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s fair on you.”
“You can. And let me decide what’s fair or not.”
Priory House felt big and cold and empty after he left. The place needed people and laughter. More than anything, she thought, it needed children, the sound of young voices bouncing off the walls, laughter tumbling down the wide, Georgian staircase. Pipe dreams, fantasies, they seemed to return with the season. The wildness of summer, the interlude with Justin, was at an end. Life was changing, radically. In a matter of weeks she could be labelled a drug dealer, facing prison, Sara alongside her in the dock. Unless Burning Man did work some miracle this year and there was some kind of magic in the flames.
In front of the Aga she made herself a coffee, pouring a stiff slug of brandy into the mug. Then she walked into the study, took down the long wooden case from the wall, opened it and stared at the elegant object inside. The shotgun possessed some primitive, intrinsic power of its own. In a sense, she felt, it was alive. Sufficiently so to scare the living daylights out of Marjorie Tyler. Or end a life, if its natural course was run. She stroked the polished wood of the stock, remembered what it felt like pressed to her cheek, the sudden jerk of the barrel, the painful explosion of the blast. And the flea-bitten rag of matted fur jumping, suddenly formless, gouts of blood in the air. The transition from consciousness to dark, an endless, all-consuming night without fear or shame or sentiment, was instantaneous. If she closed her eyes, she could imagine holding this thing in reverse, feeling the awkward press of the trigger against her finger, the barrels at her mouth, and…
Alison Fenway shook herself out of the dream, put the gun back in its case and returned to the kitchen. The black dog of depression could steal on a person so easily, and for no reason at all. The game was not begun. Justin had plans, deeper, broader ones, she suspected, than he was willing to reveal. Miles, naïve as he was and lacking in certain important details, would never give up hope. Above all, Sara possessed a reason, a bright, lively reason why they should all survive intact, in spite of Marjorie Tyler’s machinations.
She looked into the garden. Night was falling. The moon cast a dull, waxy light on the apple trees, now full of unpicked fruit. Tall necks of hollyhocks and delphiniums nodded in the herbaceous beds. The thick, cloying scent of stock blossom drifted in through the half open back door. The evening was airless and oppressive, but the beauty of Beulah was still there, beneath the summer’s poison. Beth Jukes would have breathed deep on a night like this, chuckled at the erratic improbability of the world, and then proceeded with the perennial problem of living.
Alison swore inwardly at herself, put on her walking shoes and stomped out of the house, onto the Minnis, determined to lose the mood through the simplest of remedies, physical exertion. She stopped by the deserted cricket pavilion and nearly abandoned the effort. Across the Minnis, in a recognisable shape close to the pub, the foundations of the bonfire had begun: planks and old timber, brush and scrub lay like the base of a spent volcano waiting to be replenished. She waited a moment, wondering if the strong, squat figure of Mitch Blamire would appear out of nowhere, a pile of scrub, or something worse, tight in his strong arms. But the Minnis was still. It was close to nine. What activity there now was took place at the bar of the Green Man where, in the distant, harsh illumination she could see the customary line-up of regulars motionless over their beers.
“Men,” she said softly, and, on the instant, laughed at her own predictability. On another night, Miles would have been there with them, and she couldn’t blame him. When she thought about the women of Beulah — the faithless American harpie, the murderous giant, even Angie Cartwright, with her scared brand of neurosis, there was scant wonder the men took refuge in the bar from time to time. And, the old voice said, “at least you know where they are”.
She dug in her heels and marched directly across the pitch, over the short, parched grass and the cracked earth that had seen so little victory this season. A light burned in Crabtree Lodge. There was the shape of Sara’s head, behind the thin curtain, her body in the unmistakable pose of nursing, a small figure close to her chest.
Alison stomped on, over the rough grass, through the dry bracken. The horns of the White Horse appeared before her, glowing beneath the moon. Far off were the lights of Canterbury and the great bulk of the cathedral. Sterning Wood lay like a dark stain to her right, a pool of inky blackness beyond the chalk figure. She stopped, lit a cigarette with a shaking hand, and sat down on the brittle grass. There were such memories here. Of Bella Cartwright, bright and sparkling on a joyous summer day, and an encounter after that still burned a fiery hole of pleasure in her memory. And another Bella, crazed to the point of violence, pointing the righteous finger of accusation in the chill winter woods. Events intermingled in her imagination, formed relationships with each other which made no sense in the logical, linear light of day. This, she believed, was part of the challenge, part of the test. To face them down, to see them for what they are: distant happenings in the past, shadows without substance.
She walked to the end of the ridge, to the small sundial that stood on the spur above the steep drop down to the plain. The incline was almost a cliff here. If she launched herself from the edge she would roll and roll, tumbling head over heel for the best part of half a mile before the low, barbed wire at the foot of the hill brought her bloody body to a halt. Lover’s Leap. Someone in the pub had called it that once. It seemed utterly inappropriate. Beulah simply did not embrace a universe where life had such little value that it could be thrown away on a whim, without meaning or purpose.
Holding out her arms, as if they were wings that could lift on the hot, night air, she walked to the very edge, stared down into nothingness, and did not feel afraid, was aware only of a sense of achievement, of stillness.
She turned and, with a brisk stride, marched past the head of the horse, past the priapic, shining horns, into Sterning Wood. It looked like the hinterland of Hell. The coppicers had been at work, felling the sweet chestnut, saving the best for timber, burning the brush in small fires scattered around the cleared forest. Every ten feet the glowing embers of their work stood like low, red beacons, crackling and hissing. She hurried on, past the coppice work, on into the untouched part of the wood.
An owl hooted.
“Owl,” she said out loud.
Vast wings flapped, and a distant, ghostly body rose through the waving branches of the chestnut trees.
She laughed. Something stirred in the woodland floor, rustling the leaves, racing to escape the speed of her approach.
“Fox,” she said. Then, “Or badger. I don’t care.”
She pushed skinny branches of sweet chestnut out of the way, minding their habit of whipping back into the face with the least opportunity. The leaf cover grew thick; the moon receded. She reached into her pocket, pulled out the little torch and cast a thin, pale beam through the stygian dark in front of her.
Then the nature of the wood changed. The smell, too. Beneath the bosky odour there lurked something of Paternoster Farm still, a foetid, chemical stench that rose up from the ground and assaulted the nostrils. The light returned, fainter somehow, as if the moon itself were frightened of this spot.
The clearing was smaller than she had expected. The demolition men had done their work. Nothing remained of Mitch’s charnel house where, if her hunch was correct, the Blamire boys had neatly imprisoned their victims before their grisly deaths then disposed of the inconvenient remains after. She had, she thought with no small measure of pride, disrupted Marjorie Tyler’s monstrous regime considerably in the past year.
More importantly, there were no terrors in this place. The dismal, meagre clearing was nothing more than a space in the great expanse of Sterning Wood. Harry was but a memory, a distant one disappearing down the vast, flaming maw of the contraption he had tended.
“And you deserved it,” she said softly into the clearing. “Whatever I feel about that night, however I look at it, you had this coming. I will not apologise.”
In the trees behind her something stirred.
“Badger,” she said. “Or fo…”
The word never formed. Something dark and enveloping came down over Alison Fenway’s head, stifling her breath, stifling her screams.
A fist, hard and bony, stabbed into her rib cage, sent her reeling to the ground, choking, gagging, trying to think. Then a rope cut across her hands, her arms, binding her tight, trussing her like a turkey on the ground. She screamed, but only for a moment. A piece of vile smelling fabric forced its way into her mouth. She gagged once, felt sure it would work its way into her throat, suffocate her from the inside.
Easier said than done. It was a big thing, vast and vile, like some great and ancient hankie pulled from the long-dead Harry Blamire’s dirty, dusty pockets.
The dark grew dimmer still. She could feel her consciousness narrowing to a point somewhere between her eyes, dissolving to a faint blur of perception, without form or reason.
Alison Fenway coughed once and sensed the night slipping from her head. From somewhere beyond her reach, a place outside the scanty physical dimensions that now formed her universe, came a sound she recognised.
Marjorie Tyler laughed.
(c) David Hewson 2012