She woke alone in the big bedroom overlooking the Minnis. The sheets were ruffled on one side of the mattress only. Alison was wearing a plain night shirt and felt clean. There was the dim memory of someone bathing her the night before. A pinprick in the arm. Then nothingness again. No dreams.
The Minnis showed evidence of overnight rain. The welcome break in the weather had transformed Beulah. The grass was a happier shade of green than it had been in weeks. There were people on the common, walking dogs, smelling the fresh, clean air. The sky had lost its aching tension. It possessed the diminished blue of approaching autumn, with the occasional puffiness of pure white cumulus on the horizon. The sun had the lazy, golden glow that came with the end of summer. Someone, on the far side of the common, was starting to rebuild Granny Jukes’ windmill, fresh pale wood rising from the scorched base.
Beulah was coming alive again, after its long, strange interlude of disharmony. She remembered staring out at the place little more than a year before and feeling, with a keen, private intensity, its secret sense of wonder, the precious, flawless harmony that ran through everything. In the rush of events, from Halloween onwards, her appreciation of the village had, to some extent, disappeared. Now it returned in a flood of memories and fresh observations: something perfect. Something to be preserved. And something better understood too. There was clarity in this new day, lines of logic racing around her head, answers to mysteries that had once seemed impenetrable.
Mitch Blamire whizzed around the perimeter of the pitch on his little tractor. Further away, outside the Green Man, people were clearing up the remains of a bonfire. Two? She had no idea what time she had fallen into the black pit of unconsciousness, deep in Sterning Wood, the night before. There could have been a second fire. Everything might have been a dream. Then she felt at her neck, touched the sore marks left by Marjorie Tyler’s rope. On the far side of the Minnis two police cars stood outside the Tylers’ ugly modern home. No dream. She had, she thought, understood that implicitly from the moment she awoke and stared at the perfect alabaster ceiling in the bedroom.
Alison peered outside again. Miles was with the people near the bonfire. Sara was there too, with little Jamie in her arms. There was laughter. It seemed a jolly, natural scene. She dressed, quickly, and went outside.
Mitch had stopped mowing the pitch. Now he was working by the cricket pavilion, and his face lit up when he saw her striding across the grass towards him.
He was beaming. She smiled in return. “Mitch?”
“Such a morning, eh, ma’am. All that rain done washed the world clean. Brought us back to life again. Fresh as a daisy out here.”
She sniffed the air. It was glorious. Mitch continued to gawp at her like an idiot.
“Listen,” he said, ducking behind the pavilion porch. “Bit of moisture does wonders for the Minnis. Got mushrooms coming up everywhere overnight. Not just your common stuff, neither.”
He held up an ancient wicker basket. It was full of blewits and chanterelles, penny bun ceps and pure white field mushrooms. “I been minded to take a couple of partridge this morning too, missus. It’d be an honour if you’d let me leave ’em by the back door. Give you and Mr Fenway a treat tonight.”
There was such an air of deference about him. Mitch was a changed man. This was a changed world. “That would be lovely,” she said, and examined the brown, taut skin of the ceps. “Can I borrow that knife of yours?”
Mitch blinked nervously then, without a word, reached into his pocket and slowly pulled out the long, slim shape of the blade. She took it from him, pressed the small, worn button the side and watched the silver shaft spring out, catching the sunlight. The ceps were perfect, as if they had just come out of a baker’s oven. She carefully sliced the brown skin and admired the creamy flesh underneath.
Alison beamed at him. “You’re a sweetie, Mitch.” The sharp blade sparkled in the sun. So much power in such a small object. She shivered, a long, painful convulsion that ran the length of her spine, then gave him back the weapon and set off across the Minnis.
Frank Wethered, lively little terrier yapping at his heels, strode through the outfield, lifted his cap and bade her a bright good morning. Bella skipped past, grinning foolishly, face newly scrubbed, yammering a long, gabbling stream of words that rattled from her mouth so quickly, one over the other, making no sense.
“Bella,” she said finally. “Slowly. Please.”
“Oh.” The girl was suddenly upon her, planted a damp kiss on her neck. “I love you, Alison Fenway. We all love you. More than ever.”
“That’s kind.” She stared at the remains of the fire on the common ahead. There was just Miles there now, with Sara by his side, the baby in her arms, both of them talking idly. “You had a fire, Bella?”
“Course we had a fire, Ali. Later than usual but it was Burning Man after all. Some Burning Man too.”
“Quite. And you’re all… at peace now?”
“That’s a way of putting it.”
Bella’s eyes flashed with the old evasiveness. Not everything changed, Alison thought, and found her head going into overdrive, measuring possibilities against each other, weighing the likely outcomes.
“Best you ask Miles about that,” the girl replied carefully. “He’s your man.”
“I guess he is,” she said and kicked into her stride, walked briskly over to the remains of the fire.
Miles watched her approaching. Something glinted in the grass, caught the lazy fire of the sun, briefly dazzling her eyes. Alison blinked and then it was gone. Miles had moved his foot over the small, reflecting object and now stood in front of her, face full of admiration, arms open wide.
She declined, choosing to stay away from him. Sara watched, mutely, a little worried perhaps, Jamie writhing slowly in her embrace.
“Welcome back,” Miles said. He looked older, somehow. In this new, clear light the faces of everyone in the village had some added depth, as if they were images from an ancient fresco recreated in the flesh.
“Isn’t that presumptuous?” Alison walked over to Sara, took the baby from her, held out his ample frame and compared the two faces. The child was exquisite. He stared at her with a quiet, patient dignity.
“I must be very stupid sometimes, Miles,” she said. “He’s so obviously yours. How couldn’t I tell?”
Sara walked up to her and, very slowly, threw her arms around Alison and the child, kissed them both. “Ali,” she said. “It’s painful when the scales fall from your eyes. Be patient. This hasn’t been easy for any of us.”
She wanted to laugh but it was impossible. The day was unreal. Some kind of battle was being fought inside her head. “You all lied to me.”
“No,” Sara said firmly. “We hid you from a truth that would have hurt you. We had no choice.”
There was something close to a laugh then. “You did this for me? All this deception? All these things I thought were spontaneous?”
“We all had to plan, love,” Sara replied flatly. “I needed a child, and I had to pick the best. What do you expect?”
“Loyalty?” she wondered.
Miles shook his head, as if she were a slow schoolchild trying to pick up on a difficult idea. “We’re loyal to each other, Alison. All of us. Not to some false morality.” He stared in the direction of the police standing miserably outside the Tylers’ house. “Not to them.”
No, she thought. That was not what she meant. It was hard to string these thoughts together. She held the child tightly, wondering what answers he might possess. “Why, Miles?”
“Sara needed me. And it was Burning Man. Why not? I couldn’t give you a child then. It wasn’t our time.”
He didn’t look proud, she had that to say for him. “None of this comes for free, you know. We don’t keep Beulah by accident. The Blamires have always been the same. They work for whoever pays them. They stick with the winning side. But you have to meet their price. Without them, we’d have been lost. It pained me too.”
“But it was Burning Man,” Sara said, swiftly intervening. “It was… allowed.”
The memories were too numerous, too powerful. They crowded out everything else in her head. “And you made me think it was Marjorie all along. Right from the beginning. Just for last night.” The line from the song rang through her head. The witch really was dead, by Alison’s own hand.
Sara looked at her severely. “I told you,” she said. “These things are either passed on willingly or they’re taken. Marjorie wasn’t giving anything up. We couldn’t win it for you. Marjorie would have killed you in the end, Alison. Just like squashing a bug.”
“And you’d have watched? If I failed?”
Miles took her by the shoulders and stared into her eyes. “You didn’t fail. You couldn’t fail. The end was never in doubt. Beulah is ours. I’m a Fenway. Emily knew what she was doing when she left me that house. It came with plenty of hints. And there were people here who wanted to help too. They understoodMarjorie’s time was over.”
She laughed dryly. “So that’s it. You’re the Lord of the Dance. I’m the Queen of the May. And every year we pick some stranger off the street and burn them alive just so Beulah never gets tainted by the outside world, just so they never bring more bungalows onto the Minnis and spoil our precious paradise.”
He looked almost cross. This was the new Miles. Or, it occurred to her, the real Miles. “Don’t judge what you don’t yet understand. It’s not as simple, or as brutal as that. Beulah is precious. It was going to pieces. Look what happened to Beth Jukes. Just because some animals from the plain felt like some fun. This is paradise. Our paradise. We have to defend it.”
The tears came out of nowhere, bitter and full of fury. “You took my child, Miles. You took my child.”
And he was smiling, the kind of easy, indulgent smile that always came on these occasions, when her head was running ahead of itself, when her mind whirled with bright, insane possibilities. “There are things that are meant to happen in the world,” he said confidently. “You and me. And things that aren’t. I’ll give you children. Now that everything here is right and in its place. These will be the best times. We’ve earned them. Can’t you feel that?”
“No!” Jamie Harrison was disturbed by the noise. He stared at her with an expression of frank puzzlement tinged with fear. “Oh God,” she moaned, and handed the child back to Sara. “I don’t feel anything. I don’t even have the energy left to hate you.”
She looked at the lazy police activity outside the Tylers. Every one a man. “I could walk over there. I could tell them everything.”
Miles shook his head. “Do you think they’d believe you? Ali, as far as they’re concerned, you weren’t even in the village last night.”
They had so many answers. She found it impossible to think ahead. “Then who shot Marjorie Tyler?”
Sara cast a knowing glance at Miles. “There are things you need to know, and quickly,” she said. “Justin got into a fight with Marjorie and she wound up dead. At least, that’s what they think. He’s doing what he planned to do all along, carrying the can for you, love. We can get away with this, don’t worry.”
No-one, she thought, could believe that. Not for a moment. Justin was incapable of such an act.
“Alison,” Miles said firmly. “You have to listen. You have to get the story straight for when they ask. Justin… let’s just say he’s quite a chap. He’d been aiming to leave for days, and get you two of the hook with that drugs thing at the same time. We talked about it and concocted the story that he and Marjorie were in the drugs venture together. They argued. There was a fight and the gun went off. He told me he’d fixed some of the paperwork so that the police will believe at least half of that. Justin’s fine, long gone to the Continent by now, with enough money for a new passport. I’ll see he doesn’t go short wherever he lands up. He deserves that much.”
One of the police cars drove slowly away from the Tylers’ house. She watched the uniformed driver yawn at the wheel. “No-one will believe that, Miles. No-one who knows him.”
“Of course they will,” he said sharply. “They’re just stupid coppers. There are witnesses. John Tyler who says Marjorie and Justin were thick together over something. John’s been a brick all along. He wanted Marjorie gone, in the right way, as much as the rest of us.”
“I could run,” she said.
“To Justin, wherever he is,” she said, and knew how pathetically juvenile it sounded.
Miles was unhurt by the barb. “You don’t meant that, love. Justin. Sara here. Even the Blamire boys. They were part of our initiation, part of giving us our rightful place. We don’t need them any more. We’re ourselves at last. And besides.” There was a note of sudden practical determination in his face. “If you try to run from me again you’ll fall clean off the edge of the world. You know that. We belong together, love. We’re nothing apart.”
Forty eight storeys over Manhattan. Flames licking at her bloodied ankles. The street beckoning from below. That was another realm, she knew. That was a kind of hell.
“You made me your goddamn pawn.”
He took her face in his hands. “I made you my queen, Alison. I did this for you.”
She looked at Sara and the child. He was the very image of his father. He would grow up a Fenway bastard, well versed in Beulah ways. The line went on, would continue, always.
Miles kissed her once on the forehead. “Go back to the house. Wait for me. I’ll make this up to you, promise. This is the beginning of the best of times. Outside this place, when we go to London, we’re them. We follow their ways. We abide by their petty rules. But here, in Beulah, we’re our own masters. This is our world. We own it.”
When she was past the cricket pavilion, past seeing, close to the footpath to Priory House, Miles moved his foot, reached down and picked up the solitary object that had shone in the late summer sun.
(c) David Hewson 2012