The Remains of an Altar
(The eighth book in the Merrily Watkins series)
A novel by Phil Rickman
‘The Bible record is unmistakable in its references to the old straight track as having partly or wholly gone out of use: “the ancient high places are in possession of the enemy”; “my people have forgotten me, they stumble in their ways from the ancient paths.”’
On the Bald Hill
More than a day later, there was still wreckage around: a twisted door panel across the ditch and slivers of tyre like shed snakeskin in the grass.
It had rained last night, and the Rev. S. D. Spicer’s cassock was hemmed with wet mud. What might have been a piece of someone’s blood-stiffened sleeve was snagged in brambles coiling like rolls of barbed wire from the hedge. The countryside, violated, wasn’t letting go. It felt to Merrily as if the air was still vibrating.
‘Other vehicle was an ancient Land Rover Defender,’ Spicer said. ‘Must’ve been like driving into a cliff face.’
Ground mist was draped like muslin over the hedges and down the bank and the early sun lit the windows of a turreted house in the valley. Looking back along the road Merrily could see no obvious blind spots, no overhanging trees.
‘Boy died in the ambulance.’ Spicer nodded at the metallic red door panel, crumpled and creased like thrown-away chocolate paper. ‘Took the fire brigade best part of an hour getting him out the car. Fortunately, he was unconscious the whole time.’
Merrily shook her head slowly, the way you did when there was nothing to be said. No act of violence as sudden and savage, massive and unstoppable, as a head-on car crash. She was thinking, inevitably, of Jane and Eirion out at night in Eirion’s small car. One momentary lapse of attention, a snatched caress, and…
‘He was in his mid-twenties. Lincoln Cookman, from north Worcester. The girl … no hurry to get her out. She’d had her window wide open. No seat belt. Head almost taken off on impact. Sonia Maloney, from Droitwich.’
‘Oh God.’ Merrily took a step back. ‘How old?’
‘’Bout nineteen.’ Spicer’s London accent was as flat as a rubber mat. ‘All horribly brutal and unsightly, but mercifully quick. No suffering. Except, of course, for Preston Devereaux.’
‘Local farmer and chairman of the parish council. And, as it happened, the driver of the Land Rover. Returning late from a family wedding.’
‘Oh, hell, really?’
‘Could’ve been any of us, Mrs Watkins. Parish Council’s been asking for speed cameras since last autumn. Not that that would’ve made a difference, state these kids must’ve been in. They come over from Worcester, places like that, at the weekends. Windows open, music blasting. Sixty-five, seventy, wrong side of the road. Poor guy’s still reliving it. He’ll need a bit of support – my job, I think.’
‘And what, erm … what’s mine, exactly, Mr Spicer?’
It was a reasonable question, but he didn’t answer. Parish priests would often have difficulty explaining why they’d resorted to Deliverance. Spicer had been terse and cagey on the phone yesterday. Can you come early? Before eight a.m.? In civvies. Best not make a carnival out of it.
OK, just gone 7.50 on a Monday morning, and here she was in discreet civvies: jeans and a sweatshirt. And here’s the Rector, all kitted out: cassock, collar, pectoral cross. Merrily felt wrong-footed. Why would he want that? She’d never met him before, didn’t even know his first name. Never been to this village before, out on the eastern rim of the diocese where it rose into the ramparts of Worcestershire.
‘Well, the point is,’ Spicer said, ‘this is the worst but it’s not exactly the first.’
‘You mean it’s an accident black spot?’
Sometimes, when a stretch of road acquired a reputation for accidents, someone would suggest that a bad pattern had been established, and you’d be asked to bless it. One of those increasingly commonplace roadside rituals, support for all the road-kill wreaths laid out by bereaved relatives – how did all that start? Anyway, it was a job for the local guy, unless there were complications.
‘How many actual accidents have there been, Mr Spicer?’
He didn’t respond. He was standing quite still; shortish and thickset, with sparse greying hair shaved tight to his head and small, blank eyes that seemed to be on his face rather than embedded there. Like a teddy bear’s eyes, Merrily thought. Poor man, Sophie had said last night on the phone. She took the children, of course.
It was as though some part of Spicer had withdrawn, the way a computer relaxed into its screensaver. Not many people could do this in the presence of a stranger – especially clergy who, unless they were in a church, tended to treat silence like a vacuum into which doubt and unbelief might enter if it wasn’t filled with chatter, however inane.
OK, whatever. Merrily let the silence hang and looked up at the tiered ramparts of the sculpted fortress-hill called Herefordshire Beacon, also known as British Camp. This was the most prominent landmark in the Malverns. Where the Celts were said to have held out against the Romans. The misty sun was hovering over it like a white-cowled lamp.
The name Malvern came from the Welsh moel bryn, meaning bald hill, and bald it still was, up on the tops of this startling volcanic ridge, while the foothills and the Alpine-looking valleys were lush with orchards and the gardens of summer villas: well-preserved remains of Elgar’s England.
‘Three … four now,’ Spicer said. ‘Maybe even five, including this one. That’s inside a couple of months. One was a lorry, took a chunk out of the church wall.’
‘And on a stretch of road as open as this, I suppose that’s…’
‘Drivers reckoned they swerved to avoid a ghost,’ Spicer said.
His tone hadn’t altered and his eyes remained limpid. A wood pigeon’s hollow call was funnelled out of the valley.
‘That took a while to come out, didn’t it?’ Merrily said.
‘Come back to the house.’ He turned away. ‘We’ll talk about it there.’
After very little sleep, Jane awoke all sweating and confused. On one level she was lit up with excitement, on another fired by the wrongness of things: injustice, greed, sacrilege.
The thinness of the light showed that it was still early, but the Mondrian walls were already aglow: ancient timber-framed squares, once wattle and daub, then plastered and whitewashed and finally overpainted, by Jane herself, in defiant reds and blues and oranges.
It was more than two years since she’d coloured the squares – just a kid, then, disoriented by the move to this antiquated village with a mother who used to be normal and had suddenly turned into a bloody priest.
Just a kid, determined to make her mark: Jane’s here now. Jane takes no shit. This is Jane’s apartment. This is the way Jane does things, OK?
In a seventeenth-century vicarage, it wouldn’t have been at all OK with the Listed-Buildings Police, but it had seemed unlikely that they’d ever come beating on the door with a warrant to investigate the attic. Looking back, Mum had been seriously good about it, letting Jane establish a personal suite up here and splatter the walls with coloured paint they couldn’t really afford … and never once suggesting that it might look just a bit crap.
But that was over two years ago and now Jane was, Christ, seventeen. And this once-important gesture, these once-deeply-symbolic walls, were looking entirely, irredeemably naff. Not even much like a Mondrian – in the middle of an A-level art course, she could say that with some certainty.
More like a sodding nursery school.
Decision: the Mondrian walls would have to go. You were in no position to fight senseless public vandalism if you couldn’t identify your own small crimes.
That sorted, Jane sat up in bed and looked out of the window at the real issue. Full of the breathless excitement of new discovery and a low-burning rage which, she’d have to admit, was also a serious turn-on.
Below her, beyond the front hedge, lay Ledwardine, this black and white, oak-framed village, embellished with old gold by the early sun. Defended against neon and advertising hoardings by the same guys who would’ve freaked if they’d ever been exposed to the Mondrian walls … while totally missing the Big Picture.
The focus of which was just beyond the village: a green, wooded pyramid rising out of a flimsy loincloth of mist.
Cole Hill. She’d always assumed that it had simply been named after somebody called Cole who’d tried to farm it a few centuries ago. Now … Cole Hill … it sang with glamour.
Jane sank back into the pillows, last night’s images coalescing around her: the slipping sun and the line across the meadow. Drifting down from the hill, with the blackening steeple of Ledwardine Church marking the way like the gnomon on the sundial of the village. Amazing, inspirational.
But, like, for how long?
Tumbling out of bed, she dislodged from the table the paperback Old Straight Track she’d been reading until about two a.m. – photo on the back of benign-looking bearded old guy, glasses on his nose. Alfred Watkins of Hereford: county councillor, magistrate, businessman, antiquarian, photographer, inventor, all-round solid citizen. And visionary.
Jane Watkins picked up the book.
You and me, Uncle.
This book … well, it had been around the vicarage as long as Jane had, and she’d thought she must have read it ages ago. Only realizing a week or so back that all she’d done was leaf through it, looking at Watkins’s pioneering photos, assuming his ideas were long outdated, his findings revised by more enlightened thinking. Now, because of this A-level project, she’d finally read it cover to cover. Twice. Feeling the heat of a blazing inspiration. And it was all so close. Mum was probably right when she said there was no family link, and yet it was as if this long-dead guy with the same name was communicating with Jane along one of his own mysterious straight lines.
Saying, help me.
Jane turned her back on the clashing imperatives of the Mondrian walls, stumbled to the bathroom, and ran the shower.
She needed back-up on this one.
Two years ago, telling Mum would have been a total no-no, the issue too left-field and the gulf between them too wide. Two years ago, the sight of Mum kneeling to pray would have Jane shrivelling up inside with embarrassment and resentment. But now she was older and Mum was also more balanced, a lot less rigid.
Except for the rumble of the old Aga and the rhythmic sandpaper sound of Ethel washing her paws on the rug in front of it, the kitchen was silent.
Jane found a note on the table. It said:
J. YOU’VE PROBABLY FORGOTTEN ALL ABOUT THIS … BUT HAD TO LEAVE EARLY THIS MORNING TO MEET PARANOID RECTOR IN THE MALVERNS. THICK-SLICED LOAF IN BREAD BIN, EGGS IN BASKET. DON’T FORGET TO LEAVE DRIED FOOD OUT FOR ETHEL. SORRY ABOUT THIS, FLOWER. SEE YOU AFTER SCHOOL. LOVE, M.
Flower. Like she was seven.
But, yeah, she had forgotten. In fact, there’d been so much on her mind when she’d come in last night from Cole Hill that she’d hardly listened to anything Mum had said, before pleading fatigue and bounding up to the apartment to research, research, research well into the early hours, until she’d finally fallen asleep.
Jane left the note on the table, went to find the dried cat-food for Ethel and grab a handful of biscuits from the tin. No time for eggs and toast.
What about school?
What about not going?
She didn’t remember ever bunking off before. But some things were too important for delays, and anyway school was winding down now towards the long summer break.
Trying to open the biscuit tin, she found she was still gripping The Old Straight Track, having brought it down with her like a talisman. On the front was a misty photograph of a perfect Bronze Age burial mound swelling behind a fan of winter trees.
Yesterday evening, at sunset, she’d seen – and she must have been around there a dozen times in the past without spotting it – what must surely be the remains of a burial mound, or tumulus, or tump, on the edge of the orchard behind Church Street. The magical things you could so easily miss, bypass, ignore … or destroy.
Jane felt this swelling sense of responsibility towards a man who had already been dead for well over half a century when she was born.
You and me, Uncle Alfie.
For the Views
Must have been in one of Jane’s pagan books that Merrily had read how, in primitive communities, the local shaman was often a social outcast, both feared and derided. Being a female exorcist in the Church of England gave you some idea of what this must have been like.
‘Deliverance Consultant.’ The Reverend Spicer was shaking his head wearily. ‘What exactly does that … you know … ?’
She’d watched him moving around, pulling down tea caddy, mugs, milk and sugar from strong, beechwood units. He knew where everything was. After what Sophie had told her in the office, she’d been half-expecting some kind of desperate chaos in the rectory kitchen – unwashed dishes, layers of congealed fat on the stove – but it was clean and functional, if not exactly cosy.
He spilled a single blob of milk, frowned and ran a dishcloth over it.
‘I know what “exorcist” used to mean. Deliverance is a bit more … And consultant?’
‘That just means I don’t get involved personally unless I’m invited to. On the basis that these … slightly iffy things are usually best handled by the guy on the ground. Which would be you, Mr Spicer.’
‘Call me Syd.’ He opened a cutlery drawer, extracted two spoons. ‘You ever done an exorcism?’
‘Minor exorcism, mainly – Requiem Eucharist for the unquiet dead, variations on that. Never had to stop a small child abusing herself with a crucifix, never been sprayed with green bile. Although, naturally, I live in hope.’
You got this all the time. A recent survey had shown that more people in Britain believed in ghosts than in God. Whereas parish priests still tended to believe in some kind of God but often had a problem with ghosts. Even more of a problem with exorcism, last refuge of anachronistic misfits in the desperately modern C of E.
Spicer didn’t smile. Behind him, on the Rayburn, the kettle hissed.
‘So what qualifies for a minor exorcism?’
‘Usually, an unhappy atmosphere that doesn’t respond to concentrated prayer. Would you like me to lend you a book? That’d take care of the consultant bit.’
‘I think I need the personal service.’ He sat down opposite her. ‘I’m just … not sure, frankly, about where you…’
Merrily sighed. That other familiar barbed hurdle.
‘My spiritual director is a bloke called Huw Owen. Runs deliverance training courses in the Brecon Beacons?’
‘Yeah, I know the area.’
His small, passive eyes said, too well. Curious.
‘At the end of the course he gave me the regulation warning. Told me ordained women were becoming the prime target for every psychotic grinder of the satanic mills who ever sacrificed a chicken. Therefore a woman exorcist might as well paint a big bull’s-eye between her … on her chest.’
‘Maybe you saw it as a bit of a challenge.’ Spicer, decently, didn’t look at Merrily’s chest. ‘A chance to carry women’s ministry into a dark and forbidden area.’
‘Well, no, the point I’m making … I’m not a militant feminist, I’m not a post-feminist, I’m not pioneer material and I’m not—’
‘Honestly.’ He held up his hands. ‘I don’t have a problem with women priests. Nor even women deliverance consultants. In principle.’
‘So the problem is?’
The kettle came whistling to the boil.
‘Problem is,’ he said, ‘taking it seriously, as you’re bound to do – being comparatively new to the job and with the side issue of the women’s ministry still having something to prove – it occurs to me you might not be up for what could be a PR exercise.’
‘You’ve lost me.’
‘I mean if I, as Rector of Wychehill, were to ask you, as official diocesan exorcist, to perform a public ceremony of, shall we say, spiritual cleansing, whatever you wanna call it, simply to make the community feel happier – take some pressure off?’
‘Off whom?’ Merrily reached down to her shoulder bag: cigarettes.
‘Off me, for a start.’ Spicer poured boiling water into a deep brown teapot. ‘See, these people who say they had an accident because they swerved to avoid a spectral figure on the Queen’s Highway … I’m having difficulty with it. They’re decent people, but…’
‘That’s OK.’ Merrily brought out the Silk Cut and the dented Zippo. ‘Really.’
To a stranger, the road was the least ghostly aspect of Upper Wychehill. It glided down the valley in a long, slow slope, with the wooded hills hunched behind it like a giant’s shoulders. As many of its dwellings were invisible, it had been hard to make out where the village began and where it ended.
The reason why many of the homes were invisible was that they were on different levels, with rows of houses above and below the road. The ones above were set back into the hill and the ones falling away below it, all you could see of them as you drove past were hedges, walls and gates. They seemed to be mainly bungalows with colonial verandas or flagged patios with sundials and statuary, barbecues and big views across Herefordshire.
The few grey buildings at road level were weighted by the church, this immense neo-Gothic barn, probably late-Victorian, screened by two substantial oak trees either side of the entrance. Further down, built of the same stone, with a dramatic view of the Beacon, was the rectory. A big family house with a home-made swing in the front garden. From what Merrily understood from Sophie, the Spicer kids had been long past the swing stage. But it still looked starkly symbolic of loss, with its peeling frame and one side of the wooden seat fallen off its chain.
When they were inside, she’d asked Spicer, without thinking, if he had help in the house.
‘What? A cleaner? A housekeeper?’ He’d laughed. ‘Do you?’
Point taken. No private income.
‘I get occasional offers,’ he’d said. ‘We’ve got several nice ladies in Upper Wychehill. The Ladies of Wychehill? That sound like a book? Listen. First rule for the solo priest. Don’t give anybody room for gossip. My wife left just over three months ago. Since then, I’ve done all my own cleaning, cooking, gardening, painting, the lot, plus keeping three parishes on the go. Which makes for a long day.’
He’d looked at her, his soft-toy’s eyes unmoving.
‘But a mercifully short night.’
Outside the bay window, the still-shadowed long back lawn was tidily mown and trimmed but had no flowers. It ended where a bank of fir trees lifted the land into the hills.
‘I can give you a list of people to talk to, so you can make up your own mind.’ Syd Spicer crossed to the Rayburn. ‘You want some toast? Or I can do full English. I’m fairly capable.’
‘I can see that. Tea’ll be fine, thanks.’
He brought two white mugs to the table, and then sugar and milk.
‘Point is, Mrs Watkins, country areas—’
‘Merrily, do you think?’
‘Yeah, OK. Country areas, Merrily, are superstitious, just like they’ve always been – you know this. Where are you based, North Herefordshire?’
‘Ledwardine. ’Bout an hour from here.’
He nodded. ‘Only nowadays the superstition comes from a different direction. The locals might be less credulous than their grandparents were, but your city-bred incomers always include the kind of people who’re living in the sticks because they want to get back to a primitive belief system. They’re the ones who organize the wassailing and stuff at Christmas, dangle charms off their porches.’
‘Everything except go to church,’ Merrily said. ‘But if you have an accident black spot, they’ll be the first to suggest the area might be haunted?’
Spicer shook his head sadly.
‘I’ve got three parishes and the others are a healthy mix of locals and new blood. In Upper Wychehill, a real local person is somebody who’s been here twenty-five years. It didn’t really exist until the 1920s, when the church was built – gesture of apology by the owner of one of the quarry firms mutilating the Malverns.’
‘He must have been very sorry.’
‘Yeah, big, innit? Especially in the middle of a few farms and not much else, as it was then. The bloke saw it as a concert hall as well, however – strictly religious, of course. Same time, he had this house built for the minister, and a sum of money donated to the Church, to pay him – long exhausted, of course but, by then, more housing had gone up and it was a legit parish.’
‘So, what you’re saying, it’s not—’
‘Not a real village, no. Just a mess of mixed-up dwellings either side of a road with no pavement. So people never walk about and they rarely meet each other. Some are weekend cottages. Bloke died in one last year, wasn’t found for three weeks. That’s the way it is. No village shop, no cosy pub. Just a church that was always too big and people who move here for the views.’
Spicer had taken a folded piece of notepaper out of his cassock. He opened it out and placed it on the table in front of Merrily.
I am sorry to bother you, and I never thought I would write a letter like this, but I am worried sick about my daughter who as you know is a district nurse and has to go out at all hours in her car. I am terrified that something will happen to her on that road. These stories are hard to credit, but something is wrong here. I do not get to church as often as I would like since I have become disabled but I beg of you to take whatever measures are necessary to deal with this problem. I do not care who or what it is, it must be got rid of by whatever means are open to you.
I feel foolish writing a letter like this but Helen is all I have left in this world.
D. H. Walford
‘Poor old Donald. His wife died three years ago. Daughter got divorced and moved in with him. He’s an entirely rational man, retired primary school head. But this … this is how it escalates.’
‘What was the first reported accident?’
‘Lorry. Came across the road, into the church wall, like I said. Still waiting for the insurance to get sorted.’
‘Did you talk to the driver?’
‘I was out at the time, but the guy told Mrs Aird, who does the flowers in the church. She was in there when it happened. He said he’d seen this white orb coming towards him down the middle of the road.’
‘So this was at night?’
‘Early morning. Police suggested the bloke had been driving too long. We tidied up the wall, thought no more about it.’
‘Week or so later, Tim Loste, the choirmaster, hit a telegraph pole. Not injured, fortunately. And then there was a woman, lives up the hill, flattened her sports car on a tourist’s Winnebago.’
‘And they both saw this light?’
‘They both … saw a figure behind the light.’
He turned to the window. The summer sun had finally penetrated his flowerless garden, but it still looked as if it was clinging to winter. Syd Spicer too, Merrily thought, as he turned to face her.
‘And there might be another one, which is … a bit weird. Joyce Aird can tell you. They won’t talk to me about it. Joyce was waiting for me after the worship yesterday. We’d had some prayers for the victims of the night before, and Joyce said … She gave me a piece of paper with your phone number on it, which she’d obtained from the Diocese. Said it was time to seek help to remove the evil from our midst.’
‘So, essentially, you had me forced on you,’ Merrily said.
‘Me, I’ve been telling them, let’s get the council in … surveyors … examine the road camber. Let’s not get carried away. Famous last words.’
‘What about the Land Rover driver, the chairman of the parish council. Did he see—?’
‘I haven’t even asked him, Merrily.’
She sighed. ‘Would you mind if I had a cigarette?’
Spicer put his head on one side.
He shrugged. ‘I have one occasionally. When I want to. You go ahead, if you need one.’
‘Doesn’t matter.’ Merrily dropped the Silk Cut back into her shoulder bag. ‘You said there was something a bit weird.’
‘Oh, well, that … Joyce wouldn’t talk about it. Not to me. Said it was best discussed with a woman. I suppose I’m getting a bit…’
‘I can imagine.’ She lowered her bag to the floor. ‘How do you want me to go about this?’
‘Well, that’s up to you, Merrily. But the way some of them are reacting, I’m not sure that a simple blessing of the road would be quite enough. I suppose I’d like you to talk to them.’
‘Well, obviously I’d have to—’
‘No, I mean all of them.’
‘All of them?’
‘Everybody,’ Syd Spicer said.
A Very Public Ghost
‘All of them?’ Sophie said in the Cathedral gatehouse office. ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing? At a public meeting?’
‘It’s a very public ghost.’
‘Merrily…’ Sophie looked pained. ‘Has there ever been such a thing as a public ghost?’
Merrily thought about this, elbows on the desk, chin cupped in her palms. She’d been thinking about it for many of the fifty gridlocked minutes she’d spent watching guys in cranes playing pass-the-girder on the site of another new superstore that Hereford didn’t need.
‘No,’ she said. ‘In the real sense, I suppose not.’
‘There you are, then,’ Sophie said. ‘Let the Rector have his public meeting and then you go along afterwards – quietly – and do what you think is necessary.’
Sophie Hill, crisp white blouse and pearls. Very posh, discreet as a ballot box. The Bishop’s lay secretary who, essentially, didn’t work for people or organizations. Who worked for The Cathedral.
Except on Mondays, when Sophie worked more or less full-time for Deliverance. For most parish priests, Monday was a well-defended day off; for Merrily, only a day off from the parish. Monday was when she and Sophie met in the gatehouse office at the Cathedral to deal with the mail and the Deliverance database, and to monitor outstanding cases.
‘I need to remind you that the Crown Prosecution Service have warned that you may still be called to give evidence in the Underhowle case when it finally comes to trial. And on that issue – aftercare. The new minister there would welcome some discreet advice on, as he puts it, disinfecting the former Baptist chapel.’
‘In which case, I might need to go over. Could we stall him until next week? If he could just keep it locked, meantime … keep people out.’
‘Next week also, you’ve agreed to talk to that rather persistent Women’s Institute in the Golden Valley … unfair to postpone again. Don’t look like that – you agreed.’
Problem here was that WIs always wanted lurid anecdotes, and this was a small county population-wise: one of the audience would always be able to fit names into whichever sensitive issue you were discussing. The policy was to avoid WIs, but occasionally one squeezed through the net. And, sure, there was a pile of parish stuff accumulating on the diary, including a christening tomorrow, and two weddings looming. Big months for weddings, June and July. So…
‘What you’re telling me, Sophie, is that I really don’t need Wychehill.’
Sophie said nothing.
‘What if I walk away now, and it happens again?’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, Merrily, what if it happens again after you’ve been involved?’
Which it sometimes did, hence the need for aftercare.
‘There are still two people dead, and while linking that to something paranormal is deep water, I’d feel safer going along. Even if it means opening the whole thing up at a public meeting. I mean, I can understand Spicer’s problem. He’s got a worried community which he says isn’treally a community at all. Houses are widely separated, people don’t know one another. He wants to make sure that everybody at least has a chance to find out what the score is.’
‘Merrily, deliverance is about discretion – how many times have you said that? You don’t like addressing WIs about past cases, but you’re perfectly happy to—’
‘I’m not happy—’
‘—To discuss an ongoing problem with a roomful of people, probably including the media.’
‘I don’t think the press would cover anything that local, do you? Hope not.’
‘You don’t think,’ Sophie said. ‘That’s hardly satisfactory, is it? I’d be inclined to get the Rector to absolutely guarantee it. What’s the format going to be?’
‘I listen to the evidence and then outline the options.’
‘Oh, I see. You present them with a series of options, and then they vote on it?’
‘No, I listen to what they have to say and then I make a recommendation based on my … experience.’
Sophie gave Merrily a resigned look and opened the desk diary.
‘When is it? And where?’
‘Wednesday evening at the church. They haven’t got a village hall in Wychehill, I think it was converted. This gets tagged on to the end of the bi-monthly parish meeting, which is open to the public—Look, I’m not going to go in cold, Sophie. I’m going to check it all out thoroughly.’
‘In which case you really don’t have much time.’
‘Which is why, unless you can think of anything more pressing, I think I’d better go back there now.’
Merrily walked over to the window. There was something else…
‘Oh yeah … Sophie, have there been any inquiries to the Diocese from Wychehill – anybody asking for my number?’
‘No. I’d have been told. I’m very strict about that. And they don’t give out your number, they give this number in the first instance. Why?’
Merrily looked out of the window over the Cathedral green and sunny Broad Street with its library and museum, its extensive hotel, its classical-pillared Roman Catholic church, its shops and cafés … and at least two well-attested ghost stories that she could think of.
From behind Merrily heard the faint clinking of the chain on Sophie’s glasses as she shook her head in sorrow – with just a hint, Merrily thought, of foreboding.
Between the Lines
On top of the hill there was a clearing and the remains of what might have been a cairn of stones.
Lol had never been all the way up before, but Jane had said there was something of serious, serious importance here, and not just to her or even to the whole community of Ledwardine. This was possibly a national treasure.
She’d dragged him out to the edge of the village and then across the main road and over the fields to the first stile, which had a public footpath sign next to it. But if there ever had been a footpath it was long overgrown, and it had been a steep and slippery climb to the top of Cole Hill.
‘You can’t see much now,’ Jane said, among the gorse clumps on the summit, ‘but there was a Celtic settlement here once. So obviously that makes it Ledwardine’s holy hill, right?’
‘If you say so.’
Lol had felt slightly uncomfortable about walking through the woods with his girlfriend’s daughter, her navel exposed below the sawn-off summer top.
No, actually, it wasn’t so much this as her attitude: intense, no frivolity, Jane carrying a sense of purpose like storm clouds around her, intimations of war.
Now she was telling him about the name. How, in The Old Straight Track, Alfred Watkins had identified three other Cole hills, or similar, in Herefordshire. One definition of the word, apparently, was juggler … or wizard.
‘“Cole-prophet” – that’s another ancient term,’ Jane said. ‘So Cole Hill – serious, serious magical associations, Lol. I hadn’t realized that. And if I hadn’t realized it…’
Jane stood in the sunlight. Her hair was pulled back and her eyes seemed to be full of tiny sparks.
‘We live in an enchanted landscape, Laurence. And most of us just don’t see any of it any more. How dispiriting is that?’
Below them, the village was wrapped in greenery, and the mist made smoke rings around the church steeple. The view was dizzyingly seductive: you felt that if you fell into it, it would just absorb you and by the time you reached the ground you’d have evaporated.
Lol shook his head. His day had already been tilted. Monday mornings, he needed to establish a work pattern for the week: sit at the desk by the window, write songs. His livelihood. What he did. What he was supposed to do. So why had he been almost grateful to see Jane crossing the street from the vicarage, wearing her skimpy orange top and her sense of purpose?
Jane said she had the day off school to work on a project connected with A-level art, a portfolio she was compiling on landscape mysteries. Something in connection with this that she needed to discuss, and Merrily had gone off early to meet some angsty priest, so, like, if Lol could spare just one hour…
All around Cole Hill the paths were overgrown; there were broken stiles and barbed-wire fences. It had taken most of an hour just to get here.
Jane shouldered her canvas bag.
‘Nobody comes up here now, and that’s wrong. We all need to go to the high places. It says that in the Bible, so even Mum—’
‘Had you been to this … particular high place before, Jane?’
She frowned. ‘I’m here now, that’s what matters. It’s where the ancient energy is drawn down, to feed the village spiritually, to feed its soul. You know?’
‘Alfred Watkins actually said that, did he? About feeding energy into Ledwardine?’
‘Not exactly, but he would have said it if he hadn’t been a magistrate and stuff, with civic duties and all that crap. You have to read between the lines, Lol.’
Lol would have to agree that reading Alfred Watkins entirely altered your awareness of the humps and bumps of the countryside – the way Watkins’s own had been altered when he’d stood on top of a hill not far from here and noticed, in a flaring of wild revelation, how ancient sites, from prehistoric stones and mounds to medieval churches, seemed to have been arranged in straight lines. But Watkins had seen them as the earliest British trackways; most of the rest was New Age conjecture.
‘So what do we do now, Jane?’
‘Watch the church. Keep watching the steeple.’
The steeple must have been half a mile away, at least, but from up here you felt you could prick your hand on the tip of the weathercock. Beyond it, to the west, you could see distant Hay Bluff over the mist, a dent in the sky at the end of the Black Mountains.
Jane put on her sunglasses.
‘And then we walk towards it.’
Lol followed her, keeping a few feet behind, sure now that something else was bothering her. Some problem between her and Eirion? They’d been together a long time. Maybe too long, for teenagers.
‘We came up the easy way,’ Jane said over her shoulder. ‘But we have to follow a different route down, to more or less keep to the line. The path zigzags a bit, but if we keep the steeple in view…’
‘Eirion OK, Jane?’
‘Fine.’ Her voice was a little too light. ‘Off to uni in September.’
‘Depends on his A-level results. Oxford, if he does well. Bristol or Cardiff if he fluffs. Or, if he really fluffs, one of these joints that used to be an FE college until, like, last week?’
‘I mean, it’s ridiculous how like everybody has to go somewhere. You need a degree to be a hospital porter now. You probably need a degree in, like, hygiene studies to clean lavatories. It’s—’
Jane slid on a small scree of pebbles and grabbed a sapling to keep from falling.
‘—All complete and total bullshit. Just a Stalinist government scam to destroy the individual, get everybody into a slot. Result is you’ve got people walking round with a string of letters after their name, and they’re like, you know, Homer Simpson?’
‘So, you, er…’ Lol thought he was beginning to get the picture. ‘If Eirion does well, you won’t see as much of each other, will you?’
A grey squirrel scurried up a fir tree ahead of them.
‘I just don’t see why,’ Jane said. ‘I mean why? Why do you have to waste precious years being lectured to by all these hopeless losers so you can wind up with some totally meaningless qualification that everybody else has got. Why can’t you just do stuff? Original stuff. I mean … you did.’
‘You got something original in mind?’
They climbed over a rotting stile on the edge of a decaying copse at the foot of Cole Hill. Jane waited for Lol. She was squeezing her hands together.
‘I want to find out things for myself – like, not formalized curriculum shit that just qualifies you to be like every other—’
She spun away. She might have been in tears. She moved rapidly through the trees and out to where another stile had been strung with barbed wire. When Lol reached her she was bent over the wire, breathing hard. The canvas bag was at her feet.
She had both hands around a pair of wire-cutters.
‘It’s supposed to be a public footpath. Nobody has any right to—’
Two ends of barbed wire sprang apart and Jane stepped back.
‘Jane, where did you get the wire-cutters?’
‘Gomer.’ Jane clambered over the stile. ‘You coming?’
All his foreboding becoming justified, Lol climbed over the stile and stumbled after Jane through tall grass, holding his hands up above the nettles. They came to a five-barred gate set into an overgrown hedge, strands of orange binder twine hanging loose from it.
‘I pulled that off last night.’ Jane opened the gate. ‘Now. Look at that.’
Lol closed the gate behind him and stood and looked. He saw a gently sloping meadow full of Hereford cows, red-brown and cream, classic. You didn’t see enough Herefords in Herefordshire these days, but that clearly wasn’t what Jane had meant.
‘Oh,’ Lol said. ‘I see.’
Like the shadow of a tall pole, a path cut directly across the meadow. A visible path that could have been contructed or simply made by sheep crossing the field from gate to gate – dead straight from the gate they’d just come through to another one at a slight angle in the hedge at the bottom of the field. Both gates and the path were directly aligned with the smokey, sepia steeple of Ledwardine Church.
Lol walked towards the centre of the field, keeping to the path, and turned to see that the path was perfectly aligned, in the opposite direction, with the top of Cole Hill.
Some of Watkins’s lines demanded imagination, but this one spoke for itself.
Jane stood on the line, as if she was standing before an altar. Although the sun was high and warm, Lol saw her shiver. She wrapped her bare arms around herself.
‘Before you reach the village, there’s a mound just inside the orchard – behind Church Street? It’s not marked on the map, but it must be an ancient burial site, if only by its position in the landscape. Absolutely on the line. Like, it’s not very high now, but a lot of them aren’t any more; they’ve been ploughed in over the centuries. And then, on the other side of the mound, you’re dead on course, across the market place, for the church.’
‘You’ve convinced me,’ Lol said. ‘It’s a nice one.’
‘And … and, Lol, if you continue the line, through the church – I’ve only done this on the map, but it works, it totally works – within a mile, on the other side, you’ve got an ancient crossroads and a genuine prehistoric standing stone which is not very big but is actually marked on the map.’
‘Well, congratulations,’ Lol said. ‘You’ve found a new ley line.’
‘Ley,’ Jane snapped. ‘Alfred Watkins called them leys. Ley lines – that’s just a term that’s been adopted in almost a disparaging way by so-called experts who say they don’t exist. And, OK, some of them you can draw the line by circling the sites on the map, but when you go there you can’t really see it. But this…’
‘Textbook,’ Lol said. ‘I suppose.’
‘I mean, I can’t claim any credit – except maybe for rediscovering it. This side of the hill’s been more or less hidden away for years, probably since the orchards went into decline. And, oh yeah, you know what this field’s called? Coleman’s Meadow. Geddit? The field where the track was laid out by the Cole-man, the shaman, the wizard … ? And you can feel it, can’t you?’ Jane stamped a foot. ‘Come on, Lol. You’re an artist, a poet. Do not tell me you cannot feel it.’
‘You stand on the track and you’re, like, totally connected with the landscape. And with the ancestors who lived here and marked out the sacred paths. Thousands of years ago when people were more in contact with the elements? So like whether or not you believe the leys channelled some form of mystical life-force through the land, or they were spirit paths where you could walk with the dead, or whatever … I don’t care. I don’t need to understand the science. I just need to know that I can stand here and feel I’m, you know, part of something … bigger. Belong.’
‘It’s probably the most any of us can ever hope for,’ Lol said. ‘To belong somewhere.’
They stood quietly for a few seconds. You could hear neither the sounds of the village nor the traffic on the main road, only birdsong and the grass wrenched from the meadow in the jaws of the Herefords.
The sun was already high. Caught in its glare, Jane, in her yellow crop-top, looked young and uncertain.
‘I need some information off you, Lol.’
‘For this … project?’
‘Sort of. I need to know who decides what happens around here. Like with the council and stuff. I mean, I think I know the basics. Just want to be sure before I make a move.’
Jane looked at her feet.
‘This day off school, to work on the project…’
‘Look,’ Jane said, ‘it’s nearly the end of term, the exams are over, nobody really cares. And this is a major crisis. And anyway it’s connected with the project, which is about how artists have dealt with earth mysteries, the secret harmonies in the landscape.’
‘You’re not making this very clear, Jane.’
‘All right.’ Jane unfolded her arms and pointed. ‘You want it made clear, go and read it what it says on that sign.’
A small placard was affixed to the gate on the opposite side of the field. Lol wandered over. On the other side of the five-barred gate the path broadened out, and he saw that he was in the orchard at the back of his own cottage, which fronted on to Church Street. When he looked back, Jane’s ley was no longer obvious, which presumably was why she’d brought him down from the hill.
Lol adjusted his glasses and read what it said on the sign, which was headed HEREFORDSHIRE COUNCIL PLANNING DEPARTMENT.
What it said, basically, was that an application had been submitted to turn Coleman’s Meadow into an estate of twenty-four high-quality detached executive homes. It invited observations from the public.
Lol turned, at a click of the latch on the gate, to find that Jane had followed him.
‘Only they’ll need to kill me first,’ Jane said.
The Sunset Chair
Joyce Aird’s drive sloped steeply down from the road in a tunnel of dark trees. It was like entering a badger set, until you emerged into a vastness of light.
‘Oh dear,’ Mrs Aird said. ‘Your sins always find you out, don’t they? Yes, bring that chair out, dear, we can sit together in the window. Bring your tea.’
The sun-lounge overlooked the valley, across the long village of Colwall and on and on over Herefordshire, all the way to the Black Mountains and Wales.
‘How did you know?’
Mrs Aird had the kind of West Midlands accent which wore anxiety like old and trusted slippers. She was about seventy-five, soft-featured and with lightly blonded hair.
‘Oh…’ Merrily put down the cane chair with its thick, padded seat. ‘It’s just that if anyone’s inquired about exorcism, the arrangement is that the office tells me or our secretary, Sophie. And nobody seems to have.’
‘Well, no, I never rang the Diocese. That’s just what I told Mr Spicer. He’s a good man, Mr Spicer, at the bottom of him, give him his due, but he’s a man, isn’t he? And he has had a lot of personal problems lately. I thought, he’s just not going to do anything, is he? And I was telling a friend – we used to be neighbours when I lived in the Forest of Dean and we’ve kept in touch, and I was telling her on the phone about what had happened, and she immediately said I should get the Rector to ask for you. That’s how I got the number. Her name’s Ingrid Sollars.’
‘Oh.’ That was OK; nothing wrong with Ingrid Sollars. ‘Yes, she was involved in … a problem we had. She’s a nice woman.’
‘A much stronger person than me, I’m afraid. I get very frightened about things I don’t … well, none of us understands them, do we? We can’t. We’re not supposed to. But Ingrid gave me your number and she said you’d take it seriously, but it would be best to go through the Rector, for political reasons. But I get so frightened, now, you see.’
Mrs Aird had a single, lonely chair in the window. Called it her sunset chair. Never missed a sunset. You could just see Herefordshire Beacon, on the far left, but nothing of the road, although you could hear the traffic above you, like a sporadic draught in the attic.
‘I used to think it was better this time of year with the holiday cottages starting to fill up and the village more like a real village. I’ve got to know some of the holiday people, and they’re quite nice. Gave me their keys to go in and make sure their cottages were all right, switch the heating on in winter. Made me feel useful and I thought it made them feel more welcome so maybe they’d stay for a bit. But I’ve had to give the keys back. I don’t like to go into a strange house alone any more. Well, would you?’
Merrily must have looked blank because Mrs Aird leaned forward, going into a whisper.
‘There was a poor man – a bit solitary – who’d come in the summer for weeks at a time and we never knew whether he was there or not, and one day … someone noticed all the flies.’
Mrs Aird gripped the arms of her chair, shuddering.
Merrily apprehensively balanced her tea, in its willow-pattern china cup, on her knee.
‘Doesn’t the Rector go to see people?’
‘Well, he does. Comes to see me about once a week, but then I’m a regular churchgoer. But some people don’t like it – see it as an intrusion, as if he’s going to evangelize. But of course Mr Spicer’s not like that, is he? And he’s got these other parishes to look after. And he’s on his own, too, now. Not been easy for him, with his wife … and his daughter. And everything that’s happened.’
Mrs Aird sat with her arms folded, looking expectant.
‘You were there when … the lorry driver…’
‘It was like an explosion, Mrs Watkins. I have a key to the church and I’d gone in early to put the flowers out because there was a funeral that day – Mrs Hatch, a mercy – and bang. I went rushing out, and the cab of the lorry was almost flattened on the driver’s side. He had to come out of the other door. I brought him in here and I gave him a cup of tea while we were waiting for the police and the breakdown people. He had his hands to his eyes, just thinking about it, and he said – I’ll always remember – he said, It was like a little sun.’
‘But it wasn’t a sunny day?’
‘It was later, but it was very dull then. Only about half past seven. When the police came, they breathalysed him straight away, and he was completely clear. They said he couldn’t have seen a light, but he insisted that was why he’d swerved, and he was a nice man – not young. One of the policemen said to me afterwards, Oh, I expect he fell asleep at the wheel and dreamed it. I said, That’s not fair, you don’t know…’
An orb, Merrily was thinking without much enthusiasm. Very fashionable with cable-TV ghosthunters, orbs. Bit of glare got recorded by the camera and it was an orb, a semi-formed manifestation. What Huw Owen called a spirit-egg, though you were never quite sure when Huw was being disparaging.
‘Did the driver think there was anything … strange about the light?’
‘Well, it was certainly strange, but I didn’t think there’d have been anything ghostly. Not then. But then there was Mr Loste … and the others.’
‘She’s a bit…’ Mrs Aird put her nose in the air ‘… if you ask me. And not over-friendly. Mr Loste … well, some people think he’s a bit … what’s the word … ?’ Mrs Aird waved her cardiganed arms about in a random sort of way. ‘Maniac … manic. Obsessed with his music and his choirs … and, give him his due, he’s marvellous. He’s done wonders. But some people think he’s not reliable in other ways. And his friendship with the American woman who goes to the wells. Bit peculiar. But … he saw what he saw, and he’ll tell you as much, give him his due.’
‘I’m hoping to see him later. I’ll probably need to go back and see the Rector first.’
‘He’s not in,’ Mrs Aird said. ‘His car’s gone.’
How did she know that from down here? Had she got a periscope?
‘He’s got three parishes, you know. And all his problems.’
Merrily drank some tea.
‘I’m … afraid I don’t really know anything about that. Don’t really like to ask him these things.’ Peering over her cup. ‘Sounds like I’m prying.’
Mrs Aird looked up at the ceiling and made a sad, wounded noise.
‘It was his daughter wrecked everything. Emily. Got a son as well, but he’s too young to cause trouble. Emily would be … what, eighteen? Mrs Spicer, Fiona, she was from Reading, somewhere like that, near London. She didn’t really like the country, and when Mr Spicer left the Army—You know what he was, don’t you?’
‘Erm … no.’
‘S … A … S.’
Mrs Aird mouthing it silently, like a breach of the Official Secrets Act.
No wonder Syd Spicer was familiar with the Brecon Beacons.
‘Been out about eight years,’ Mrs Aird said. ‘But there’s something that doesn’t leave them, if you ask me.’
Probably right. And they often didn’t leave the area. After many years based in Hereford, learning to become the most efficient killers in or out of uniform, they formed connections with the people and the land. Married local girls. Surprisingly – or maybe not – Spicer wouldn’t have been the first of them to become a priest.
‘Imagine the stress she must’ve been through,’ Mrs Aird said. ‘Never sure where in the world he was at any time, but knowing it was always going to be somewhere terribly dangerous.’
Merrily nodded. The SAS had probably the worst matrimonial record outside Hollywood. Breakfast with the wife, late supper in a cave in Afghanistan. Then retirement, still hyper, and they couldn’t settle down. The wives had to be very special to survive all that. Long periods alone, counting the Regiment graves in St Martin’s churchyard.
‘Sometimes…’ Mrs Aird leaned forward again ‘… Fiona came to talk to me on her own. She said he’d always promised her that when he came out of the Army they’d go back down south – bright lights and no sheep, she used to say. But then I suppose he found his faith. I don’t know where a man like that finds it.’
‘Oh … sometimes it’s just lying there, in your path, like an old coat, and before you know what you’re doing you’ve picked it up, tried it on and it seems to fit.’
‘That’s nice,’ Mrs Aird said. ‘I suppose.’
‘How did Mrs Spicer react to that?’
‘Oh, she stuck by him.’
Merrily smiled. Like Spicer had come out as a transsexual.
‘At least she knew where he was. He was a curate in Hereford, at first, and she didn’t mind that, thinking they’d move south as soon as he won his spurs, so to speak. They’d bought themselves a little house near his in-laws down in Reading, and they’d spend holidays there. But then he was offered Wychehill and the surrounding parishes – a bit closer to London, but it turned out to be the worst of both worlds. And the girl, Emily, she hated every minute she had to spend here. Off with her friends to nightclubs, every chance she got. And that, of course, led to boys and … the other thing. You know?’
‘No … what?’
‘That’s what…’ Mrs Aird leaned further forward as if the place was bugged. ‘That’s what broke up their marriage. The stress of dealing with the girl.’ She paused.
‘It’s everywhere, my dear. Young people can’t seem to face normal life any more, can they? Mr Spicer’s daughter … even Mr Devereaux’s elder son, when he gave up his job with the hunt. Went clean off the rails when it was banned, and they say he went on drugs. Luckily, he came round. But Mr Spicer’s daughter ended up in rehab.’
‘So you can imagine what it was like for them when the Royal Oak changed hands.’
‘And that’s very much part of it, if you ask me. The evil.’
‘Evil … ?’
‘Ingrid said you weren’t the kind to dismiss it like so many of the modern clergy do.’
Mrs Aird looked out of her wall-to-wall picture window across the valley with its pastures and orchards.
‘Expect I’ll have to go, soon. You wouldn’t believe how often the houses change hands up here. It’s like Mr Walford says – he’s disabled but a very intelligent man, we do crosswords together – and he often says, This is what I always wanted, a place up here, and then when you get it you suddenly wake up one day and realize you’re too old for it. This is not a place to be old, Mrs Watkins, though I’ll miss my sunsets.’
Merrily looked around the room, everything modern and convenient and sparkling in the sunshine.
‘The Royal Oak,’ she said. ‘Is that a pub?’
‘Pub?’ Mrs Aird said. ‘It’s the gateway to hell. I don’t even want to talk about that, if you don’t mind. I’ve had all the locks changed and I shut myself away at weekends, go to bed with my mobile phone in case they cut the wires. And unfortunately it’s not something you can do anything about.’
‘Is there anything I can do for you while I’m here?’
‘No, I’m quite self-sufficient really. I’ve been a widow nearly twenty years, and I can cope with most things.’
‘Everybody needs help,’ Merrily said.
Mrs Aird looked down into her lap for a moment; when she looked up she seemed, in some way, younger, her expression more focused.
‘If you don’t mind me saying so, Mrs Watkins, you seem a nice girl. But you don’t look very much like my idea of a … you know.’
‘Yes, I’m sorry.’ Merrily looked down at her sweatshirt. ‘The Rector asked me to … I don’t think he wanted to draw attention to me being here.’
‘No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Ingrid says you know what you’re doing. It’s just that I don’t have many friends in Wychehill, and this girl … that’s what worries me most.’
And there might be another one, Syd Spicer had said, which is … a bit weird. Joyce Aird can tell you. They won’t talk to me about it.
‘She’s a single mother, Mrs Watkins. She’s on her own in that house. And she’s had the worst of it. She’s … this is why something needs to be done.’
‘I’m a single mother, too. I have a daughter of seventeen.’
‘You can’t be old enough for…’ Mrs Aird’s eyes lost their focus. ‘Oh, you lose touch at my age. Everybody under fifty looks like a child.’
‘What’s her name?’
‘She lives in Wychehill?’
‘Thinks she’s possessed,’ Mrs Aird said. ‘It’s not good, is it?’
The Dead of Ledwardine
Lol let Jane into his terraced cottage in Church Street. In the living room, the sunlight jetted through the window-hung crystals – Jane’s house-warming present – making quivering rainbow balls on the walls and the face of the Boswell guitar. Making the guitar seem to vibrate with possibilities which would vanish like the rainbow balls as soon as he picked it up.
‘Well, go on.’ Jane planting herself next to the writing desk. ‘Ring them.’
‘I don’t know the—’
‘I have it here. Copied it from the notice.’
Jane consulted her right wrist, read out the row of numbers biroed on it. She was left-handed. Sinistral. Therefore dangerously unpredictable. How was he supposed to handle this? Encourage her to go ahead with what seemed like a valid protest? Or, bearing in mind Merrily’s situation in the village, do what he could to talk her out of it?
‘And the code, of course, is 01432,’ Jane said.
Lol rang the council’s planning department, Jane drumming her fingers on the desk the whole time. What he eventually learned, from a guy called Charles, was in no way likely to wind her down.
‘He says it’s up for discussion next week.’
‘They’ll make a decision then?’
‘The impression I got is that there’ve been no objections. The site being fairly secluded, inside the development line as laid down in the local plan, and not visible from the village centre. Perfect housing site.’
‘But it’s on a … Why didn’t you tell him it’s on a crucial—?’
‘Yeah, yeah, the council doesn’t believe they exist. Anywhere else with, like, a really major figure like Alfred Watkins, there’d be a statue in High Town, and all the key leys, like Capuchin Way, would be marked by brass plaques. But this bunch of crass, self-serving tossers—’
‘Jane, the government’s demanding new housing all over the country. And there is a case for Ledwardine needing … starter homes?’
‘And like, luxury executive dwellings fit into that category?’
Lol sighed. They’d called in at the Eight Till Late to quiz Big Jim Prosser on the ownership of Coleman’s Meadow. Jim had identified a farmer called G. J. Murray, who lived at Lyonshall, about seven miles away. This Murray had inherited Coleman’s Meadow from his aunt and had been touting it to development companies ever since.
Which was the way of it. People wrote to the Hereford Times, moaning about all the locally born young people being driven out of the county because they couldn’t get onto the housing ladder, but when they had a chance to develop some field for housing, it was usually luxury executive dwellings. Where the safe money was.
‘And, like, even with starter homes, most of them just go to people from outside,’ Jane said. ‘All the guys in my class who were born around here, they just can’t wait to get the hell out … rent an inner-city apartment near some cool shops. Or emigrate. We’re a nomadic race.’
‘Unfortunately, the council can’t operate on that basis.’
Didn’t you just hate playing the responsible adult? Especially when she was right. They really needed more executive homes, another two dozen SUVs clogging the village?
‘Anyway, it’s not going to happen, is it, Laurence? We’re going to get it stopped.’
‘We?’ Lol said. ‘We?’
‘Either you’re for me or against me.’
‘Jane, I am one hundred per cent for you. It’s just that we’re not talking about protecting an ancient monument, are we?’
‘Of course we are … sort of.’
Jane sat down and drew a diagram on Lol’s lyric-pad. Cole Hill … Coleman’s Meadow track … tumulus … market place … Ledwardine Church … ancient crossroads … standing stone.
‘… Six, seven points if you include the market place. It’s beyond dispute. If I had a big enough map, I could probably trace it all the way to the Neolithic settlements in the Black Mountains. It’s a living ancient monument.’
‘Still be there in essence, though, won’t it, even if they build on it?’
‘It won’t be visible. This is a genuine, existing old straight track, probably an ancient ritual route, right? By the time they’ve finished, the way the land slopes, you probably won’t even be able to see Cole Hill from the church any more for all these identical luxury homes with their naff conservatories. It’s a crime against the ancient spirit. It’ll sour the energy!’
‘Energy,’ Lol said. ‘That’s not something you can easily see, is it?’
‘It’s something our remote ancestors were, like, instinctively aware of.’
Jane went into lecturer mode, telling him things he already kind of knew: how the old stones had been erected on blind springs and the leys had energized and sustained the land and the people who lived on the land. How the oldest churches had also been built on ancient pagan sites because even in medieval times the people still remembered. And, of course, the leys were also lines of contact with … the ancestors.
‘The dead. Burial mounds. Circular churchyards growing up on the sites of Neolithic stone circles. The spirits of the dead were believed to walk the alignments so, in the old days, a coffin would have to be carried to the church along a particular track to prepare the spirit for the afterlife. It was a crucial thing. We should get Mum to reinstate it.’
‘It’s a theory,’ Lol said, nervous.
‘Ties in with folklore the world over, Lol. What it means is that the path through the church to the holy hill is the village’s link with its ancestors … its origins. You obliterate the path, you sever the link, and Ledwardine loses its … its soul!’
Jane sprang up, as though the ancient energy was surging underneath the cottage floor.
‘Who do I complain to? Who do I lobby?’
‘The MP? Downing Street?’ Where it would go into the shredder marked fruitcakes. ‘Maybe best to start with the local councillor.’
‘Gavin Ashe resigned, Jane. New guy is Lyndon Pierce. Lives at the end of Virgingate Lane.’
‘Non-party. He’s an independent.’
‘Well, that’s good, isn’t it? That means he doesn’t have to follow any party line on housing, right? It’s a start.’
Lol said nothing. ‘Independent’ also meant you were free to jump into anybody’s pocket.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I suppose you could approach him on a preservation-of-heritage basis. If you show him the picture in The Old Straight Track.’
‘Erm … yeah,’ Jane said. ‘I could…’
‘Because I’d guess that area hasn’t changed at all since Watkins was around in the 1920s?’
‘No. Probably not.’ She looked uncertain, suddenly. ‘Right. So that’s Lyndon … ?’
‘Pierce. He’s a chartered accountant. Jane…’ Lol didn’t really want to ask this. ‘Coleman’s Meadow is shown in the book, isn’t it?’
‘Look, Lol, you couldn’t…’ Jane frowned. ‘Obviously Watkins couldn’t include every ley in the county.’
‘You mean, no picture?’
‘Well, no, but that doesn’t—’
‘The most perfect, visible ley and he didn’t take a picture of it?’
‘Maybe he just didn’t use it.’ Jane was backing awkwardly towards the door. ‘Maybe it didn’t come out, I don’t know. Don’t look at me in that sorrowful, pitying—’
‘So, basically, this is not an Alfred Watkins ley, this is … a Jane Watkins ley.’
Lol thought he saw a glitter of tears. This was about more than just a ley line and the soul of the village. It was also about being nearly eighteen and the realization that you were entering a world where changes were seldom for the better.
‘Jane, did … did Watkins even mention this line, or even Ledwardine?’
‘No.’ Jane looked down at her feet. ‘It’s the one thing I can’t understand.’
‘It’s the real thing, though, Lol.’ She looked up, defiant again. ‘I mean you thought it was. You weren’t just—?’ ‘Well, I suppose it doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t find it.’
‘Now you’re humouring me. Don’t do that.’
‘No, really. He might have discovered it too late to get it into the book.’
‘It’s possible. And I mean, I’m no kind of expert, but it does seem like a perfect ley.’
Jane looked him in the eyes. ‘So you think I’m doing the right thing.’
A weighty moment. For a second or two, Lol felt the presence in the room of the cottage’s last owner, Lucy Devenish, Jane’s friend and mentor. His, too. Dead for over two years now. But sometimes when he came in at night he could still believe he’d seen, in the fractured instant of snapping on the lights, the folds of Lucy’s trademark poncho hanging over the newel post at the bottom of the stairs.
‘I suppose that depends very much on what you’re planning to do,’ he said carefully.
When Jane had gone, Lol could still feel her agitation in the air, bobbing and flickering around like the rays from the crystals.
He picked up the Boswell guitar. Prof Levin had studio time available in the second half of September, which left less than three months to develop this horribly difficult second-album-after-the-comeback. The one which had to be appreciably better than the first or your career was in meltdown.
Lol sat down on the sofa with the Boswell and tried again with ‘Cloisters’, a mainly instrumental number which, no matter how he moved it around, and despite the experiments with Nick Drake tuning, continued to sound ordinary. As in flat. As in lifeless. More or less like every other song he’d half-finished in the past several weeks – a period in which, otherwise, he’d felt contented, balanced … normal. It was surely too much of a cliché that you had to be emotionally raw, broken, ragged, wretched or lovelorn to write a worthwhile song.
Maybe it just needed a string arrangement.
He lay back on the sofa with his arms around the guitar, an image coming to him of the dead of Ledwar-dine in some half-formed procession from the steeple to the holy hill, bisected by a stream of unheeding SUVs.
Dead to the World
It was carved into a stone slab by a gate in a hedge enclosing a house and an empty carport. A flat, blank house built of the same squarish stones as the church. It was about a minute’s walk down the hill from the Rectory but very much on its own.
Merrily had a sudden sense of isolation, vulnerability. She shook herself.
Caractacus, as most schoolkids learned, was the ancient British hero defeated by the Romans and taken back to Rome, where he was treated with some respect. The final conflict was supposed to have taken place on Herefordshire Beacon, but that was only a legend, discredited, apparently, by historians.
If Caractacus had retired here at least he’d have been spared a view of the Beacon. The house was tucked so tightly into the hill that all you could see behind it was a steep field vanishing rapidly into the forestry.
To get to the front door, Merrily had to push away a sapling taller than she was. Disbelieving, she inspected a leaf.
An oak? Within a couple of years it’d be pushing the glass in. In thirty years it would probably have the house down. Tim Loste must surely be planning to transplant it somewhere – but where? His front garden was the size of a smallish bathroom and there clearly wasn’t much space behind the house, either.
On the wall beside the front door was a bell pull. Merrily could hear the jingling inside the house. No other sounds. She waited at least two minutes before edging around the oak and walking back to the road, pulling her mobile from her shoulder bag.
‘Couldn’t check out a couple of things for me, could you, Sophie?’
‘The Royal Oak. It’s a pub not far from Wychehill which seems to have undergone some kind of transformation, making it … unpopular. Might be something on the Net.’
‘I may even have heard something about this. I’ll look into it. Anything else?’
‘Syd Spicer. Is it true he’s ex-Regiment?’
‘I don’t know. The Bishop would be able to tell us for certain, but he’s taken his grandson to a county cricket match in Worcester. That’s rather interesting, Merrily, isn’t it? I’ll find out what I can about Mr Spicer’s history which, given the traditions of the SAS, is likely to be very little. What are you doing now?’
‘Trying to understand what’s happening here.’ Merrily looked up the hill towards the church, concealed by dark deciduous trees. ‘Spicer’s right about this place. You wouldn’t know you were in it.’
She’d left the twenty-year-old Volvo in the parking bay in front of the church. She walked up past it, seeing nobody, following the grey-brown churchyard wall into a short, steep cutting which accessed a lane running parallel to the main road but on a higher level, like a sloping gallery.
Time to seek help to remove the evil from our midst, Joyce Aird had apparently said to Syd Spicer.
Midst of what?
All the same, she brought her small pectoral cross out of her bag and slipped it on, letting it drop down under the T-shirt. You could never be too careful.
Hannah’s cottage was low and pebble-dashed and painted a buttermilk colour. Rustic porch and a clematis, and a mountain bike propped up under a front window.
It was just gone one p.m. and the sun was hot and high. Hannah was wearing shorts and a stripy sleeveless top revealing a butterfly tattoo on one shoulder.
She didn’t have sunken eyes or a deathly pallor.
‘I feel dead stupid now.’ She was maybe a year or two younger than Merrily: pale hair in a ponytail, no makeup, a diamond nose-stud. ‘I’m glad you’re not … you know…’ Pointing at her neck.
‘Too hot for all that.’ Merrily had shed the sweatshirt, was down to her green Gomer Parry Plant Hire T-shirt. ‘I used to have a black one with a dog collar on it in white but I couldn’t find it this morning.’
‘It’s OK, I know you’re the real thing. Joyce Aird rang.’
‘Mmm. Thought she might.’
‘Nothing wrong with Joyce,’ Hannah said. ‘Better than local radio, normally, so it’s killing her keeping quiet about this.’
Hannah wasn’t local either. Northern accent. East Lancashire, maybe.
‘This is nice.’ Merrily looked around. ‘You live here on your own?’
‘With my son. He’s nine. This is my parents’ holiday cottage, had it years and years. They said we could come down here, me and Robin, after my husband left us. Last year, that was, and I’m still feeling a bit, you know, impermanent. You coming in?’
The cottage was tiny, no more than three or four small rooms, Merrily guessed. The living room was furnished like a caravan – bed-settee with drawers underneath, a table that went flat to the wall, a Calor-gas stove in the fireplace. Hannah guided her to a compact easy chair with a yellow cushion and put herself on the edge of the bed-settee. The single window was wide open to a honeysuckle scent.
‘Luckily, you caught me on the right day. I’ve a part-time job at the tourist office in Ledbury. Three days a week. Keeps us going. Do you want tea or coffee or a cold drink?’
‘Could we maybe talk first?’
‘Yeh, ’course. I’m afraid I’ve not been to church since Robin was christened. Bad that, isn’t it? I might go if it was a bit smaller. But it’s horrible, our church. I mean, isn’t it? You don’t feel anything particularly holy in there, that’s for sure.’
‘It seems very … pleasant in here, though.’
‘Well, it’s very small. Had to put a lot of furniture in storage. But it … Oh, I see what you mean. No, there’s nothing wrong here. We used to come year after year and for weekends when I was a kid. I love it. It’s gorgeous round here, i’n’t it? No, there’s nothing like that here.’
‘Well, that’s good.’
‘I did feel really free again, biking to work down the hill to Ledbury. Bit hard going coming back, but it keeps you fit.’
‘Lot of long hills. Don’t think I could do it.’
‘Your leg muscles ache like anything at first, but it’s worth it. Listen, I’m sorry, I’ve never been in this sort of … I was going to look for your website on the computer at work, but there was always somebody there. I don’t want you to feel I’m wasting your time, that’s all. I don’t even know if there’s a charge.’
‘Er … no.’
‘Bit nervous now,’ Hannah said.
‘Actually,’ Merrily said, ‘I’ve never had a case of possession. Shameful thing for a so-called exorcist to say, but there we are. So … what’s it like?’
‘What’s it like?’ Hannah grinned. ‘You having me on? I don’t know what to say. I’m not a person that gets scared. I’d love a dog, mind, but I’d have to leave him in when I went to work and that wouldn’t be fair.’
‘Got the same problem, Hannah. Sorry, I don’t even know your last name.’
‘Bradley. That’s my married name. It’s a bit better than what I was called before – Catterall – so I thought at least the bugger can leave me that. Look – this is just between us, right?’
‘I think about it all the time, but it’s still hard finding the words,’ Hannah said.
‘It was next to me. That close. I’m not kidding.’
Spacing it out with her hands, looking at Merrily for signs of disbelief. Merrily just nodded. Hannah wet her lips with her tongue.
‘Mouth’s gone all dry now. Can I get a … ?’
Hannah brought a can of Diet Pepsi for each of them and sat herself down again, rolling the cold can between her hands.
‘It’s a long hill, and I’m not that brave yet that I can just let go. I’d be sod-all use in the Tour de France, I tell you.’ She shook her head. ‘I don’t know why I’m laughing, I was—’
‘Which side was it on?’
‘Towards the middle of the road. That side. I keep as close as I can to the verge ’cos some of these drivers are bloody maniacs.’
‘And it was … this was definitely another bike.’
‘What it’s like … it’s like when two of you are going along side by side and you turn your head to say something and … nothing! Soon as you turn your head … gone. First couple of times I was thinking it was me, how you do.’
‘This is the daytime?’
‘Morning … afternoon. I don’t take the bike out at night, I’m not stupid.’
‘What happens when you don’t turn your head?’
‘That’s what I was coming to. If you don’t look, you can see it. If you keep your eyes on the road ahead and you don’t—Sounds daft, I know. In fact, that’s wrong. You can’t see it, that’s not what I meant. You’re just fully aware of it. It absolutely completely exists. Two of you biking along side by side. And you can feel the wind coming at you along the hedge, but on the other side you’re shielded from it by … by this other cyclist. Really. Honest to God.’
‘And how do you feel when that’s happening?’
‘At first … just weird. Uncomfortable. So I’d keep turning and looking, just to get rid of it. And then … Oh God … I was so busy looking to the side I nearly went into the back of a tractor and trailer that’d just pulled in to the side. Another second I’d’ve been splat. Great big metal trailer. Go into that on a bike it’s broken bones at least, Mrs Watkins.’
‘That’s nice. Merr-ily. Have you got to be psychic for your job?’
‘Not essential. Sometimes it can be counter-productive. What happened after the trailer incident?’
‘We’ve come to the bit I don’t like.’
‘I don’t think I’d like any of it.’
‘What happened … I thought about what’d become of Robin if I was in an orthopaedic bed for six months, so I decided that if I ever again got the feeling there was somebody cycling next to me I’d have to stop looking to one side.’
‘Did you … ever think what it might be?’
Hannah shook her head.
‘I didn’t think too hard. You’d go daft, wouldn’t you? What I was really afraid of, to be quite honest, was that it might be a brain tumour or something. When you’ve got a child, these things…’
‘So it was almost a relief when it…’
‘What was the bit you didn’t like?’
‘Well, like I say, if you keep on and you don’t look, it just becomes more and more real. And close. I didn’t like that. It was a day like this, maybe not quite so hot, but I could smell his sweat. And yet it was cold. Very cold, suddenly.’
‘It was a man, then.’
‘Oh yeh. I could smell his sweat. There’s something about a man’s sweat, i’n’t there? And his tobacco. Tobacco breath. Not like cigarettes – I used to smoke till I had Robin – this was real strong tobacco breath. And after a while – I’m just concentrating on pedalling as fast I can, see, just gripping the handlebars and gritting my teeth, no way was I going to stop – I was feeling his thoughts. Just look at my arms, Merrily, I’ve got goose bumps thinking about it. Feeling his thoughts! Not – don’t get me wrong – not what he was thinking, exactly. It was more the colour of his thoughts. The texture. The feeling of his thoughts. I’m not putting this very well, am I?’
‘You’re putting it brilliantly well, actually. You must’ve been very scared by now.’
‘I was afterwards. When I got to work the first time they thought I must be ill. My colleague at the information centre, she wanted to send me home in a taxi, but I needed to work. Talk to people. Get over it. I did go home by taxi that night, mind. Had to go back next day on the bus to pick up the bike.’
‘Anything happen then?’
‘No. It never does when you’re afraid it might.’
‘When you say you weren’t scared till afterwards…’
‘Because you’re too much like … too much like a part of it to be scared. That’s what I meant by possessed. He was there. He was breathing all over me. I was wearing shorts – this was a week or so ago, this was another time. I was wearing shorts like these, only a bit tighter, and he – I swear to God, I felt his hand on my thigh, and I was angry, instinctively, you know? Gerroff! And he bloody chuckled. He chuckled.’
‘You heard him chuckle?’
‘I felt him chuckle. And that’s worse. You feel him chuckling inside your head. That’s what I meant by being possessed.’
‘How long did it last, usually?’
‘Probably no more than a few seconds, but a lot can happen in a few seconds when it’s something that’s never happened before.’
‘And how many times?’
‘Three. No, four. Until I realized what was happening and just … got off.’
‘When you got off the bike, it was all right?’
‘I realized then that it only happened when I was on the bike. As if I was actually generating it by pedalling.’
‘And there was nothing wrong with you physically. Unlike the others, though, you never actually saw anything.’
‘When did it last happen?’
‘Earlier this week.’
‘Bugger-all, ’cos I jumped off quick this time and wheeled the bike along till I got on the main road.’
‘Just to get this right, this is the hill where you come out of this lane, at the church, and then go past the Rectory … down past there.’
‘Could you just tell me … when you were feeling his thoughts, what were they like?’
‘Dark, usually,’ Hannah said. ‘Angry.’
‘Angry with you?’
‘No. He doesn’t know me. I’m sure he doesn’t. He just gets into my space. It’s like he just needs somebody’s space to get into, and it doesn’t matter who you are.’
‘So who was he angry at?’
‘Something bigger than me. Everything. God? I couldn’t say.’
‘And the time something touched your leg…’
‘You’re thinking it might’ve been a leaf or something, aren’t you? That’s what I thought. And I’m not going to insist it wasn’t. I just know what it felt like. Are you married, Merrily? You are allowed to, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, you are. And I used to be.’
‘Join the club. All I’m trying to say … when you’re in bed with a bloke, right? And you wake up and he’s still asleep … but his hand’s sliding up your nightie? Like that. Shall we have a cup of tea? Tea’s better on a hot day, sometimes.’
Merrily smiled. ‘Love one.’
Hannah stood up and opened the sliding door into a kitchen that must once have been part of the same room.
‘Blokes, eh?’ She looked over her shoulder at Merrily. ‘Hand up your nightie and dead to the world.’
Walking out of Hannah’s gate into the warmth of the afternoon, Merrily felt mixed emotions circling her like bees: primarily, a certain wild excitement that was close to the edge of fear. You realized how much time you spent coasting the safe surf between the hard sandbank of scepticism and the unfathomable deep blue abyss.
She stepped down through the cutting, with the church on her left and the sun in her eyes and the phone chiming in her bag. Aware of the layers of Wychehill. The layers of experience.
‘The Royal Oak,’ Sophie said, as she reached the Volvo. ‘Some things you might want to know.’
‘I have some information from the Internet which I can send to you at home, if you aren’t coming back to Hereford. However, I ran into Inspector Bliss and took the liberty of mentioning it. He said he’d be most interested to talk to you.’
‘About the Royal Oak?’
‘Discreetly,’ Sophie said.
It was probably worth going back. Merrily had a christening in Ledwardine tomorrow afternoon; if she dealt with parish business in the morning she could probably come back here on Wednesday and talk to Tim Loste and Preston Devereaux before the public meeting.
Feeling tired now. Up before six a.m. and two trips to Wychehill, and she hadn’t eaten yet.
Still … She smoked half a cigarette, then turned the car around and drove down past Ledbury … Trumpet … Stoke Edith. Midsummer in a couple of days, the first hard little apples like green nuts on the twisty trees and the hops on the wires. A potent landscape of cider and beer.
She felt light-headed. It was humbling and slightly shocking when, amongst all the self-delusion and the wishful thinking and the mind games, you encountered someone as guilelessly direct as Hannah Bradley.
Sophie said, ‘My attempts to log on to the Royal Oak’s actual website were frustrated by the inadequacy of our software. Apparently, the Diocese has failed to provide us with something called Flash Seven.’
‘Anything to save a few quid.’
‘From what I’ve been reading about the Royal Oak elsewhere, I’m quite grateful we don’t have it. There you are. You may understand some of this.’
Merrily went round the desk to peer at the screen over Sophie’s shoulder.
HIP-HOP … RAGGA … GARAGE … HOUSE…
DRUM’N’BASS … BHANGRA…
… IN THE MALVERNS?
Believe it!!! A big old country pub – used to
be all darts matches and Rotary Club –
‘My first experience of nightclub websites, I confess.’ Sophie said.
‘You surprise me.’
‘To save you some time, this establishment is just across the boundary into Worcestershire – and out of the diocese. Another good reason not to get involved.’
Sophie scrolled up to uncover a picture of a bejewelled black man called DJ Xex. Instantly dismissing him with a contemptuous flick of the mouse.
‘It appears that the Royal Oak is now owned by a Mr Khan – apparently quite a well-known entrepreneur in the West Midlands?’
Sophie glanced at Merrily, who shook her head. Never heard of him.
‘Quite a number of local press reports about local people calling on the appropriate authority to have Mr Khan’s licence withdrawn. I’ve printed them out for you.’
‘But you didn’t print the picture of DJ Xex for the noticeboard?’
‘This would be less amusing to you, Merrily,’ Sophie said, ‘if you had to live with it.’
Possibly true. All the innocent fun of inner-city club-land in the romantic Malverns: punters swarming in every weekend from the teenage wastelands, cars screaming through the village at one a.m., windows open, boom, boom, boom. Kids stopping to throw up in front gardens, relieve themselves in the churchyard. Have sex on graves … allegedly. And now a fatal road accident of the kind that people always insisted had been waiting to happen.
‘Sounds as if the victims of Saturday’s crash had spent the evening at the Royal Oak.’ Merrily gathered up the on-line news stories Sophie had printed. ‘Colliding with the chairman of the parish council, returning from a wedding.’
The stories were mainly from the Malvern Gazette: petitions to Hereford and Worcester councils, letters to MPs. Counter-allegations of NIMBYism and racism by the leader of a youth project who thought the restyled Royal Oak was the best thing to happen in the Malverns this century.
‘What did Frannie Bliss say?’
‘We didn’t have much time to talk. He asked how you were, and I explained that you were looking into an alleged occurrence at the eastern end of the diocese and then simply asked if he knew anything about the Royal Oak.’
‘Or, as it’s now apparently called…’
Merrily smiled at Sophie.
‘Inn Ya Face? That’s quite good, really.’
‘In Elgar’s hills.’ Sophie’s lower body trembled slightly as if the ground beneath her feet had shifted. ‘One day, Merrily, I think we may be pushed just slightly too far.’
‘I wonder…’ Merrily tapped her lower lip with a pen ‘… if that’s why Syd Spicer’s a little sceptical. I wonder if he thinks that the ghost of a traditional cyclist – an image symbolic of gentler times – is someone’s idea for stirring the pot.’
Sophie raised an eyebrow.
‘It happens. Just occasionally. But then Syd doesn’t seem to know about Hannah Bradley.’
‘You found that convincing?’
‘It’s about as convincing as it gets.’
‘The girl thinks she’s been sexually assaulted by … ?’
‘I wouldn’t put it that strongly, and neither does she. Quite a healthy attitude towards it, really. That’s one of the things that makes it so credible.’
‘What will you do?’
‘Collate all the reports. Try and find out if anybody’s ever been killed on that road on a bike. If I can tie it down to an individual, the obvious answer would be a straightforward Requiem Eucharist in the church, with as many of the witnesses as we could get. Plus the Rector, of course.’
‘Ah, yes.’ Sophie picked up a notepad. ‘The Rector.’
‘You checked him out.’
‘Ordained eight years ago.’ Sophie raised her glasses on their chain to read her shorthand notes. ‘Installed as Rector of Wychehill, with two other neighbouring parishes, in autumn 2003. Renowned, apparently, for his strenuous youth-work – previously, he ran a shop in Eign Street specializing in Outward Bound-type pursuits. Mountaineering, geology. And before that, his career, as you say, was with the Army. The file doesn’t mention which regiment, but then, if he served in Hereford, it hardly needs to.’
Merrily was thinking of Spicer’s distinctly unemotional response to the carnage at Wychehill, the minimalism of his kitchen, his total self-reliance. I’m very capable.
‘My experience of the Special Air Service, Merrily, is that they tend to dispense information on a need-to-know basis.’
‘If at all,’ Merrily said.
Remembering a story someone had told her about a Hereford dentist with a serving-SAS patient who’d dropped in for a heavy-duty root-canal filling and – by way of an exercise – had declined the anaesthetic.
Might have been apocryphal, probably not.
Mentioning the Royal Oak to Frannie Bliss … this had been like opening the door of the CID room and rolling a grenade through the gap.
They were in the café in the Cathedral cloisters, with a Gothic-framed view of the Bishop’s garden. Bliss was doing his eager-fox smile, raspberry jam from his doughnut oozing between his fingers.
‘Clever little bastard, though, Merrily. His old feller’s some kind of professor of Islamic Studies in Wolver-hampton. Also, a consultant to the Home Office.’
He evidently thought she knew more than she actually did.
‘The lad’s been doing his bit, too, advising the council on community relations in Worcester. Oh, and he also runs an ethnic art gallery in Malvern, where the Prince of Wales once attended a reception.’
‘Yes,’ Merrily said, ‘I’m sure the Prince of Wales would have enjoyed that, but—’
‘In fact, so snugly has Raji fitted himself into the system that the little shit was actually one of the speakers at a symposium last year on new directions in community policing. Having earlier – this may surprise you, or not – had lunch with my esteemed ruler.’
‘Annie Howe? Why would that surprise me? Frannie, just give me the building blocks … How does this guy come to be the owner of a country pub in the Malverns?’
‘Oh, and then, following the symposium – attended by civic leaders and other useless suits – I get meself formally introduced to young Mr Khan. Merrily, he patronized me.’
‘“From Liverpool, then, sergeant.”’ Bliss putting on this poncy public school accent and a twisted smirk. ‘“That’s quite a cultural quantum leap, isn’t it?”’
‘He called you sergeant?’
Bliss leaned back. His red hair was receding slightly, and something throbbed in his temple.
‘Full name Rajab Ali Khan. Twenty-seven years old, and already the owner of – as well as the nice gallery – nightclubs in Worcester and Kidderminster. And now, yeh, the Royal Oak Inn, as was, in the heart of the glorious Malverns. I think he even had grant-aid. He’s good at that.’
He put down the remaining half of his jammy doughnut. On the side plate, it looked like debris from a post-mortem.
‘And at this point I’ve gorra say, Merrily, that I believe Raji to be a main player in the supply of a substantial percentage of Class A drugs entering the Border counties.’
Merrily stirred her coffee. ‘You know that?’
‘No, I said I believe it.’
‘I believe in God, Frannie, but—’
‘And I also believe there’s a firewall around him, for reasons I’m either not sufficiently elevated to have been told about or because…’ Bliss picked up his doughnut. ‘Ah, what’s the point? The service is in flux again, and the best we can do is keep our noses down until it’s over.’
Merrily said nothing. He meant the proposed merger of West Mercia Police with two other regions, creating a superforce supposedly more capable of tackling terrorism and major crime but probably in the process also saving the Home Office milllions of pounds by raising the bar and reducing aggravated burglary to a misdemeanour.
He held up a hand, a raspberry globule like a stigmata in the centre of the palm. He was a Roman Catholic, fond of symbolism.
‘A warning, Merrily. We’re becoming hopelessly politicized. It’s no longer about nailing villains to the wall.’
Merrily poured more coffee.
‘Can I take it Mr Khan is a practising Muslim?’
‘Practising? Bastard’s got it off to a fine art. See, these days, if there’s a Muslim who speaks out publicly against terrorism, as Raji’s been known to do – I’m a Brit, don’t I sound like a Brit? – some clowns tend to be less concerned about what else he’s into.’
‘And you think drugs are passing through the Royal Oak in significant quantities? I mean, what are we talking about – crack, speed, heroin … ?’
‘And acid,’ Bliss said. ‘Acid is back. Turn off your mind, relax and float off a sixth-floor balcony.’
‘Is all this widely known?’
‘What is widely known, but not widely highlighted, is that there are suddenly more drugs – by far – on the streets of these old market towns than we can hope to control. Coke and cannabis – recreational stuff for the middle classes – and cheap nasties for the kids. I expect Jane—’
‘What they all say, Merrily. Moorfield … a famously liberal headteacher.’
‘What he prefers to be called.’
‘God help us.’ Bliss took an angry bite out of his doughnut. ‘I mean, look at Pershore. You imagine anything like that happening in Pershore?’
‘Lad called Chris Smith found shot through the head in his van in a car park near the river. Signs of torture. Mouth taped, cigarette burns. Other things I won’t describe with food around. Local CID didn’t know him – no form – but subsequently identified as quite a prominent local dealer, operating in the area for over a year.’
‘Linked to this Raji Khan, you think?’
‘We don’t know. Less than half an hour from the Oak. If you were to twist my arm … Aaah.’ Bliss made a frustrated hissing noise. ‘Lot of us coming round to thinking it should all be decriminalized, everything you can smoke, swallow or inject. We’re pouring billions down the pan, in man-hours and paperwork, and we’re losing the battle. And we’re bored with it and all the ancillary villainy by brain-dead street-trash supporting a thousand-a-week habit. Some point, we’re gonna back away, wash our hands, say fuck it.’
Bliss put up both hands, pushing it all away.
‘And I have told you nothing, Merrily. In fact, we haven’t even had this little meeting in the lovely old cloisters that your lot pinched off my lot in fifteen-whenever-it-was.’
‘Like that, huh?’
‘You’re a mate.’ Bliss beamed bleakly. ‘And I like to be there for me mates. And I hope you feel the same way.’
‘So what you’re saying … if I happen to come across anything in Wychehill that might be pertinent to the inquiries you’re not allowed to make…’
‘Not actively encouraged to make. Yes, that would be helpful. You priests, so intuitive. Even the Prods.’ Bliss tucked the remains of his doughnut into his mouth. ‘Just one thing – if you do happen to learn anything—’
‘Call you at home.’
‘Exactly. Or on the mobile, if urgent.’ He fingered up a bead of jam left on his plate and licked it off. ‘So … the good people of Wychehill are claiming that all the extra traffic and the nasty music has disturbed something a bit…’
Bliss waggled his fingers and made spooky woo, woo noises.
‘Sometimes, Merrily, I don’t know how you keep this up.’
It was very warm now, and the Cathedral green was smudged with people in T-shirts and summer frocks, some of them camped around the recently installed life-size bronze sculpture of a pensive Sir Edward Elgar gazing up at the tower.
A teenage girl sitting by the plinth was wearing cans and had an iPod in her lap. Walking back towards the gatehouse, Merrily thought it unlikely that the kid was listening to The Enigma Variations. If it had been Jane, not in a million years; to Jane, unless attitudes had changed, Elgar was just some pompous, imperialist old fart.
I’m not keeping up any more, that’s the trouble.
Merrily stopped in dismay, looking back at the Cathedral tower, under major repair again – scaffolding around it like a thousand interlinked Zimmer frames. And she was not yet forty, but she’d reached the age when ‘keeping up’ required consistent effort. Jane never bothered about staying ahead of the game, because Jane knew she was the game.
Scary. Everything was scary. Like the thought of a centralized police service directed by nervous politics. Merrily went across to the Hereford tourist information centre and picked up what she could on the Malverns before climbing the stone steps to the Deliverance office, where Sophie was putting the phone down.
‘Just came in to say that if there’s nobody I need to see, I think it might be best to go back to Wychehill. Get this over. Is that all right?’
‘Did Mr Bliss clarify things?’
‘Mr Bliss muddled things further, as Mr Bliss so loves to do.’
‘Merrily, three things … I resorted to the telephone, from which I learned that the Royal Oak used to be a favoured meeting place for rambling clubs because of its capacious car park and access to several footpaths. The Ramblers’ Association, needless to say, has lodged a complaint with the tourist authorities.’
‘It’s what they do. I don’t think I’m going to worry too much about the Royal Oak.’
‘I also checked with Worcester Deliverance. It appears that mysterious balls of light are not unknown in the Malverns. Usually connected with UFOs rather than anything psychic. Unexplained cyclists with lamps, however … that’s a new one.’
‘Oh, well. Thanks, Soph—’
‘And, thirdly, the Reverend Spicer rang. The public meeting in Wychehill planned for Wednesday … I’m sorry about this, Merrily.’
‘Called off? No, you wouldn’t be sorry about that, would you?’
‘Brought forward. To tomorrow evening.’
‘For reasons of discretion, according to Mr Spicer. They want to be sure there are no press people there. Or, indeed, employees of the local authorities or the tourist associations, who’ve been known to attend such meetings. He says it’s something that should be settled by local people … and you, of course.’
‘But I’ve got a christening in the afternoon!’
‘The part of the meeting relevant to you won’t start until eight-thirty.’
‘No, I mean, I still have people in Wychehill to see.’
Sophie sighed. ‘Sometimes I think you try too hard.’
‘You either do the job or you don’t. I’ll just have to go back tonight.’
‘Merrily…’ Sophie rocked back. ‘That’s ridiculous. You’ve been there twice already, you’ve been up since dawn … Have you even eaten?’
‘Right,’ Sophie stood up. ‘I’ll take you.’
‘If you fall asleep at the wheel on the way back…’
‘I’ll ask Lol, OK? Give me a chance to see Jane before we go – I’m starting to feel like a part-time parent.’
Maybe it was what Bliss had suggested, about Jane and drugs. She rang Lol, and there was no answer.
When Lol called back, Merrily was already in the car in the Bishop’s Palace courtyard. She switched off the engine. Lol was asking if she knew about Jane’s project.
Merrily sank back in her seat, twisting the rear-view mirror, smoothing out what could be a new line under her left eye.
Jane and project. Curious how sinister those words sounded together.
‘She said she was going to explain it all to you this morning,’ Lol said, ‘if you hadn’t had to dash off so early.’
‘If I hadn’t had to dash off so early, she’d have been at school, and she knows it.’ Merrily closed her eyes. ‘She’s never done that before. I don’t think.’
‘The exams are over…’
‘I don’t care, it’s a school day.’
‘Do you want to call in, if you get home earlyish?’
‘Thing is, I’m only coming home to change. I’ve got a job out near Malvern. For which I think I need to look like a minister of God.’
‘Oh. Well, she knows I’ll tell you. She just uses me as a filter. It’ll wait.’
‘No, it won’t,’ Merrily said. ‘I can tell it won’t.’ Bloody Jane. ‘Lol, I was wondering if you could come with me. Sophie wanted to drive … thinks I might fall asleep at the wheel. Actually, it’s a situation that might benefit from a second opinion, and I’m not sure Sophie’s would be the right one.’
‘I’m just a humble songwriter. Sure. Whatever.’
‘You undersell yourself. A humble songwriter who once did half a psychotherapy course. If you come over to the vicarage in, say, fifty-five minutes, I should be changed and ready to leave.’
Small silence. Through one of the Bishpal windows, she could see Gary, the Bishop’s West Highland terrier, standing on the back of a sofa waiting for the boss to come back from the cricket.
‘If I come round in, say, forty-five minutes,’ Lol said, ‘will you still be undressed?’
No time, of course, for that. Jane was home, anyway – quiet, obliging, and therefore suspicious. Sure, she’d get her own meal. No problem, you two get off to … wherever. Exhibiting no particular curiosity about what might be going down. Which meant that something was printed on her own agenda, in heavy type.
But worrying about Jane could eat up your life. And now, for the first time in many years, she was a problem shared … kind of. At least, Lol … well, at least they were officially an item at last, nothing clandestine any more.
On the road, Merrily driving the Volvo, he told her about Jane and Coleman’s Meadow. The ley line and the luxury executive homes. Something about all this seemed to bother him but, for once, Merrily couldn’t see a major problem.
‘Kid’s been involved in far worse things. I mean, I don’t like the idea of an ancient trackway to the top of Cole Hill being obliterated to accommodate luxury executive homes. We’ve had two new estates in eighteen months.’
‘Small starter homes would be OK?’ Lol said.
‘We need a few starter homes. I’m just not sure we need any more…’
‘Sedate, comfortable middle-class people?’
‘Let’s back away from that one for the moment. Whatever we need, there have to be better places to put them. OK, so Jane gets up a petition to the council. Fair enough. She’s seventeen. Next year she gets the vote.’
Lol polished the lenses of his brass-rimmed glasses on the bottom of his T-shirt.
‘Far be it from me, as a failed psychotherapist, to try to tell you about your daughter, but, like … do you think maybe it goes deeper? Bored with A levels, not lit-up by the idea of university, because everybody does that.’
‘You think she doesn’t want to leave home?’
‘Maybe she’s afraid to. Afraid that she’ll come back to find everything destroyed. Lost a lot, over the years. Her dad. Lucy…’
Jane’s dad, her mother’s unfaithful husband. Dead in a car crash, but Jane had still been little then. When the formidable Lucy Devenish, the kid’s first real friend in Ledwardine, had been knocked off her moped and killed on the outskirts of the village, that was worse, an idyll badly chipped. Jane, town-raised, had bonded with the countryside very quickly, thanks to Lucy and her rural folklore and her – OK – possible paganism.
And it was in Lucy’s old shop, Ledwardine Lore, that Jane had been the first of them to encounter a damaged musician, trying to reassemble his life after a criminally unjust court conviction, a family breakdown, a bad time in a psychiatric hospital. So many daughters could barely tolerate their mothers’ boyfriends, but Jane had virtually engineered this relationship. Lol putting down a deposit on Lucy’s cottage in Church Street, just across from the vicarage … that was the final piece in Jane’s mosaic.
And Lucy Devenish was still a presence for all three of them.
Lucy’s primary raison d’être had been the defence of old Ledwardine against misguided incomers and the slashing scythe of crass development.
Merrily glanced at Lol, trying to look like a respectable companion for a vicar in a dark jacket over a dark T-shirt with no motif. Jane and Lol were, in their own way, also an item. Jane knew how to work him.
‘So the imminent destruction of Coleman’s Meadow and the ley line … you think she sees that as something that would’ve sent Lucy ballistic. What’s she going to do, do you think?’
‘She wanted to know who to complain to.’
‘What else could I say? She’d only find out somewhere else.’
‘Well. I instinctively don’t like Lyndon Pierce much…’
‘But at this moment you could almost feel sorry for him, right?’
‘It’s going to be an experience for him, certainly.’
Merrily drove into Ledbury, with its oak-framed market hall, its clock and its sunny old bricks. Last town before the Malvern Hills, the eastern ramparts of Here-fordshire reflecting the Black Mountains of Wales in the west. Between these purple-shadowed walls, the county was a twilit, peripheral place.
Normally, she liked that. The out-of-timeness of it.
* * *
The Malverns were so familiar, an eleven-mile ripple on the horizon, that it was easy to miss how strange they were. They were sudden hills, a surprise happening in an otherwise eventless landscape
Driving in from a different side tonight, Merrily watched the scenery acquiring scaled-down Alpine dimensions: sunlit, serrated ridge, inky valley. Eleven roller-coaster miles with a long history of recreation, ever since they’d been reserved as a hunting ground by the conquering Normans.
Never more famous, however, than in Victorian days when the healing waters of one-time holy wells had briefly been more sought-after than champagne and Great Malvern had become a fashionable resort.
The guidebook she’d bought in Hereford and checked out over tea explained how these hills had been given special protection, for one reason or another, throughout recorded history.
But it hadn’t stopped the quarrying.
‘Apparently, George Bernard Shaw remarked that so much stone was being taken away that the Malvern Hills were in danger of becoming the Malvern Flats.’
‘But they’ve stopped it now?’ Lol said.
‘Not that long ago.’ Merrily slowed, approaching a green-bearded cliff face. ‘But at least quarrying’s good for concealed car parks.’
A segment like a slice of layered cake had been cut out of the hillside, and someone had built a shambling stone house on raised ground at the apex. A house which, at some stage, had grown into a country pub. Lol inspected it with no discernible awe.
‘This is the gateway to hell?’
Maybe there had once been a tiered garden in front; now it was this huge parking area with walls of natural rock, partly curtained with conifers. Merrily pulled onto its edge, under the discoloured swinging sign on a pole in the entrance: an archaic-looking painting of a squat tree and Royal Oak in faded Gothic lettering. Below, another sign, plain white, pointing at the pub.
Inn Ya Face >>>>
Nine or ten vehicles on the car park but no people around. She wound her window down. No sound other than birdsong. No visible litter. No smell of moral cesspit.
‘If the gateway to hell was jammed with people burning, nobody would be tempted into sin,’ Lol said.
‘That a new song?’
‘OK, let’s go and talk to people about a ghost on a bike.’
The Volvo jangled on the long incline.
It was half a steepish mile further on, towards the top of the hill. Coming in from the south-west, you could see how the community had been constructed on the ravages of quarrying, houses and bungalows forming alongside new forestry, on their separate levels.
More than half hidden, it was like the shadow of a village.
But tonight it was sprinkled with gold dust.
Both their windows were down as they drove in, and, on the cusp of evening, the warm air around Wychehill was glistening with the moist and luminous soundtrack of medieval heaven.
A ribbon of road under hunched, conifered shoulders. Like Spicer had said, no evidence of community or enclosure: no shop, no pub, no kids on bikes, no dog-walkers. Only on the top of Herefordshire Beacon, maybe two miles away, could you see figures moving, like flies on a cow-pat.
At just after seven p.m. Merrily pulled into a long bay in front of the church behind five other cars.
The church was set well back from the road but the distance was reduced by its size. At the end of an aisle-like path from the bay, its porch door was closed, its squat tower had no window slits. It stared sightlessly towards the road and couldn’t see the lushness of the valley which opened up below it on the other side.
And yet this unpromising, sullen hulk – post-Victorian-Gothic, built of still-unmellowed stone blocks – was … exalted.
Merrily shut her car door as softly as she could.
‘It’s got to be a record … a CD.’
‘I don’t think so,’ Lol said.
He stood in the church entrance by the black sign with gold lettering: St Dunstan’s. Above it, a heavy lantern on a wrought-iron bracket, one of its glass panels shattered.
The voices, male and female, poured down like a slow fountain.
‘It’s … Gregorian chant?’ Lol said.
‘I don’t know. I mean, that’s…’
‘Something like that, maybe. It’s certainly Latin.’
‘But that’s … I know things aren’t as hard and fast these days … but this is an Anglican church.’
‘You want to go in?’
‘Better deal with what we came for.’
Merrily unfolded the order-of-service for a funeral, on which Syd Spicer had written the names and addresses, beginning with Tim Loste, Caractacus Cottage. Down the road, past the Rectory.
‘He’s got to be conducting it, hasn’t he?’
‘Hell of a choir for a village this size,’ Lol said.
‘A village where, according to the Rector, people don’t even talk to each other much. So, like, they just sing? Why didn’t Spicer tell me Loste wouldn’t be available tonight?’
‘I don’t suppose he knew you were coming. How far away are the others?’
‘Chairman of the parish council has a farm about half a mile away. I was going to save him till last, as he apparently hasn’t yet claimed to have seen anything. The other’s a Mrs Cobham. Converted barn. Two minutes’ walk, according to Spicer. Call that ten for the likes of us.’
‘He was in the SAS?’
‘Is it common for an ex-SAS man to go into the Church?’
‘Church welcomes hard men. Good for the image. Bit of balance.’
They walked through the cutting, past Hannah Bradley’s cottage. No sign of Hannah. Although there was nobody about, Merrily felt conspicuous and zipped up her thin black fleece over her dog collar. Now the road was curving away around a hill defined by ascending houses and bungalows, several of them hidden behind conifer walls.
‘How about for him?’ Lol said. ‘Not a bit tame?’
‘We have people in the C of E make the Taliban look like a tennis club.’ Merrily stopped, looked up the hill. ‘Do you think that’s it?’
The barn-conversion was set back from the lane, its bay filled with plate-glass panels, mirrors of gold in the early-evening light. Expensive. The new gravel driveway had been given a curving route to make it seem longer, maples planted in careful stockades either side of it. A white Mercedes 4×4 sat at the top, outside the oak front door.
‘This is the woman whose car apparently went out of control and hit a camper van.’
But, again, there was nobody in. Merrily felt that, even before Lol let the knocker fall twice against its steel plate, the clunks echoing inside the barn like footsteps in an empty ballroom. She stepped back.
‘Not my night, obviously.’
‘Maybe it’s the wrong house.’
‘So which other one couldn’t we miss?’
Lol knocked again.
‘Maybe they’re in the choir.’
‘A whole village of brilliant, classically trained singers?’
Merrily moved back towards the lane which, beyond the barn, became a dirt track.
‘It’s like someone we can’t see is laughing at us.’
Maybe Syd Spicer. Maybe the Rector of Wychehill was laughing at them. Laughing silently, lying in some ditch, covered with branches, his face streaked with dark mud, like in the old days.
He should be here, as back-up. The protocol was that the local priest came with you, the first time, didn’t just throw the addresses at you and leave you to get on with it.
Merrily went to the edge of the lane and looked down into a bucolic kaleidoscope: swirls of woodland and cider-apple orchards and maybe vineyards, around sheep fields which glowed like emerald and amber stained glass as the sun began its scenic dive into the Black Mountains forty miles away.
By the time they’d walked back towards the church, the chant had stopped.
‘Maybe the whole community turns out to listen.’ Lol walked into the entrance, along the gravel path bordered with yew trees, turning to look back at Merrily. ‘You’re allowed.’
‘I don’t know that I am, to be quite—’
A blur of movement. Merrily turned slowly. A woman had appeared out of the trees by the entrance. She wore a pale sleeveless dress so long that it completely covered her feet, and it seemed somehow as if she’d risen from the ground.
‘You’re looking for someone?’
‘Is there a concert on?’
Lol had wandered back. The woman smiled at him.
‘Choir practice, is all.’
She had a loose, wide mouth and big, deep-sunk eyes that seemed swirlingly aglow.
‘You’re in the choir?’
‘I don’t sing, although I have an interest. I was taking some air during the break. I live in a cottage back there. Wyche Cottage? Like the Wyche in Wychehill, which means salt, only, the real-estate guy in Ledbury, when he told me the name on the phone, I thought it was witch, and I’m like … woooh.’
She shook her tumble of brown curls.
‘Disappointing, really,’ Lol said.
‘That it just means salt.’
‘Yeah. I guess. I changed it, anyway. Starlight Cottage now. Look—’
She came forward, stumbling over the dusty hem of her dress, coming up very close to Lol and peering at him. Contact lenses, Merrily thought.
‘Pardon me,’ the woman said to Lol, ‘I don’t want to appear … but I think I know who you are?’
He took a pace back. Occasionally he was recognized, usually by someone who’d bought a Hazey Jane album nearly twenty years ago and was mildly pleased that he hadn’t killed himself like Nick Drake. He never relished it.
‘OK…’ The woman gazed hard at Lol. ‘Listen, I may have this totally wrong, but see, I’m not so stupid. I was expecting an old guy in a big hat with like a black bag, and it’s no business of mine, really, but you should know that some people in this place are just a little crazy.’
‘How so?’ Lol said.
‘Not so simple. Like, you’re talking about something, you know, sacred?’ She looked down and brushed a leaf from her dress. ‘I’m sorry. This is not my place. But there’s something here that must never be parted, you know what I’m saying? Like, you can walk out on the hills at twilight and you can sense his nearness. It’s a strange and awesome thing.’
‘Yes,’ Lol said. ‘I can imagine it would be.’
‘So, like, you know, I mean no disrespect here, but the whole idea of exorcizing this … wonderful, magical thing – from the Malvern Hills, of all places – that’s gotta be a bone of contention, right?’
* * *
This was the third time they’d stood outside a front door getting no response, but Merrily had heard the radio playing inside the house and she kept her finger on the bell.
It was still more than a minute before the door opened and Spicer stood there, unsmiling, in jeans and a black clerical shirt.
‘A word, Syd.’
He stared at her without expression, then looked at Lol. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up, as if he’d been dealing with one of those household tasks he performed privately to prove he had no need of outside help.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
She’d pulled down the zip of her fleece to reveal the collar, show him she was kitted out this time.
Spicer said, ‘Who’s your friend?’
‘I realize local loyalty is a good thing,’ Merrily said, ‘and crucial for a parish priest, I accept that. But there’s also the question of loyalty between people who share a … a calling? So you give me half a story, set me up to appear in front of the entire parish—’
‘It won’t be the entire parish. It won’t even be half the parish. Who’s your friend?’ he asked again.
‘This is Lol Robinson. He’s standing in as witness, back-up, second opinion. All the roles normally filled by the particular parish priest who’s requested assistance. If the parish priest can be bothered.’
‘I’m sorry, Merrily, I just assumed you’d prefer to check things out on your own.’
‘No, you didn’t. You just didn’t want, for some reason, to reveal the alleged identity of the alleged presence.’
‘Look,’ Spicer said. ‘The people out there who wanted an exorcist called in, I thought it was down to them to explain exactly why. I just went through the motions. I told you I had reservations, but I didn’t think it was right to spell them out to you before you’d had a chance to check out the situation for yourself.’
‘Maybe you wanted me to come back this evening to hear the music, just to underline it a little?’
‘I didn’t know you’d be coming back at all before the meeting. That’s why I set it up. For God’s sake, Merrily—’
She turned away in frustration. The evening sun threw an unearthly light on Herefordshire Beacon so that it looked like a cake aflame on a hot-plate.
‘I mean … Elgar?’ She swung back to face him. ‘That Elgar?’
Another Sphere of Existence
Oh shit, surely not this one? Please don’t let it be this one.
The late sun was bleeding into a false horizon of cloud, an old tractor coughing and retching across a field somewhere.
Jane standing in Virgingate Lane, radiating dismay.
She’d looked up Councillor Pierce in the phone book. The address was given as Avalon, which had been kind of promising: anyone who’d named his house after the legendary land of apples in the west, where King Arthur had been laid to rest, must have some kind of a soul.
There obviously had been apple trees here, in the days when Ledwardine was almost entirely surrounded by productive orchards. In fact, you could see a few of their sad stumps in the shaven piece of former field through which a tarmac drive cut like a motorway intersection, all the way to the triple garage.
Half a dozen cars were parked along the drive, which was actually wider than Virgingate Lane itself, where all the cottages were old and bent and comfortably sunk into the verges.
The extensive dwelling at the top of the tarmac drive was built of naked, glistening bricks, the colour of a Barbie’s bum. It had a conservatory, a sun-lounge, three fake gaslamps.
Jane could hear music and faint laughter from the house.
The plan had been to maybe encounter Councillor Pierce in his garden, casually ask him about the Coleman’s Meadow project and then perhaps educate him a little on the subject of leys and natural harmonies. He couldn’t turn her away, could he? He was a politician. She’d be able to vote for him next time. Or not.
It was clear from all the cars, however, that Councillor Pierce was hosting a dinner party or something. Bollocks.
Stupid idea, anyway. Jane felt deeply self-conscious now, standing there in her white hoodie like some shameless stalker. Unlikely that she’d gone unobserved from inside.
As if in confirmation of this, security spotlamps came blasting on below the broad pink patio which surrounded the house like a display plinth. Jane saw the hulk of a plundered cider-press with a slate plaque attached to the stone wheel. The plaque said – inevitably – AVALON.
Maybe it was irony. Sod it, anyway. She turned away from the horror. Maybe she’d just write a letter of protest to the planning department, with a copy to the Hereford Times who wouldn’t print it. Sod them all.
‘Excuse me!’ A man behind her. ‘Excuse me … you looking for anyone in particular?’
Jane turned. Two guys in middle-aged leisureware – polo shirts, chinos, golfing shoes kind of kit – were strolling down the drive towards the nearest car, a gold Lexus. One of the guys beeped open the car doors and balanced a beer can on the roof.
Jane was starting to shake her head, walk away, when one of the pinkening clouds over Avalon reminded her, somehow, of the bird-of-prey profile of Lucy Devenish. She sighed.
‘You’re not … Councillor Pierce?’
The guy with the car keys grinned, opening one of the rear doors.
‘How far would it get me if I said I was?’
‘Excuse my friend, he’s an oaf,’ the second guy said. ‘Did you want to see Lyndon?’
‘Erm … Well, you know, not if he’s like, you know, busy.’
Both of them laughed. The guy with the keys pulled a black leather briefcase from the Lexus.
‘You think Lyndon will be too busy to see this lovely young thing, Jeff?’
‘Lyndon is a man always mindful of his civic duties,’ the other guy said. ‘Follow us, if you like.’
‘No, really,’ Jane said, ‘it’s not urgent or anything. I can—’
‘No, no, you can at least come and have a drink. You’ll be quite safe. My colleague’s in Social Services.’
They laughed. The cloud formation that had looked for a moment like Lucy Devenish had broken up.
It wasn’t exactly a pool party or a barbecue. That is, there was a pool and a barbecue behind the house, but neither was in use. However, one of those extraterrestrial-looking patio heaters was working, and seven people – four men, three women – were spread over a couple of hardwood tables, with drinks. Papers on the table seemed to be architect’s plans.
‘So what would you expect of a new community centre, Jane?’ Lyndon Pierce said.
He handed her a glass of white wine. He didn’t seem to recognize her, which was probably a good thing. He’d asked her name, and she’d just said Jane and left it at that.
New community centre?
‘So, like, what’s wrong with the old community centre?’
‘That’s precisely what’s wrong with it.’ Lyndon grinned. ‘It’s old.’
Lyndon was quite a lot less old than she’d imagined. Maybe thirty. Gelled black hair and a plump mouth. Tracksuit bottoms and a Hawaiian shirt open over a red T-shirt. Not too gross yet, but he probably would be in a couple of years.
‘Chance of a National Lottery grant, you see, Jane,’ one of the chino guys said. ‘We’ll be holding a public meeting to let the people of Ledwardine have their say. We’re drawing up a list of options for them.’
‘What if the people of Ledwardine don’t want a new community centre?’ Jane said.
Lyndon Pierce looked at her like he didn’t understand the question. Beyond the swimming pool, the view was across a couple of darkening fields towards Ledwardine square. Lights were coming on in the Black Swan, the church steeple fading back into the evening sky like another sphere of existence.
‘I’m sorry,’ Lyndon said. ‘Cross purposes, I think. We were just all having an informal chat about the new community centre, look, but you wanted to talk about … ?’
‘Coleman’s Meadow,’ Jane said.
‘Oh. Right. Actually, Jeff’s in Planning, he might be able to help you on that one.’
Jeff said doubtfully, ‘Well, I’m afraid they’ll probably be fairly pricey, if you’re…’
Jane could tell he was trying to work out if she was old enough to be getting married or setting up home with someone. It was almost flattering. She took a sip of wine, thinking hard. She’d just stumbled, unprepared, into what seemed to be an out-of-hours gathering of top council people. When would she get another chance like this? Probably never.
‘I think you’ve … got this wrong…’ Trying to keep her voice steady. ‘I wouldn’t live in Coleman’s Meadow, if the alternative was, like, a cardboard box in Jim Prosser’s shop doorway.’
Eyebrows went up. A thin woman of about Mum’s age gave Jane a hard look.
‘Because, like, Coleman’s Meadow is a very important ancient site which should be protected,’ Jane said. ‘I’d have thought somebody might’ve noticed that.’
Nobody was smiling much now.
‘I’m sorry, Jane,’ Jeff said. ‘This particular development would be what we would call acceptable infill. We’re very pleased that site’s become available. So I don’t think any of us quite understands what you’re getting at there.’
‘Right.’ Jane swallowed more wine. ‘I can draw you a proper plan if you want but, basically, Coleman’s Meadow is the key point on an ancient alignment from the top of Cole Hill, through a burial mound and Ledwardine Church and then on to, like, a couple of other sites. Coleman’s Meadow is really important because the field gates are perfectly sited on the alignment and because the old straight track actually exists there … like, you can see it, and…’
She was going to say feel it. Decided to leave that aspect alone at this stage.
Lyndon Pierce blinked. Jeff and another guy looked at each other.
‘So … so, what I’m saying, if you have new houses – totally unnecessary new houses – built on Coleman’s Meadow it would completely obliterate the most perfect, like one of the clearest examples of … of a…’
An older guy, wearing a cream sports jacket, half-glasses and a half smile.
‘Ley,’ Jane said.
The older guy nodded. ‘I wondered if that was what you were talking about.’ He looked relieved.
‘So…’ Lyndon Pierce lowered the wine bottle to the flags at his feet ‘… you know what she’s on about, Cliff?’
‘I’m sure you must’ve heard of ley lines, Lyndon.’
‘I’ve heard of them, yeah—’
‘Periodically, someone revives the idea that prehistoric stones and burial sites were arranged, for some mystical purpose, in straight lines, along which old churches were also built. If you ask the County Archaeologist, he’ll tell you it’s a lot of nonsense. But, like many ideas discredited by the archaeological establishment, it’s become a cult belief among … well, usually old hippies or New Age cranks.’
‘So it’s like, flying saucers and that sort of stuff?’ Lyndon Pierce asked.
‘Exactly,’ the older guy said.
‘So nothing to … ?’
‘No, no.’ The older guy shook his head, smiling faintly. ‘Not at all.’
Jane thought of Alfred Watkins, reserved, bearded, magisterial, a pillar of the Hereford community but with an open, questing mind. Everything she’d been taught suggested that society in the early part of the twentieth century had been nowhere near as liberal and adventurous as today’s.
Yeah? Well, no wonder there was no statue of Alfred Watkins in High Town, with bastards like this running the county.
‘How can you…’ She couldn’t get her breath for a moment. ‘How can you talk like that? How can you, like, just rubbish something that throws a whole new light on the countryside … that makes it all light up? Especially in Herefordshire, where Alfred Watkins was, like, the first person in the world to … to…’
‘Ah … Watkins, yes.’ Cliff smiled at her, cool with this now. ‘Charming old chap, by all accounts. Typically English eccentric, very entertaining, totally misguided.’
‘That’s a typical Establishment viewpoint!’
‘Oh dear,’ Cliff said. ‘I’m terribly sorry, but I rather suppose that’s what we are.’
‘So, thank you for coming, Jane,’ Lyndon Pierce said. ‘But I’m afraid a fantasy conjured up by some old, dead eccentric guy is really not going to cut much ice today. I was elected, as I’m sure your parents will tell you, on an expansionist ticket. Nowadays, rural communities grow or die, and I want to see Ledwardine getting more shops, restaurants, leisure facilities … and far more housing. We could have a thriving little town here.’
‘But it’s not a t—’
Jane stared at Pierce, who seemed to be bloating before her eyes into something obscene.
It was the woman who’d given her the hard look. Short curly hair, dark suit. Possibly seen her somewhere before, but not here.
‘Jane, is this just a personal issue for you?’ the woman said.
‘Well, I’m also doing a project for school. On the interpretation of landscape mysteries?’
‘Ah. How old are you?’
Somebody started to laugh.
‘And which school do you go to?’ the woman asked.
‘Robert Morrell,’ the woman murmured to Cliff. ‘Jane, does Mr Morrell know you’re here?’
‘Look … sorry … what’s it got to do with him?’
‘Quite a lot, I should have thought, as he’s the head of Moorfield High.’
‘Well, he doesn’t live here, does he?’ Jane felt herself going red. ‘Like, I care about this place. I don’t want to see it ruined. I don’t want to see the ancient pattern all smashed for the sake of a bunch of crap, bourgeois piles of pink brick like … like this. I mean, sod your new community centre, you should be having a public meeting about the annihilation of Coleman’s Meadow, don’t you think?’
‘I really don’t think we should be arguing about a plan that’s not yet come before the council,’ the woman said. ‘Certainly not with a schoolgirl.’
‘But if nobody says anything, it’ll just get quietly pushed through, won’t it, by people who don’t give a—’
‘I should be very careful what you say, if I were you,’ the woman said coldly.
‘Particularly to the vice-chair of the Education Committee,’ Cliff said.
A rock landed in Jane’s gut. This was, of course, the woman who’d been sitting next to Morrell on stage at the prizegiving ceremony.
Jane looked down at her wineglass; it was empty.
‘Well, I can see I’m not going to get anywhere with you guys. I think I need to get home to…’
She backed away to the nearest corner of the house called Avalon and then looked at each of them in turn.
‘… Work out how best to shaft you,’ Jane said.
And turned and ran through the summer-scented dusk, past the crooked, sunken, black and white cottages of Virgingate Lane.
A Dim and Bleary Light
Spicer led Merrily and Lol into his spartan kitchen, offered them seats at his table but no tea. The sun had dropped into a bank of cloud, and the conifers at the end of the garden were turning black.
Spicer switched off the radio.
‘I suppose it’s like people seeing Shakespeare’s ghost in Stratford-on-Avon.’
He joined them at the table but didn’t put a light on.
‘Or Wordsworth in Grasmere,’ Merrily said. ‘Brontës in Howarth. Yes, I do get the picture.’
Recalling once looking up a number under E in the Hereford phone book and noticing Elgar Carpets and Interiors, Elgar Coaches, the Elgar Coffee Shop, Elgar Fine Art … like that for about half a page.
In all these establishments, you’d be shelling out twenty-pound notes with an engraved portrait on the back of a man with neat grey hair, a generous moustache, faraway eyes.
‘See, in comparison,’ Spicer said, ‘Wordsworth and Shakespeare are remote figures. Elgar’s been dead barely seventy years. It’s like he still lives around here, with everything he’s come to represent. Go to the Elgar museum at Broadheath, they say you can see his betting slips.’
He had his back to the window bay, blocking more light from the room, which had three doors, all shut. One thing was sure: you’d never see Syd Spicer’s betting slips. Merrily wondered if visitors were confined to the stripped-down kitchen so they wouldn’t clock his books or his CD collection or pictures of his kids.
‘I should’ve realized. The soundtrack of the Malverns. The obvious spirit of the place.’
‘Maybe more obvious than you know,’ Spicer said. ‘Joseph Longworth, the quarry boss who built the church, as well as being a born-again Christian or however they put it in those days, was an Elgar fanatic. The church was built that size to accommodate an orchestra and choir able to perform the great man’s works. Elgar’s said to have attended the dedication.’
‘It’s all coming out, isn’t it?’
‘If Longworth could’ve called it St Edward’s he would have.’
‘But Elgar was a Catholic, wasn’t he?’
‘Yeah, he was,’ Spicer said, ‘and he wrote extensively for the Catholic Mass, as you … presumably heard. But, of course, his music was played in Anglican cathedrals, and cathedral sound was what Longworth was paying for.’
‘Sounds like he was getting it.’
‘Not for long. They held a few concerts here, but Longworth died and then Elgar died. And nothing much happened until Tim Loste arrived. Who thinks Elgar’s God. So this is becoming Elgar city again after many years. I’m sorry, maybe I should’ve told you.’
‘And should I have heard of Tim Loste in a wider context?’
‘Nah. Used to be a music teacher at Malvern College, now he’s a private tutor. Got an amateur choir drawn from miles around. At least, it started amateur; they’re making a bit of money now. From my point of view, the parish gets its cut, and if most of the music’s heavily Catholic, well…’
‘Fills the church.’
‘Yeah. Situation now is, we’ve a whole bunch of people in Wychehill and down the valley who’ve moved here solely because this is Elgar country. Listen to some of them, you start picking up this maudlin kind of patriotism. “Land of Hope and Glory.” Don’t you hate that song?’
‘Apparently, Elgar hated it, too,’ Lol said. ‘But then, he didn’t write the words.’
Merrily glanced at him. She didn’t know he knew any more about Elgar than she did, which, frankly, was not much.
‘Let’s deal with the bottom line, Syd. Who’s saying the supposed presence is Elgar?’
‘Out loud, nobody. It’s one of those situations where an idea develops. Can I tell you why I’m not happy about it?’
‘Well, let me tell you about Tim. Good conductor, great teacher, they say … but would like to be a great composer and isn’t. Some part of him is deeply frustrated. He’s prone to depression. So this particular night he goes off the road, hits a telegraph pole. Nobody else involved, no injury, no need for police. Which was just as well, because Tim was pissed.’
‘Happened just across from the church. I heard the crash. I go over, help him out of the wreckage – this is about half-nine at night, month or so ago, getting dark. Bring him back here, administer the black coffee. He’s shaking all over. I was going down to Ledbury, he says, to buy a light bulb for my desk lamp. Trying to write, bulb blew. Going down to Ledbury for a light bulb – that tells you the state he was in. I’d’ve given him a bloody bulb, for God’s sake.’
‘Is he often … ?’
‘Drunk and incapable? Now and then. Couple of us had to go down the Oak one night, get him away from the bouncers. He’d broken a window. I didn’t tell you about the Oak, did I?’
‘I know about it.’
‘Naturally, Tim really hates the Royal Oak. A disruptive force sent to destroy his life’s work. Lost it completely one night when the wind changed and all this rap music … it kind of rises up and bounces off the hill. Anyway, that’s by the by: this crash was on a week night, and the Oak was quiet. Tim reckoned he’d just pulled out of his drive when he saw what he described as a dim and bleary light. When it got closer, he could see it was a bicycle lamp. He said.’
‘But he was drunk.’
‘Very. Anyway, the light’s some distance away at first. And then he said it was like he must’ve blacked out for about half a second – which doesn’t surprise me – and the next thing the cyclist is coming straight at him. He says he can make out what seems to be a high-buttoned jacket and a hat. And a big, dark slice across the face.’
‘That’s the inference. And the eyes are white, according to Tim, like the eyes in a photo negative. Tim swerves, goes into the pole.’
Spicer fell silent. In the fading light, he was very still, hadn’t moved since sitting down, didn’t seem to need to rearrange himself like most people, to find a comfortable position.
‘But how did he know it was Elgar?’ Lol said.
‘Mr Robinson, he’s got pictures of Elgar all over his walls, Elgar music seeping through the brickwork. Tim sees Elgar every-bloody-where. He’s … I like the guy, most people like him, but nobody’s gonna deny he’s well off his trolley. Planted an oak tree in his front garden. Have you seen the size of his front garden?’
‘And what did you do?’ Merrily said.
‘Sat him where you’re sitting now, told him to stay there. Rang a mate, runs a bodywork garage the other side of Colwall. Got him to bring his truck and get Tim’s car away before the police got word. If he’d lost his licence I think he’d have gone into a depression he might not have come out of easily. I said, Go home, get some sleep, Tim, and don’t even think of telling anybody what you just told me. As if.’
‘He did tell people?’ Merrily said.
‘He told Winnie Sparke. That was enough. The American lady? Winnie is Tim’s … protector. Nurtures his sensitive talents, knows about his problems. Find out about you very quickly, Americans, because they just ask. You have an alcohol problem, Tim? I have herbs for that.’
‘So it was Winnie Sparke who spread it around?’
‘Couldn’t’ve timed it better. There’s a retired geezer, Leonard Holliday. Been here about two years. Leonard’s chairman and secretary of WRAG – the Wychehill Residents’ Action Group. Committed to getting rid of Inn Ya Face and restoring the Royal Oak to the gentle hostelry where Elgar himself … it’s said that Elgar used to drop in for a pint of cider when he was staying at his summer cottage over at Birchwood. So, anyway, there was a meeting of Holliday’s action group to appoint a deputation to lobby the council. Somebody says what a pity we don’t have a celebrity living here, like some of the villages have. Holliday says, pity we don’t have someone like Sir Edward here any more. And Winnie says, You’re sure we don’t … ?’
Merrily closed her eyes, suddenly quite deflated.
It all made sense. A gift for a protest group, the idea of England’s greatest serious composer rising up from the grave against Raji Khan and his filthy jungle music.
‘When was this, Syd?’
‘The meeting was about ten days ago. Winnie Sparke says it just slipped out, but it couldn’t’ve worked better if she’d timed it. Sir Edward Elgar riding into battle on Mr Phoebus?’
‘Elgar called his bike Mr Phoebus. Name of a Roman sun god.’
‘What happened then?’
‘I think, to be honest, Holliday was dithering a bit. On the one hand, it would get in all the papers, attract massive publicity to their cause. On the other – apologies, Merrily, but who really believes ghost stories? It could easily be the wrong kind of publicity. But then there was another accident.’
‘Stella. Stella and Paul. Famous for their very loud rows. Stella’s little BMW roaring down the middle of the road after some fracas, practically spitting flames. Cyclist coming down the middle of the road. Stella swerves. Family of German tourists in a mobile home looking for their campsite. Bam.’
‘Bit of whiplash for Stella. And shock. Says she’d never believed in anything like that, until … I don’t think you’ll get any change out of her. Doesn’t like talking about it any more. Doesn’t want to get a reputation as … you know … a bit of a Winnie Sparke. Actually, Winnie’s much more intelligent.’
‘You don’t have many illusions about your flock, do you, Syd?’
‘I’m supposed to? I thought it was our job to lead them to God. Merrily, there is no flock. This is not a village, it’s a bunch of disconnected houses jammed into rock crevices.’
‘So what about you?’ Merrily said. ‘What would you like to happen?’
‘I’d like people to be sensible. I’d like Donald Walford to stop worrying about his daughter, Joyce Aird to get her Polo out of the garage again instead of having all her groceries delivered. Sounds insane, doesn’t it?’
‘Not in an isolated community. I suppose a lot now depends on whether the driver of the Land Rover is claiming to have seen anything immediately prior to a crash that makes the other three look trivial.’
‘Yeah.’ Spicer nodded slowly. ‘It does, doesn’t it?’
‘Has he said anything yet?’
‘Not to me. Not yet. But he’s chairman of the parish council. Which means he’ll be chairing tomorrow’s meeting. You got the message about that?’
‘It’s why I came back tonight. Do you think I should go and see Mr Devereaux now?’
‘Whatever he’s decided, you won’t change his mind.’
‘I don’t want to change his mind.’
‘Merrily.’ Spicer stood up. ‘With respect, if you’ve spoken to Joyce, I think you’ve done enough. She’s the one wants an exorcism of some kind. What we’ve done, by getting you in, is brought it all to a head. Wychehill’s split three ways: the ones who don’t believe any of it, the ones who want whatever it is exorcised because they’re afraid of what will happen next and … the Elgar fans.’
Merrily thought about the American woman, Winnie Sparke. There’s something there that must never be parted, you know what I’m saying? Like, you can walk out on the hills at twilight and you can sense his nearness. It’s a strange and awesome thing.
Sensing his nearness.
Like Hannah Bradley who, quite reasonably, didn’t want it put around that she’d been been touched up, from the other side of the grave, by England’s most distinguished composer.
Consider the implications of this situation. Try not to panic.
‘Why don’t I ever listen?’ Merrily was driving too fast down the hill towards Ledbury, as if the Malverns were ramming the Volvo from behind. ‘Jesus, she might be a touch loopy, this Winnie Sparke, but she cut to the essence of it: am I going to be the mad priest who stands at the roadside and publicly prays for the soul of a musical genius, a national icon, a man with his face on twenty-pound notes, to be at peace and stop causing fatal bloody road accidents? Am I going to be the person who – for heaven’s sake – exorcizes Elgar?’
‘Just … slow down. Please?’
Lol thought she looked tiny and vulnerable, at the wheel of a car that was too big for her and grated out its age on every bend. She’d refused to let him drive. He held on to the sides of his seat.
‘There’ll be a way out. Spicer doesn’t want that.’
‘No, Laurence,’ Merrily said, ‘What he doesn’t want is to have to do it himself.’
And she was probably right. One thing you learned, being close to a vicar, was that other vicars could be scheming bastards.
‘Whatever happens, he’s going to want to keep it discreet. They’re very publicity-shy, the ex-SAS. And that’s likely to be the main reason he’s switched the meeting from Wednesday night to tomorrow. He doesn’t want TV crews from America.’
A single light up ahead was dim and bleary. Merrily braked.
‘If it gets out,’ Lol said.
‘You don’t really think … ?’
‘Big figure, Elgar, worldwide.’
They passed the vintage motor-scooter. It was on the correct side of the road. Merrily drove slowly in silence for a while. A lorry overtook the Volvo. Lol caught her glance.
‘We’ve never discussed this, Lol, but I got the feeling in there that you knew rather more about Elgar than I did.’
‘Depends how much you know.’
‘Well … bugger-all, really. That’s what makes this so much worse.’
Jane stumbled, panting, into the cobbled market square with its hanging aroma of apple-wood smoke from the fire the Black Swan kept lit for the tourists on all but the warmest summer nights.
She looked around. Nobody about. No lights in the vicarage. No lights in Lol’s cottage, which used to be Lucy’s. Maybe he and Mum had locked the dog collar in the glove compartment and stopped to do it on the back seat in a lay-by.
Jane grinned. God, what was she turning into?
Whatever, at least those guys from the council hadn’t found out her full name. All she had to do was keep clear of Lyndon Pierce for a while and she could ride this out.
Which of course would be the coward’s way out.
It was about 10.15 p.m., the deep red veins of evening yielding to the cooling blue of early night. Jane moved between the lumpen 4x4s of the Black Swan’s clientele and slipped under the eaves of the oak-pillared market hall.
Thinking about the winter after Lucy died, when she’d seriously embraced some kind of goddess-worship, lying about her age to join this women’s esoteric group, The Pod, in Hereford. Wondering now why she’d more or less abandoned paganism which, on nights like this, seemed a kind of healthy spiritual response to nature and the environment.
A better relationship developing between her and Mum probably had something to do with it. Mum becoming more liberal as she became more secure in her own job. And then there was Eirion. Meeting Eirion, falling in … love, probably.
Which was looking like a dead end.
Jane moved out of the shadow of the market hall and across the cobbled square, walking towards the church until the top of Cole Hill came into view, smoky and seductive in the dusk. The hill of the shamans.
Eirion. She badly wanted to see him, but it was pointless. Within three months he’d be at university. Emma Rees at school – not a particular mate, but you had to feel sorry for her – had been engaged to some bloke, and he’d gone to college in Gloucester (that close) and within about a month it was Dear Emma … a bloody text message!
Jane didn’t do texting any more. Texting was for kids and adults with emotional dyslexia.
She took out her mobile, switched it on and watched it lighting up. Brought up the Abergavenny number from the phone book. This would be a small test, right?
Jane drew in a long, ragged breath and pressed the little green-phone sign, listening to it ringing. Decided no and was about to hit the little red-phone button when…
‘Jane Watkins.’ Eirion said in her ear. ‘I know the name from somewhere. Hang on … Yes! Didn’t we used to go out together at one time?’
Eirion’s phone had, of course, flashed up the caller’s number. So good to hear his stupid Welsh voice. Actually, not good at all.
‘Listen,’ she said, ‘I’m sorry I haven’t rung. It’s been … it’s like…’
‘Thought I was being phased out, I did.’ Eirion exaggerating the accent. ‘In view of my imminent departure to some distant seat of learning. Strange how we become paranoid, isn’t it?’
‘Would’ve slashed my wrists in the bath,’ Eirion said, ‘except I’ve only got an electric razor.’
‘You could always have plugged it in, dropped it in the bath and electrocuted yourself. Lateral thinking, Irene.’ Jane smiling, in spite of it all. ‘Look, what would it cost to set up a website?’
‘Shit,’ Eirion said. ‘Any thoughts of you still wanting me for my body…’
‘It was never about your body, fatso.’
‘Anyway, how soon could you organize it?’ Jane said.
Feeling that sense of what have I got to lose? urgency. Thinking of the council pygmies trashing the reputation of the great Alfred Watkins: lot of nonsense … New Age cranks…
Jane Watkins standing on the market square in ancient Ledwardine feeling the lines of energy, the ancestral spirit, glowing and pulsing all around her, rippling through her in the numinous dusk.
‘It was when Simon St John was laying down the cello parts for Alien,’ Lol said, ‘and I said I’d like something pastoral but moody. So Simon starts playing this lovely, sorrowful tune. And there it was. Hills … real hills. Texture. Dull day. Low cloud. And some diffuse, underlying emotion. Elgar’s Cello Concerto.’
‘Wow,’ Merrily said.
No particular reason for Lol not to know about Elgar. His own dead muse, Nick Drake, had, after all, been inspired by the likes of Delius and Ravel.
But Elgar had always seemed so Establishment. Hadn’t he been made Master of the King’s Musick? Hadn’t he composed all these marches and patriotic anthems? Hadn’t he written Pomp and Circumstance, whose very title…
‘Misunderstood,’ Lol said. ‘Most of his life people were getting him wrong. Even his appearance … Looked like an army officer. Or a country squire. Misleading.’
‘You mean you like Elgar?’
‘Son of a piano tuner with a shop in Worcester. Self-taught. Lived for nine years in Hereford where he employed his daughter’s white rabbit as a consultant because his wife wouldn’t let him have a dog. Kept trying to invent things. Had a home laboratory. Seems to have blown it up, once. What’s not to like?’
Merrily drove a little faster. You slept with someone – albeit rarely for a whole night – and you thought you knew everything about him.
‘And even when he was famous,’ Lol said, ‘he was often mentally, emotionally and spiritually … totally messed up.’
She glanced at him, sitting there with his hands on his knees, watching the dark, burnished landscape. How much common ground was there in the creative landscapes of classical composers and guys who cobbled together, albeit sometimes brilliantly, four-minute songs on their guitars?
Thinking about Hannah and the strong tobacco.
‘Lifelong,’ Lol said.
‘What about women? Did he … like women?’
‘A lot. His wife was nine years older and a lot higher up the social scale than him. Her dad was a general or something. She helped him and encouraged him. It seems to have been a good marriage.’
Some people suggest he had affairs with younger women. It’s more likely to have been just … crushes.’
‘Where’d you learn all this?’
‘Couple of biographies.’
‘It’s just … you’ve just never mentioned him. You’ve never once mentioned Elgar.’
‘Well, you don’t, do you?’ Lol said. ‘He’s just too … too there. Part of the tourist trail. Every few miles, another sign saying Elgar Route. Nobody notices any more. He’s official. He’s a thousand people waving Union Jacks at the last night of the Proms. Which is why it’s so interesting how ambivalent he was about all that.’
Lol looked out of the side window towards a round hop kiln spiking the sunset like the tower of a Disneyland castle.
‘In fact, he was a romantic, a dreamer. And the landscape was everything. This landscape. When he was dying, he—’
He broke off, pretending to correct a twist in his seat belt, Merrily slipping him a glance.
‘When he was dying what?’
‘Bit of whimsy, that’s all. Maybe not a good time.’
‘OK,’ Lol said. ‘He’s lying there. He knows this is it. Coming up to the big moment he famously orchestrated in The Dream of Gerontius.’
‘That’s the one about the guy who’s dying and what happens afterwards? I’m sorry, I ought to know. I feel so…’
‘Heavenly choirs, conversations with angels, stodgy theology, heavy-duty dark night of the soul.’
‘Anyway, inches from death, Elgar – I suspect – is trying hard not to think about the implications of all that. And Gerontius goes on for ever, while the Cello Concerto comes in at less than half an hour.’
‘Your kind of music.’
‘Look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was checking out Elgar—’
‘No, you’ve every right— Just … carry on.’
‘So there’s a friend at the bedside. And Elgar beckons him over and feebly whistles the main theme from the Cello Concerto.’
Lol began to whistle softly, this rolling tune that rose and fell and rose and then fell steeply … and the road swooped down among long fields and hop yards under a sheet-metal sky warmed by bars of electric crimson.
‘This isn’t going to be a joke, is it?’ Merrily said.
‘No, but it has a punchline. Elgar says to the guy, “If ever you’re walking on the Malvern Hills and hear that, don’t be frightened … it’s only me.”’
‘Only me, huh?’
‘For what it’s worth,’ Lol said, ‘he didn’t mention the bike.’
Just when you very much needed to talk to your daughter…
MUM. EIRION’S COMING THROUGH EARLY. WILL PICK ME UP. WE NEEDED TO TALK. E. WILL GIVE ME LIFT TO SCHOOL. SEE U TONITE. LOVE, J.
Seven-thirty, Merrily had come stumbling downstairs in her towelling robe and the note was on the kitchen table, suspiciously close to where she’d left her own message yesterday for Jane.
Eirion and Jane needed to talk? We need to talk. Do you want to talk about this? What an ominous cliché talk had become, thanks to TV soaps. It meant cracks, it meant falling apart.
Not that Merrily hadn’t been conscious of a reduced intensity in the Jane/Eirion department. Not so long ago, one of them would phone every night, maybe in the morning, too – on the landline from home, Jane having gone off mobiles because they fried your brain and texting was for little kids.
That was something else: of late, Jane had become kind of Luddite about certain aspects of modern life. A year before leaving school, feeling threatened by change and destruction – was Lol right about that?
And the biggest change was the one affecting her relationship with Eirion – a year ahead of her and about to become a student. Big gap between a university student and a schoolkid. The gap between a child and an adult.
Nearly a year ago, Eirion had been sitting at this very kitchen table, on a summer morning like this, humbly confessing to Merrily that he and her daughter had had sex the night before. Both of them virgins. It had been almost touching.
Merrily put the kettle on, made some toast. Hard not to like Eirion, but liking your daughter’s boyfriend was a sure sign, everybody said, that it wouldn’t last. In an ideal world, Jane would have met Eirion in a few years’ time, when she’d been around a little. But society wasn’t programmed to construct happy endings. Relationships were assembled like furniture kits, and everybody knew how long they lasted.
The sun was swelling in the weepy mist over Cole Hill, evaporating the dew on the meadow. The mystical ley recharging. But Jane was stepping off it, moving safely out of shot.
‘Oh, come on, Jane!’
Eirion lowering the digital camera. A Nikon, naturally. He’d shot the view from the top of Cole Hill and the low mound on the way to the church, the hummock that Jane was convinced was an unexcavated Bronze Age round barrow. And then they’d walked another half-mile and crossed a couple of fields to find the prehistoric standing stone, half-hidden by a hedge and only three feet high but that was as good as you got in this part of the county. Fair play, he’d taken pictures of them all and he hadn’t moaned. Until now.
‘No.’ Jane flung an arm across her face. ‘For the last time, this is not about me, it’s about—’
‘Yeah, yeah, the balance and harmony of the village and the perpetuation of the legacy of the greatest man ever to come out of Hereford. But I have to tell you, Jane – speaking as a person only a few short years away from a glittering career in the media – that a shot of you, with your firm young breasts straining that flimsy summer-weight school blouse, will be worth at least a thousand extra hits.’
‘You disgust me, Lewis.’
Jane stepped behind a beech tree beside the bottom gate. A mature beech tree, full of fresh, light green life. One of several that would soon be slaughtered in the course of an efficient chainsaw massacre to accommodate twenty-four luxury executive homes.
Eirion tramped towards the tree, along the ley. Stocky, dependable Irene, his Cathedral-school jacket undone, the strap of his camera bag sliding down his arm.
‘Jane, listen, I’m serious. A view means nothing, basically. Just a field with a church steeple in the background? It needs a figure to suggest the line of sight. I’m not kidding. We have to persuade the various earth-mysteries organizations to run this on their sites.’
Eirion had reasoned that, if it was speed she was after, a website was probably not the answer at this stage. What they needed – a whole lot cheaper – was an initial explanatory document which could be emailed to interested parties and influential on-line journals.
Made sense. On that basis, if he shot the pictures this morning, he could have it laid out by late tonight, email her a copy for approval and by this time tomorrow they’d be up and running: the full horror of Coleman’s Meadow disclosed to the world before the weekend. Scores of people – possibly hundreds of people – lodging complaints with Hereford Council. Hundreds of New Age cranks and old hippies telling them exactly where they could put their acceptable infill.
Eirion stood watching her, keeping his distance.
‘What?’ Jane said
‘You clenched your fists. You looked positively homicidal. What have I said now?’
‘Irene, it’s not—’
Jane shook herself. Oh hell. To fit in this shoot, he must’ve been up at five, driving over from Abergavenny about ninety minutes earlier than usual. Face it: how many other guys would do that for you? She felt totally messed up again, her emotions all over the place, hormones in flood. For a moment she felt she just wanted to take him into a corner of the still-dewy meadow and…
… What would it be like making love on a ley? What kind of extra buzz would that produce?
What it would produce would be a golden memory.
‘Jane, are you all right? I mean you’re not ill … ?’
‘Sure. I mean, I’m fine.’
Jane clasped her hands together, driving back the tears. It was no use, she had a battle to fight, against slimy Lyndon Pierce and the chino guys and lofty, patronizing Cliff and the thin woman from Education. The mindless, philistine Establishment.
She sniffed and stepped out from behind the tree and walked back on to the ley, her head lowered.
‘How do you want me to stand?’
‘You’re perfect the way you are.’ Eirion smiled his glowingly honest, unstaged Eirion smile. ‘Just don’t look at me.’
Sophie displaying emotion was a rare phenomenon. When it happened it tended to be minimal: slender smiles, never a belly laugh. Disapproval, rather than…
‘Merrily, that is quite disgusting. It dishonours him.’
Sophie was looking out of the gatehouse window, towards the Cathedral green. There might even have been tears in her eyes.
‘It dishonours all of us.’
It was like you’d vandalized a grave. Spray-painted the headstone, trampled the flowers.
‘He lived in this city for nine years, at the height of his fame. Even after he’d left, he’d come back for the Three Choirs Festival, when it was held here … as it is this year.’
Sophie swung round, her soft white hair close to disarrangement.
‘Do you really want to besmirch that, Merrily?’
‘I’m sorry, but this is giving credibility to something very sordid.’
She meant the road accidents. Merrily hadn’t even mentioned Hannah Bradley. Just as well, really.
‘Involving the Church in a campaign which might be laudable in itself but is extremely questionable in its execution is … I realize it’s not your fault, but you can stop it going any further.’
‘I didn’t expect you to be quite so … protective?’
‘I’m a former Cathedral chorister, I’m proud of my county’s link with Elgar. His homes at Birchwood and then here in the city. His many connections and friendships at the Cathedral—’
Embarrassed by her ignorance, Merrily had picked up a slim guide to Elgar’s Herefordshire, skimming through it before Sophie came in. It was a start.
‘So what are you going to do about it?’ Sophie said. ‘May one ask?’
‘Well, with your help, as an Elgar enthusiast and a Cathedral chorister for … how many years … ?’
‘… I want to look at it sensibly. Because whatever your misgivings about the idea of Elgar’s ghost, my instinct is that there is something.’
‘Please? I’ve a christening this afternoon, and then I’m supposed to go to this parish meeting. Or not.’
Sophie went to sit at her own desk, waved a limp hand.
‘I need to know enough to be able to discount crap, but I have to be prepared for the possibility of it not being crap. Which would leave two options: an imprint or what Huw Owen would describe as an insomniac.’
‘A restless spirit.’
‘In this case, an angry spirit, disturbed – much as you are – over the invasion of the Malverns by the hoodies and bling element. Which is a potentially sensitive issue because of … well…’
‘Racism. Always the weapon used against us. As if appalling behaviour and criminal acts should be protected for so-called cultural reasons.’
‘Lol reckons that, with Elgar, it wasn’t so much political patriotism as a pure love of the countryside – the landscape itself. That in fact he even developed a bit of a distaste for “Land of Hope and Glory”? That true?’
‘I suppose he had misgivings about the jingoism in the words. He was a lifelong Conservative, however, Merrily, never forget that.’
‘Although, unless I’m wrong –’ Merrily remembering something else from Elgar – A Hereford Guide ‘– a good friend of lifelong socialist George Bernard Shaw?’
‘No, you’re not wrong,’ Sophie said, maybe through her teeth. ‘What point are you making?’
‘Just trying to form an opinion on whether, in theory, the raging essence of Edward Elgar might be summoned, like King Arthur from his cave, by a blast of trip-hop over his sacred hills. If something’s happening, then something must have set it off.’
‘You don’t believe that for one minute.’
‘Open mind, Sophie. It’s what this job’s about.’
‘And what’s the alternative?’
‘The alternative, if we’re accepting the possibility of a paranormal element, is an imprint. Spicer says Elgar used to bike through Wychehill, maybe stopping for a pint of cider at the Royal Oak.’
‘Possibly when he was exploring the location of his cantata Caractacus, in the 1890s. Its main setting is Herefordshire Beacon.’
‘It’s about the last stand of the Celts against the Romans?’
‘A legend now discredited. The final defeat of Caractacus was probably not, as once suggested, on the Beacon. Which wouldn’t have bothered Elgar too much. He simply loved the drama of it and … was fascinated, I’m afraid, by Druid ritual. Blood-sacrifices and prophecies in the oak groves.’
‘I should listen to it.’
‘Yes, you should, but you’ll find it essentially a patriotic work dedicated to Queen Victoria. Ending with what I expect you would call an imperialist rant – the British might have been defeated this time but would rise again, with an empire greater than Rome’s.’
‘I expect it was … of its time. And presumably – again – he didn’t write the words?’
‘Elgar told his publisher that he’d suggested the librettist should dabble in patriotism, but didn’t expect the man to “get naked and wallow in it.”’
‘Actually,’ Sophie said, ‘thinking about this, his cycling phase might have begun later, although it certainly started at Birchwood. Possibly while he was completing his masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius.’
‘That’s not set in the Malverns, though, is it?’
‘Merrily, your ignorance of great music astonishes me. It’s set in the afterlife.’
‘Erm … OK. But we can assume Elgar was familiar with Wychehill? Travelling that road – on his bike or on foot – drawing from the landscape and also projecting his imagination into it. Fitting the criteria for an imprint – a recurring image in a particular location. A recording on an atmospheric loop.’
Sophie’s face was expressionless. Merrily wondered sometimes if she believed any of this. Even for someone as unwaveringly High Church as Sophie, Christianity could still be a discipline rather than a journey of discovery.
‘He undoubtedly did draw from the landscape and always saw his music through nature. Even as a boy, sitting by the river, he said he wanted to write down what the reeds were saying. Much later he was to say that the air was full of music and you just took as much as you required.’
Interesting. Merrily made a note.
‘His principal biographer, Jerrold Northrop-Moore, an American, says the Cello Concerto projected to him – in America – an image of a landscape he’d never seen, and when he finally came over to Worcestershire it all seemed strangely familiar. He also suggests that Elgar’s pattern of composition reflects the physical rhythm of the Malvern Hills.’
‘And Lol said that when he was dying…’
‘Either he was being gently humorous in his final hours or he truly believed his spirit belonged in the hills. Does that fit your criteria for an imprint?’
‘Maybe more than that,’ Merrily said. ‘But let’s settle for an imprint for the moment.’
‘And is that necessarily bad? An animation that simply replays itself?’
The phone rang and then stopped as Sophie reached out a hand. She sat back and rearranged her glasses on their chain.
‘Linking Elgar with road-death, however, is abusive to the point of indecency.’
‘People are worried.’
‘And to allay their fears, you call upon God to banish the spirit of a genius?’
The phone rang again, and Sophie hooked it up. ‘Gatehouse.’ She covered the mouthpiece. ‘Might it not be appropriate to bring this whole issue to the attention of the Bishop?’
‘Not yet. Let’s see what happens tonight.’
So where did you go with this?
Perhaps you started by strolling across the Cathedral green to confront the compact, tidy gent in bronze, leaning…
… On his bike. Of course he was.
Mr Phoebus, if this was Mr Phoebus, didn’t have a lamp. But then his wheels didn’t have any spokes either.
It was, Merrily thought, essentially a modest, unobtrusive piece. Life-size, dapper: Elgar the bloke. She sat on the grass in the sunshine with an egg mayonnaise sandwich, contemplating him from a distance while finishing off Elgar – A Hereford Guide.
Finally, she wandered across.
Could you … ? Keeping a respectful distance. Could you possibly help me, Sir Edward?
Look, this wasn’t stupid. Sometimes … call it intuition, call it divine inspiration, call it…
But Elgar had higher things on his mind. Overdressed for the weather, he was gazing at the Cathedral tower with its unsightly scaffolding. The Cathedral where he’d spent so many hours – even, in later years, recording some of his music there.
Look, I accept that I don’t know enough about your work. I’m sorry. I hope to deal with that.
No impressions. No guidance. Elgar was miles away, and music was Merrily’s blind spot. In church, anyway. All the trite Victorian hymns she’d been trying to edge out of services for the past two years.
Everything the sculpture had to say to her was written on its plinth. A quote which someone – maybe even a committee – had thought essential to an understanding of the man and his work.
But it was interesting.
‘THIS IS WHAT I GET EVERY DAY. THE TREES ARE SINGING MY MUSIC – OR AM I SINGING THEIRS?’
Merrily walked around Elgar, looking over his shoulder, following his gaze.
‘You’re asking me?’
In the scullery, the answering machine was bleeping petulantly when Merrily got in. Bride’s mother requesting a second rehearsal for one of next week’s weddings – how much time did these people think you had? Then a reminder that she was expected to chair the Ledwardine Summer Fair planning meeting next Monday, and finally a hollow pause, a throat-clearing and this mild but slightly pompous southern Scottish accent.
‘Mrs Watkins, my name is Leonard Holliday, and this concerns your visit to Wychehill. Pointless calling me back, I shall be all over the place. I simply wanted to say, as the chairman of the Wychehill Residents’ Action Group, that I’ve inspected your Hereford Deliverance website, and frankly I think your presence at the parish meeting would not be helpful.’
Sounded as if he was reading a prepared statement.
‘I’m afraid there’s been quite an hysterical reaction to some regrettable incidents. Some people are seeking to sensationalize a serious issue, in a way which would only make our campaign look fatuous. Therefore, on behalf of my committee – and we’ve made our feelings clear, also, to the Rector – I’d like to request that you do not attend this meeting. I’m sure you can see the sense of this. Thank you.’
Merrily sat down at the desk, watching the machine reset itself. Some insect rammed the window and bounced away.
She called Syd Spicer. If there’d been some change of heart in Wychehill, he ought to have told her about it before now.
No answer. Not even an answering machine. What kind of rectory didn’t have an answering machine? With less than an hour to spare before she’d need to leave for the christening, she rang Directory Enquiries and obtained numbers for Preston Devereaux and Joyce Aird.
‘No, this is Louis.’ A deep drawl, but a young man’s drawl. ‘He’s out, I’m afraid. Who’s that with the rather sexy voice?’
‘Thank you. My name’s Merrily Watkins, I’m calling about—’
‘The exorcist. Cool.’
‘You’re Mr Devereaux’s son, I take it.’
‘I’m going to be fascinated to see what you do.’
‘You may be disappointed.’
‘I really don’t think so, Mrs Watkins. My little brother found your picture on the Net. I think he’s taken it to his bedroom.’
Merrily sighed. ‘When will your dad be in?’
‘Not for hours. He has meetings all day. But he’ll be back for yours, you can count on that.’
‘I’ll look forward to it.’
Good to know there was still respect for the Church. She hung up and dialled Joyce Aird’s number.
Merrily was close to being late for the christening when Frannie Bliss phoned. ‘As I hadn’t heard from you, Merrily, I assumed you’d stumbled upon something in Wychehill which your conscience was telling you it was inadvisable to share with the Filth.’
‘For once, I don’t actually think I know anything useful – not to you, anyway.’
‘Witnesses never know what they know until it’s squeezed out of them by a master interrogator.’
‘How long would it take to fetch one? I’m a bit pushed right now.’
‘I hope God finds you less offensive, Merrily. All right, I’ll tell you something. Our experts, examining the remains of the Mazda car belonging to the late Mr Lincoln Cookman, killed in Wychehill in the early hours of Saturday, had occasion to remove the spare tyre. And found a neat little package containing forty assorted rocks. And, no, he wasn’t a geologist.’
‘You’re assuming he’d just picked up the package at the Royal Oak.’
‘If you only knew how hard I’d tried to come up with a better explanation.’
‘And are the police planning to do anything about this? Raid the Oak?’
‘I think that would be an embarrassingly fruitless exercise, don’t you? Something like this, you only get one chance, and I’m waiting for firm intelligence. I gather there’s a meeting on in Wychehill, at which the problem of the Royal Oak is likely to be raised.’
‘Yes, it’s – tomorrow. Isn’t it?’
‘It’s tonight, Merrily.’
‘How did you find out?’
‘I’m a detective. We were planning to look in, on an unofficial basis, but I’m told that would now be rather obvious.’
‘Look, I’ve got to leave for a christening in a couple of minutes and then I was hoping to have a serious discussion with my only child when she gets in from school. What are you looking for?’
‘Well, certainly something more than general rowdyism and weeing over walls. Like if illegal drugs were coming into Wychehill itself? Must be a few likely teenagers there. If we were to receive a serious complaint from a parent or two … Something I can dangle in front of Howe. I’m looking for a lever, Merrily.’
‘I’m a vicar, Frannie.’
‘And a mate,’ Bliss said. ‘I hope.’
After the christening of Laurel Catherine Mathilda and a brief appearance at the christening tea in the village hall, Merrily walked up to the market square under an overcast, purpling sky, and decided to wait for the school bus.
She looked up towards Cole Hill, but you couldn’t see it from here, although you could from the church. Wished she had time to investigate this ley line for herself. Leys … well, they were something she still wasn’t sure about. They could never be proved actually to exist, but they had … a kind of poetic truth. They lit up the countryside.
And if Jane had found a way of lighting up the countryside without drugs…
Best not to get too heavy about her taking a day off school. As long as she didn’t make a habit of it.
Merrily looked down into Church Street, at Lol’s house. Wished she could light up the countryside for him. Under the shadow of middle age, he was understandably uncertain about his future. Set for stardom at eighteen and then robbed by bitter circumstance of what should have been the glory years. Too old, now, to be the new Nick Drake. His comeback album was selling reasonably well, he’d done gigs supporting Moira Cairns and the two old Hazey Jane albums had been remastered. But it still wasn’t quite a career.
Now he was writing material for the second solo album. It wasn’t going well. Although he didn’t say much, she could feel his fear sometimes.
She turned, as the school bus drew up on the edge of the square and some kids got off.
And Jane didn’t.
Merrily’s heart froze. Stupid. This didn’t automatically mean she’d skipped school again. Sometimes Eirion picked her up. However…
She went straight home and called Jane’s phone from her own mobile. Jane’s was switched off. She left a message: call now. Put the mobile on the sermon pad and then sat down and rang Joyce Aird in Wychehill.
‘I’ve caused a lot of trouble, haven’t I?’
Merrily was cautious. ‘In what way, Mrs Aird?’
‘I had a visit…’ Her voice sounded unsteady. ‘I was told this could bring us the wrong sort of attention and I’ve done the community a great disservice. I’ve lived here more than twenty years, Mrs Watkins…’
‘Asking for me to come and look into … ? That’s the disservice?’
‘I only did what I thought was best.’
‘This is Mr Holliday, is it?’
‘It’s what we’ve become, I’m afraid. It’s all about how it looks. Doesn’t matter what the truth is any more.’
‘Matters to me.’
‘You don’t live here, Mrs Watkins. It’s not a nice place to live any more. Nobody’s friendly.’
‘Is that since these ghost stories—?’
‘I feel I’m becoming a prisoner in my own home. Locked doors and drawn curtains and … and the lights on all night. That’s what it’s come to. I can’t be in the dark. And I love my bungalow. I love the view … I did love it. Now it feels so isolated. I was going to give it till next year, but I’ve been thinking I’d better put the house on the market in the summer.’
‘Do you have anywhere to go?’
‘Back to Solihull, I expect. I should’ve moved back when my husband died. It’s never the same on your own, though I do love my sunsets.’
‘I’m really sorry, Joyce, but I don’t think you should jump to—’
‘Anyway, don’t you worry. If they don’t want you, there’s nothing you can do about it, is there?’
‘I’m sorry … I’m a bit confused here. I’ve had a message on the answering machine from Mr Holliday, who obviously doesn’t want me … but I’m not sure it’s his decision to make.’
‘He said the Rector was going to tell you.’
‘Not to come to the meeting. That they don’t want you.’
‘I see,’ Merrily said. ‘Would this … have anything to do with the late Sir Edward Elgar?’
‘We haven’t to use that name, Mrs Watkins. That’s what I’ve been told.’
What Remains of Reason
Inside, the huge parish church of St Dunstan was as plain and functional as Syd Spicer’s kitchen. Its Gothic windows were puritanical plain glass, diamond-leaded, and the light on this overcast Midsummer’s Eve was cruelly neutral, showing Merrily how dispiriting it must be for Spicer on Sunday mornings, his meagre congregation scattered two to a pew and less than a quarter of the pews filled. Like a village cricket match at Lord’s.
But, as Wychehill didn’t have a community hall, the church accommodated the parish meetings, so maybe its ambience would confer stability, calm, wisdom, dignity.
‘They found drugs in that car, you know.’ Leonard Holliday – she’d recognized the voice at once – was on his feet across the aisle: crimped gunmetal hair, neat beard. ‘Did you know?’
Holliday must have police contacts. Maybe Masonic?
‘No, I didn’t know,’ Preston Devereaux said wearily. ‘I have a business to run. I don’t have much time for gossip.’
‘Ecstasy tablets, Chairman. They say one can buy them like sweeties at the Royal Oak.’
OK, maybe his contacts weren’t that good.
‘And you know why the district council, as the licensing authority, will not act against that place?’ Holliday jabbing a forefinger at nobody in particular. ‘You know why they won’t shut it down – and I can disclose this with some authority, having worked in local government for forty years, and damned glad to be out of it…’
‘The reason they will not act, Chairman, is that, as with so many tourist areas, the level of government grant-aid is now, to a large extent, dependent on the council and the tourism bodies being able to prove that they are attracting a sufficient number of black and Asian visitors. This is a fact. And these … music nights at the Oak are seen as especially attractive to that particular—’
‘All right.’ Preston Devereaux banging his gavel. ‘As most of you seem to be members of the Wychehill Residents’ Action Group, I don’t think we need to complicate matters by going further into this issue tonight.’
He was at a table set up at the foot of the chancel steps, the chair next to him empty. The chancel was large and unscreened, its choir stalls in a semicircular formation, like a concert hall. More like a concert hall, in fact, than a place of worship, and as stark as a Welsh chapel.
It was just after nine p.m., the atmosphere thickening. Merrily wore a dark skirt and one of Jane’s hoodies, zipped up to cover the dog collar. She’d slipped into a shadowy and empty back pew, just after eight-thirty. Thirty or forty people sitting in front of her, including … was that Joyce Aird? The normal parish meeting seemed to have started at seven; three people had left in the past half-hour.
Syd Spicer didn’t seem to be here. She wasn’t sure what this meant, but it probably wasn’t a good sign. Preston Devereaux leaned back, looking through half-lidded eyes out into the uncrowded nave.
‘I think we need to keep cool heads as we come to the final item … although, to be quite honest, I don’t want to come to it at all. In fact, I feel embarrassed to be chairing a discussion of this nature, having no wish to watch this community casting off what remains of its reason.’
Devereaux was lean and weathered and keen-eyed, with longish hair the colour of Malvern stone, sideburns ridged like treebark. His accent was local, educated, grounded. He wore a brown leather jacket over a shirt and tie.
‘However, because I find myself tragically implicated in this situation, I feel obliged to give it a public hearing. Essentially, we have a road-safety issue caused, I believe, by an increase in traffic through the village, due to increased tourism and … other developments.’
Somebody laughed. It had a bitter edge.
‘However,’ the chairman said, ‘there has been quite a sharp increase in the number of road accidents lately, which has given rise to rumours which I shall describe conservatively as outlandish. Who’s going to start us off on this? Helen—’
A woman stood up in one of the front pews.
‘Helen Truscott. I use this road probably more than any of you, and I don’t believe in ghosts.’
Someone clapped. Helen Truscott turned to face the assembly. Mid-fifties, brisk, attractive. You’d trust her judgement.
‘I’m a district nurse by profession, and I’m also the carer for my disabled dad. And he worries when I’m out, particularly at night, and I’d like to clear this matter up, so that he can stop worrying.’
This would be the daughter of D. H. Walford who had written to the Rector.
‘Thank you, Helen. We take your point. Anybody else? Mrs Aird?’
‘Well…’ Joyce Aird stood up, alone in a pew halfway down the nave. ‘I think when there are a number of accidents, one after the other, we’re all bound to feel a little nervous, and we can’t help wondering if there’s something going on that we don’t understand. Especially those of us who live alone and perhaps have too much time to think. I’m a churchgoer, so I … when I get upset I turn to God. But I suppose I’m in the minority these days, so I … I’ll…’
She sat down. Merrily noticed that the two vases of fresh lilies she must have put out on the chairman’s table were on the flagged floor beside it.
‘Thank you, Mrs Aird,’ Devereaux said. ‘As we’re all churchgoers tonight, I’m sure God will be sympathetic. But I think this issue lies rather with the creations of man. The problem here’s always been that, because of the positioning of the dwellings in Wychehill, mostly out of sight of the road, motorists do not realize there’s a community here – scattered though it may be – of more than two hundred people. And so they tend to speed. Mr Holliday—’
Holliday was back on his feet, making it clear that the Wychehill Residents’ Action Group, now extending to at least four other communities in the area, would be dissociating itself from any course of action designed to legitimize superstition.
‘And indeed, Chairman, the very idea of suggesting that the ghost of Sir Ed—’
Clack. The end of his sentence was chipped off by the gavel.
‘The cyclist, sir, if you please. There’ll be no ridiculous conjecture in my meeting.’
‘The idea that the story of the cyclist –’ Holliday smirked ‘– would generate wider publicity for our campaign now seems…’ He coughed. ‘It seems clear to me that this would succeed only in leaving us open to ridicule.’
‘But you thought about it, didn’t you, Leonard?’ Devereaux said.
‘It did occur to me, yes, I’m rather ashamed to say, and I’ve now rejected it.’
‘Very wise of you, sir.’ Devereaux smiled. ‘Now, I think we have a proposal…’
A man stood up.
‘I’d like to propose that, in the wake of the weekend’s fatality, we renew our call to the County Council and the police for the installation of speed cameras.’
‘Right, proposal by Mr Sedgefield, of The Wellhouse.’
‘Seconded,’ another guy said without getting up. ‘Perhaps they’ll capture this bloody ghost on film – then we’d all be able to see it.’
Laughter. Preston Devereaux gavelled for silence, letting his smile fade.
‘I don’t really see there’s much more we can do than that. But before I close the meeting, regarding the very regrettable incident involving myself at the weekend, several people have asked me two questions which, with the meeting’s permission, I’d like to answer publicly tonight. Question one: no, I’m glad to say I was not hurt, for which I have to thank the famously robust physique of the British Land Rover. I very much wish, mind, that I’d been in my ordinary car – might’ve been able to get out of the way in time and the whole thing might’ve been less serious. But fate decided otherwise. Therefore, I’d like to propose that the whole community join me in expressing our condolences to the families of the two young people. Because, whatever some of us may think about the Royal Oak…’
Subdued murmurs were lifted by the church’s crisp acoustics into a substantial expression of assent.
‘Good,’ Preston Devereaux said. ‘Now … question two. Simple answer: no, of course I bloody didn’t!’
Laughter. Devereaux half-rose.
‘Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Now, unless anyone has something to add, I’d like to formally close this meet— I’m sorry, was that a hand at the back?’
‘Yes, if I could just…’
She’d probably regret this later, Merrily thought, but you could only stand so much of this kind of crap.
She stood up, pulling down her zip.
The admonishing angel in her head looked a lot like Sophie.
‘Oh, wow, look over there…’
Jane was standing on the massive, half-collapsed capstone, this huge jutting wedge. She was gazing to the south-west, the evening light thickly around her like the pith of some vast luminous orange, and she felt that if she jumped off now she’d go on flying, in a dead straight line to the crooked mountain on the horizon.
Arthur’s Stone was the most impressive prehistoric monument in Herefordshire. It crouched like a dinosaur skeleton on Merbach Hill, above the Golden Valley, which melted like grilled cheese into Wales. Arthur’s Stone was not one stone but many … the remains of a dolmen or cromlech, a Bronze Age burial chamber which had once been covered with earth.
Alfred Watkins had found several leys passing through here, connecting it with country churches and unexcavated burial mounds and the remains of a medieval castle on an ancient hilltop site at Snodhill.
And if you stood where Jane was standing, on top of the monument, you could see, in misty profile…
‘It’s the Skirrid, isn’t it?’ Eirion said.
Like he could fail to recognize the holy mountain of Gwent, which he could see every day from his bedroom window just like Jane could see Cole Hill. The volcanic mountain cleft in two, according to legend, at the moment when Christ died on the cross.
Lying in Eirion’s bed in the heat of the afternoon Jane had found herself visualizing the elemental force that split the mountain just as…
Oh God, was that some kind of sacrilege?
The day replayed itself in her memory: one of those wild, hazy days when you weren’t aware of how magical it had been until it was nearly over.
She’d persuaded Eirion not to go to school – school hardly mattered at his stage of the game, A levels over, future in the lap of the gods. They’d gone back to his dad’s place at Abergavenny and compiled the Coleman’s Meadow document on his computer, with the photos and quotes from The Old Straight Track. Eirion had rewritten Jane’s rant, draining off some of the vitriol, and, she had to admit, it now seemed more rational and convincing. And then, with his dad and his stepmother safely away at the same conference in North Wales, they’d gone to bed.
Afterwards, she’d tried to ring Mum at the vicarage to imply subtly, without actually lying, that Eirion was picking her up from school. But Mum wasn’t there, and the mobile was switched off most of the time. And then she’d remembered that Mum was going to be at a meeting over on the other side of the county for most of the evening, which left her and Eirion whole hours to go in search of the old straight track.
Eirion, in his post-coital whatever mood, had been cool about it, so they’d started off by looking for Alfred Watkins himself. First and foremost a Herefordshire man, it had said in his obituary in the Hereford Times in 1935, as native to the county as the hop and the apple.
Jane had found that in the Watkins biography by Ron Shoesmith, which had taken them in search of Vineyard Croft, the house near the River Wye, on the edge of the city, where Alfred had lived for about thirty years with his wife, Marion. But they couldn’t find it; they found a Vineyard Road, but it seemed all suburbs around there now. It was much easier to locate the house the Watkinses had moved to, just off the Cathedral green. It actually had a plaque on it, identifying its importance – probably the nearest thing to a monument to Alfred in the entire county.
‘There ought to be an official Watkins memorial ley,’ Eirion had said. ‘Where you can stand and have the whole line pointed out for you.’
‘So that even councillors could see what it was about?’
‘They’d only be able to follow it if it was marked out in new branches of Asda and B & Q.’
We really understand each other, don’t we? Jane thought. And in a few weeks he’ll be gone.
She felt very close to tears and climbed down from the stone before she was tempted to throw herself into the horizon.
In the normal way of things, you were consulted by worried individuals whose world-view had been jogged out of focus – frightened people mugged by skewed circumstance. Since yours was the only hand reaching out they switched off their scepticism and clasped it.
Always individuals. Never a community, a society, a committee. In any random group, scepticism ruled.
‘I’m confused, Mr Chairman,’ Merrily said.
‘Can’t have that.’ Preston Devereaux peered into the growing gloom. ‘I pride myself on clarity. May we have your name, madam?’
‘I’m, erm, Merrily Watkins.’
‘Are you indeed?’
‘I’m a consultant to the Diocese of Hereford on matters … paranormal. And…’ she saw Joyce Aird had turned, looking both grateful and worried ‘… the Rector asked me to come tonight.’
‘He must’ve forgotten to mention it to me,’ Devereaux said. ‘And as that particular item has now been dealt with—’
‘It hasn’t really been dealt with, though, has it? It’s just been pushed under the table.’
Lot of heads turning, some muttering. No going back now.
‘Watkins. And I’m not a big conspiracy theorist, but I’ve encountered enough cover-ups in the past couple of years to recognize—’
‘Madam!’ The gavel came down with a crack that must have dented the table. ‘Let no one accuse me of that.’
‘I’m not accusing—’
‘I think you’d better forsake the shelter of your back pew and attempt to justify it, Reverend.’
Preston Devereaux pulled out the chair next to his, calling out to the back of the church.
‘Can we have some decent light on the proceedings?’
Merrily stood up in the brittle, glassy light. She felt weak with fury.
Moved into the aisle, reaching into her bag to switch off her mobile. Would have felt better about this if Jane had called. In the end she’d gone round to Lol’s, asked if he’d mind staying behind and trying to find her. OK, she was seventeen, for heaven’s sake, nearly an adult. And yet…
Oh God, get me through this.
She stepped behind the table next to the chairman, looking out at twenty or thirty people, widely spaced, Winnie Sparke standing out in a crocheted white woollen shawl.
Lights came on, as if to dispense with the possibility of anything beyond normal occurring here. They were theatre-type spotlights, directed at the chancel, presumably for use during the choral concerts. The lights put the congregation into shadow and hurt your eyes when you looked up.
Merrily looked down.
‘The main qualification for this job is, I’ve discovered, a high embarrassment threshold.’
Nobody even smiled.
‘I was told – by the Rector, who doesn’t seem to be here tonight – that at least four people had had experience of an inexplicable light, sometimes accompanied by a figure, in the road outside. Each sighting preceding an accident of some kind.’
She paused. Were they out there now? Tim Loste, Stella Cobham? Or had they been persuaded, by whoever had gagged Joyce Aird, to stay away? She thought about all the hours she’d spent, dragging Lol out to Wychehill, fruitlessly knocking on doors, needlessly infuriating the uniquely invaluable Sophie.
‘The message spelled out tonight by Mr Holliday is that it’s all superstitious rubbish. And he was thoughtful enough to put all that on my answering machine earlier today, when he phoned to advise me not to bother coming.’
A few murmurs at last. She could see Holliday, stiff-faced, in a left-hand pew, second row.
‘Now what I’m gathering from what’s been said is that Mr Holliday had earlier considered that the alleged phenomenon might have been useful as a publicity gimmick … to focus attention on his campaign against what’s happening at the Royal Oak. Get the protest into the national papers. Maybe on TV.’
Merrily paused again, looking over to where she’d last seen Holliday, giving him a warm smile – the pompous, duplicitous git.
‘You can see the TV reports now, can’t you? Long shot of the hills at sunset, overlaid with some suitably serene pastoral music written by … the cyclist.’
Preston Devereaux’s chair creaked.
‘Mrs Watkins, I think—’
‘And then it goes dark,’ Merrily said. ‘And we see the Royal Oak throbbing with purple strobe lights and a blast of drum-’n’-bass all over the forecourt. And then Mr Holliday steps into shot with a grim face and a petition to the council.’
‘All right … I’m sorry.’ Putting up her hands, turning to Preston Devereaux. ‘Mr Chairman, I take it that you were tacitly informing us a few minutes ago that in the moments before that horrific crash you did not see a strange light or a strange cyclist. But where are the people who insist that they did? Is Mr Loste here tonight, for instance? Because I’d’ve thought if this meeting was to make a decision it ought to hear all the evidence. Mr Loste?’
She peered into the lights. Silence.
‘Well … thanks, Mr Chairman. That’s all I wanted to say, really. Just didn’t want anyone to think that, having been invited, I’d failed to show up. Thank you.’
Merrily shouldered her bag amid a rush of whispers. Preston Devereaux said nothing. She slid around the table and walked away, out of the spotlight pool, down into the shadows of the left-hand aisle, aware of hushed discussions opening up on both sides, like a small motor coming to life, and then the scuffling sound of someone standing up.
‘Wait…’ A tall woman, black top, spiky red hair, standing sideways in the pew space.
Merrily stopped and leaned against a pew-end.
‘I saw it,’ the woman said. ‘This fully formed man on a bike – high up on his bike, this great, black…’ she stared around the church ‘… pulpit of a bike. Right there in front of me. And I wasn’t drunk, whatever people are saying. I hadn’t been drinking. When they gave me a breath test, it was totally negative. But I’m telling you I saw him. He was there. Absolutely and totally … bloody there.’
‘You’re…’ Merrily felt a small worm of excitement uncurling in her spine. ‘You’re Mrs Cobham, right?’
‘Correct. I swerved and he vanished and I went into this bloody camper van about half a second later.’
‘How did you feel at that moment?’
‘Feel? Mixture of … shock and … just sheer, primitive terror. I thought I was actually going to die. Die of shock, you know? All I remember after that was being out of the car and just standing at the side of the road, shivering. They wouldn’t come near me, the people in the camper, they wouldn’t leave their vehicle, I must’ve looked—’
‘Was there any … change in the atmosphere when you saw the cyclist? The temperature?’
Merrily saw that the focus of the room had altered, people drifting to the ends of pews on either side, two semicircles forming and Preston Devereaux on his own by the chancel, sitting upright, his long sideburns like the chinstrap of a helmet. Stella Cobham gripped the pew in front of her.
‘I felt cold. Whether that was just the shock … Couldn’t seem to keep a limb still until daylight. Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t think of anything else. Kept seeing him again and again in my head. I can see him now.’
‘Mrs Watkins…’ Preston Devereaux was on his feet. ‘This is neither the time nor the place…’
Merrily just kept on talking to Stella Cobham, a damped-down silence around them, the windows in the nave filled with a dull purple half-light that didn’t go anywhere.
‘Could he see you, do you think?’
‘I don’t think he could see anything. His eyes were … somewhere in the distance. It was the eyes I remember most. It was the eyes that … there’s a photo of him on the back of one of these books we bought – it’s called Elgar, Child of Dreams – and it’s one of those double exposures with his face superimposed on the hills, and his eyes are looking away, into some sort of infinity? You know? And there are these pinpoints of light in his eyes. Where’s … where’s Tim Loste?’
‘Gone,’ a man said. ‘Or he didn’t come.’
‘Well, can somebody get him back? Because he’ll be able to tell you—’
‘Leave him alone.’ Helen Truscott had appeared in the aisle next to Merrily. ‘He’s not well.’
‘Oh God, the fount of all medical bloody knowledge. I’m trying to give him a chance to unload it.’
‘And you think he’ll be happy to have his beloved Elgar exorcized? There, I’ve said the forbidden name, too. You don’t understand about Tim, do you?’
‘I understand what I saw, Mrs Truscott…’
‘You don’t understand what state that man’s in. You leave him alone.’
‘Look, I was told people would say I was sick or mental or drunk, like Loste, and I … I’ve forgotten your name.’
‘Well, Merry, whatever they’re saying.’ She swung her head angrily from side to side like a gun turret. ‘I’m telling you there is something wrong here. The cyclist … Jesus.’
In the swollen silence, Merrily looked around and saw … individuals. All these people together but essentially still pews apart. Maybe they knew one another by sight, by name, by reputation, but they were no more than a cluster of islands with separate climates, separate cultures.
Isolation. Midsummer Eve, and a chill in the air in a too-big church.
‘Excuse me.’ Preston Devereaux was brushing past. ‘I suspect this meeting is now over. Would the last lunatic out of the building please turn off the lights?’
‘Yeah, you go, Mr Devereaux!’ Stella Cobham snarling at his back. ‘You piss off. You keep nice and quiet about whatever you saw. You play it down. You weren’t for playing everything down when the fox-hunting thing was on, were you?’
Devereaux stopped. ‘That’s over. It’s over and we lost. You move on.’
Which was what he did. He walked out. At the same time, Merrily saw Leonard Holliday and three or four other people moving down the second aisle towards the main door … and more faces were swimming towards her.
‘If this—’ She took a breath, inspiration coming. ‘If this is really an issue, I’d just like to point out that the possibility of me or anyone attempting to exorcize Sir Edward Elgar … that is very much not an option. And even if there was a connection with Elgar—’
‘You can take it from me,’ Helen Truscott said, ‘that the connection was entirely in one unbalanced mind.’ She glanced over her shoulder. ‘And the devious heads of a few opportunists, who I hope have now seen the error of their ways.’
‘What I was going to say, Mrs Truscott, is, if there really is evidence of some pervading negative spiritual presence here, then a small roadside blessing is probably neither sufficient nor appropriate. I was going to say that another way of dealing with it would be to hold a full Requiem Eucharist, here in the church … perhaps extending out to the roadside?’
‘What’s that?’ Stella Cobham said.
‘A requiem is basically a funeral service. It’s not something we do lightly, but it’s sometimes a way of drawing a line under something.’
‘You want to hold a service for the cyclist?’
‘As some of you are a bit unsure about that, I’d be more inclined to suggest a service for the two people who died here last weekend, Lincoln and … Sonia? But I wouldn’t do it unless I was persuaded that there was a good reason, and I’d need to consult the relatives.’
The mobile began to chime in Merrily’s shoulder bag. She didn’t even remember switching it back on. She saw Joyce Aird staring at her, mouth half-open.
‘You want to hold a full requiem – a communion service – for those drug dealers?’
‘Think I need to take this call, if you don’t mind.’ Merrily backed off. ‘Look, that’s just a proposal, OK? If you want to have a bit of a discussion about this, I’ve got some cards in my bag with my phone number and my email if anyone wants to … talk about anything privately or tell me anything. Excuse me, I’ll be back.’
She hurried to the door, pulling out the phone, slumping on a bench in the porch with her bag on her knees.
‘Where are you, Merrily?’
‘I’m at Wychehill Church. Why? What’s happened?’
‘You don’t know?’ Bliss said.
She went cold, thinking as always, Jane.
‘Stop messing about, Frannie.’
She could hear the sounds of a car engine, the intermission of Bliss thinking.
‘Don’t go away,’ he said. ‘Might pick you up on the way, if that’s all right with you.’
‘The way to where?’
‘We’ve gorran incident.’
‘What’s that mean?’
‘Look, if you want to stick around I’ll pick you up on me way. Be about half an hour. Yeh, do that, would you? Stick around.’
The line was cut. Bloody cop-speak. Why did they never spell it out? What was she supposed to do now? She stood in the church doorway, the sky outside the colour of the flash around a blackened eye. It must be nearly half past ten.
Behind her, the church door swung to and someone coughed lightly. There was a whiff of jasmine on the air.
‘You’re cute,’ Winnie Sparke said. ‘I thought the exorcist was the guy with you, and you didn’t put me right.’
Her face was white and blurred, her hair curling into the shadows in the porch.
‘What’s wrong with this place?’ Merrily said.
‘You noticed that, huh?’
‘Sorry, I think I was talking to myself.’
‘Well, I’ll tell you, anyway. Too much quarrying, way back, is what’s wrong. Way back for us, that is, but like yesterday in the memory of rocks millions of years old. The hills are still hurting.’
‘This is not a place to settle, believe me. Bad place to be, when the rocks are in pain, and you can take it from me, lady, these rocks hurt like hell.’
He was winding the new lime-green line into his brush-cutter head without even looking at it – finishing up with the two ends of line exactly the same length and pointing in different directions, the way the manufacturers and God had intended.
Incredible. Jane had tried this once, with just an ordinary garden strimmer, and about fifteen metres of the stuff had come spinning off the reel like one of those joke snakes out of a tin.
Gomer Parry had probably left school at about fourteen, and he could reload a brush cutter in three minutes, sink a septic tank, devise a stormproof field-drainage system…
… And he also knew where the bodies were buried in Ledwardine. Knew better than anybody since Lucy Devenish.
‘Bent?’ Jane said. ‘You’re serious?’
‘Not as I could prove it.’ Gomer snipped off the nylon line with his penknife. ‘But I’d prob’ly give you money on it.’
He clicked the rubberized top back on to the head and, whereas Jane would’ve been beating it against the church wall and still one corner would be hanging off, it just … stayed in place.
She became aware that she was squeezing her hands together, impatient. Which was really childish. And this was not a childish matter. It had to be got right … might just turn out to be the most important thing she would ever do.
With Mum still not back when Eirion had dropped her off at home, Jane had walked down to Gomer’s bungalow, ostensibly to return the wire-cutters she’d borrowed but really to sound him out about Lyndon Pierce. Gomer hadn’t been at home but then, coming back across the square, in the gloom of a now-sunless sunset, she’d heard the whine of the brush cutter in the churchyard.
Gomer propped the cutter against the lych-gate while he took out his ciggy tin and opened it up and inspected the contents through the specks of shredded grass on the thick lenses of his glasses.
‘Gotter be a bit careful, Janey. Walls got years. Even church walls.’
Jane looked around the churchyard and out through the lych-gate to the village square. Nobody in sight except James Bull-Davies getting into his clapped-out Land Rover.
Gomer made her wait until he’d rolled his ciggy. He was wearing his green overalls and his Doc Martens and a new work cap that looked pretty much like the old one and probably the one before that.
‘Ole churchyard’s gonner need doin’ twice a week soon.’
Gomer did his gash of a grin, the little ciggy clamped between his teeth.
‘En’t no rocket science, Janey. Councillors … all this on the election leaflets about directin’ their skills for the good o’ the community … load of ole wallop, and they knows it and they knows you knows it.’
Gomer sniffed the air.
‘Well, all right, mabbe ’bout thirty per cent of ’em is straight-ish. Or, at least, when they first gets elected. Don’t last, see, that’s the trouble. All them good intentions goes down the toilet soon as they gets a chance of a slap o’ free tarmac for their path, or their ole ma needs plannin’ permission for a big extension to the house what her’s gonner leave ’em when her snuffs it. So all I’m sayin’ is, if you has to have dealings with your local councillor, best way’s to start off assumin’ he’s bent. Saves time.’
‘But, like, Lyndon Pierce, specifically … ?’
‘Lyndon Pierce, he en’t the sort of feller gets hisself elected juss so’s he can call hisself Councillor Pierce.’
‘Well, yeah, I realize councillors are always taking bribes from builders and people like that, so the chances are Pierce is getting a bung to make sure the Coleman’s Meadow scheme—’
Gomer started coughing, snatching his ciggy out of his mouth.
‘I’m only saying that to you, Gomer. I’m not going to shout it all over the village, am I?’
‘You don’t even whisper it, girl, less you got the proof.’
Gomer took off his glasses, blotted his watering eyes on his sleeve. Jane bit a thumbnail, dismayed. Reticence was not his style. Gomer did not do restraint.
She stood there, chewing her nail. Since Minnie died, Gomer had become almost family, which was cool, because he was good to have around – like a grandad, only better. Well past normal retirement age now, but he’d never given up work. Kept his plant-hire business going with the help of Danny Thomas, dug graves for Mum with his mini-JCB, free of charge, treated the churchyard like his own garden.
And the great thing about Gomer was that he was … untamed. Untamed by age. In a way that made you think there might actually be something quite interesting about being old, if you knew the secret.
He went over to one of the ancient caved-in tombs, where there was a big gap in the side and it was obvious that the body was long gone. He sat down on it and smoked for a while, Jane watching him and the tomb fading into the dusk.
‘When I first went into Coleman’s Meadow,’ she said, ‘I felt … I felt the last person to go there and actually see it for what it was … was Lucy Devenish.’
Gomer’s ciggy was like an ember in the shadows.
Jane said, ‘I could almost see her.’
Could almost see her now, in fact: the batwing swirl of the poncho, the hooked nose of an old Red Indian, the sharp gleam of a glancing eye, like a falcon’s.
‘Lucy hovers over this village, like a guardian of the old ways,’ Jane said. ‘That’s the way I see it.’
‘All right.’ Gomer stood up, brushing ash from his overalls. ‘First knowed him when he was a mean-minded little kid.’
‘Pierce. One day, middle of January, Lucy caught him shooting at the blue tits with his air-rifle, when they come down to the nut feeder Alf Hayden used to hang by the ole gate into the orchard.’
‘Bastard. How old was he then?’
‘Mabbe fourteen? I wasn’t living yere then, but we was dealing with a drainage problem, side of the orchard, for Rod Powell, and I’m in the ole digger when I years Lucy’s voice shoutin’ at somebody to hand over that gun now, kind of thing. So I goes trundlin’ over, in the digger, and there’s Lyndon Pierce pointin’ the bloody thing at Lucy.’
‘He was threatening to shoot Lucy?’
Jane started to tingle. It was – wow – like she’d been guided to this.
‘Kids is daft,’ Gomer said. ‘Don’t think ’fore they acts. ’Course, when he sees the digger, he hides the gun behind his back, but I leaves the engine running, see, jumps down the other side, grabs it off him. As I recall, it wound up under one of the caterpillars of the JCB. Accidents happens, Janey.’
‘I am so proud of you, Gomer.’
‘Boy tells his dad I’ve stole the gun off him. Dad rings me, threatens me I’ll get no more work in this village ever again.’
‘How could he do that?’
‘’Cause he was on the council. Two councillors representin’ Ledwardine in them days, see – Garrod Powell and Percy Pierce. Then they had a big reorganization, and it was reduced to one, and Percy lets Rod have it uncontested, like. Real noble of him. Har! Amazin’ all the arrangements as went through after that, to the benefit of Percy. Had a dealership in farm machinery, see, and some interestin’ contracts comes his way, through the council, as wouldn’t have looked quite right if he’d still been on the council. Also – you know what agricultural occupancy’s about, Janey?’
‘That’s where there’s a house that nobody can live in unless they can prove they’re making a living from the land?’
‘More or less. Point bein’, a dwellin’ with an agricultural restriction, you can’t ask much money for him. So there was this bit of a jerry-built 1960s bungalow, bottom of Virgingate Lane, feller name of Ronnie Carpenter owned it, with fifteen acres, and he needed the money and he couldn’t find nobody wanted to buy this ole place on account of fifteen acres don’t give you much of a livin’ no more. So Ronnie tries to get the restriction lifted so’s he could flog it to somebody with the money to replace it with a proper house. Ronnie keeps applyin’, keeps gettin’ turned down … and then suddenly it goes through. Good ole Rod Powell, eh? What nobody knows is Ronnie Carpenter’s arranged to sell the bungalow and the land, provisional-like, to Percy Pierce for his son Lyndon, who’d just qualified as a chartered accountant.’
‘You’re saying they only got to build that piece of pseudo-Beverly Hills crap because of a dirty deal between Rod Powell and Percy Pierce?’
Gomer dropped his last millimetre of ciggy onto the tomb, crushed it out and reminded Jane how people had always quietly helped each other in the country. And Rod Powell was dead now and Percy Pierce had retired to Weston-super-Mare, and now his boy had his seat on the council.
Was Lyndon Pierce really going to abandon a family tradition of being bent?
‘So is it possible Pierce is tied up with this guy Murray, who owns the meadow?’ Jane asked.
Not that it would matter. No need for corruption when you had council planning guys who thought appalling desecration was acceptable infill.
‘Not many folk he en’t in bed with, truth be told,’ Gomer said. ‘Accountant by profession, specializin’ in smoothin’ things out between farmers and landowners and the ole taxman. Local accountant who’s also on the council? Popular boy, Janey. Popular boy.’
‘A boy who used to shoot blue tits off a nut dispenser?’
Jane looked up at the church steeple, a sepia silhouette against a clump of cloud like dirty washing. Was this the Herefordshire of Alfred Watkins, who led genteel parties of gentlemen in panama hats and ladies with sunshades to explore ancient alignments of stones and mounds and moats and steeples? Was this the Herefordshire of the mystical poet Thomas Traherne, who was clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars?
She hugged herself, wishing she could be back in Eirion’s bed – and then wondering if she ever would be again.
‘Makes you sick,’ she said.
‘Ar, it do,’ Gomer said. ‘Evenin’, Lol, boy, ow’re you?’
Jane turned to see Lol, in one of his alien sweatshirts, leaning against the lych-gate and shaking his head.
‘You know how I hate to interfere, Jane,’ Lol said in his mild, tentative way, ‘but is it possible you’re avoiding your mum?’
‘Lol, she’s been busy. She’s out all the time.’
‘A situation you might just be … you know … exploiting?’
‘Not true at all. What I’m doing is, I’m actually trying to protect her, OK? She has a position in this village, obviously, and, like, how often have I done anything … OK, anything locally … that could cause her embarrassment? OK, don’t answer that, but listen … this is what Lucy would want.’
Jane looked at Lol and then at Gomer, hoping they would both understand this.
Not that it mattered. She could almost see Lucy Devenish rising above the lych-gate, the darkening sky woven into the shadowed folds of her poncho.
Winnie Sparke looked past Merrily, out through the porch door into the waxy evening. Her white shawl was hanging loose like a priest’s stole.
‘You really shook things up in there, lady.’
‘Wasn’t me. I think something was just waiting to blow. You can’t just sit on something like this.’
Winnie Sparke walked out into the night, Merrily following her.
‘I don’t suppose you know where Mr Loste is?’
‘He isn’t here.’
‘I’d gathered that. But I would like to talk to him.’
‘Maybe I could fix that. It’s possible. Leave it with me.’
‘Tim is … kinda fragile. Like a lot of people with huge talent, he needs someone to hold him together. Oops, mind you don’t—’
‘Oh my God, what’s—?’
It had risen up like a column of smoke in the dusk, its eye sockets black, its mouth hanging open and the wings half-extended behind its arms. Its shoulders were black against a slash of red in the sky like the bar of a burning cross. Hands reaching up, palms outwards as if they were awaiting nails.
‘Kinda weird, huh?’ Winnie Sparke said. ‘They say kids from the Royal Oak come in here and make out on the graves. But, hey, not on this one.’
The angel was standing on a tomb the size of a double-oven Aga, the lettering on the side big enough to read even in the ebbing light.
JOSEPH LONGWORTH, 1859 – 1937
‘All holy angels pray for him
Choirs of the righteous pray for him.’
‘Guy who built the church,’ Winnie Sparke said. ‘Found God and Elgar, not necessarily in that order.’
‘I’m trying to place the quote.’
‘You’re excused. It’s Roman Catholic. Newman – The Dream of Gerontius.’
‘I was listening to it on the way here.’
While she’d been trying to engage Elgar in conversation, an exasperated Sophie had gone out and bought her three CDs. Next to the spare and moody Cello Concerto, the fifty minutes of Gerontius that she’d heard seemed both complex and a little dreary, heavy on the deathbed angst.
‘Scary stuff,’ Winnie Sparke said. ‘All those layers of celestial bureaucracy. OK, you know how after the soul comes round on the Other Side, he gets a pep talk from his guardian angel and then these demons start messing with him? Then he gets just one tantalizing glimpse of God?’
‘I’m not sure I got that far.’
‘OK, well, between the demons and God he gets handed over to this guy.’ Winnie Sparke reached up and tapped the arm of the grotesque figure on the tomb. ‘The Angel of the Agony.’
‘I don’t know anything about him.’
Merrily looked up into the wretched marble face, grateful, on the whole, that there was nothing like this in Ledwardine churchyard.
‘His job is to plead with Jesus to spare the soul of Gerontius,’ Winnie Sparke said. ‘It’s a judgement thing. But you know what I think? I’m like, the hell with this guy, I think we can deal with purgatory right here.’
‘On Earth, I meant. But Wychehill … yeah, sure. Wychehill’s as good, or maybe as bad a place as any for throwing off your demons. Maybe we can discuss this sometime.’ She flicked her shawl over a shoulder. ‘You’re gonna come back, now you won through?’
She lit a cigarette under the church lantern, one of its glass panes spider-cracked as if by a thrown stone or an air gun pellet. If Bliss was picking her up, she didn’t want to go back in there and get pulled into a discussion. Besides, if a requiem was going to be held, Syd Spicer would need to make the arrangements.
There was a mauve, last-light glaze on the road, a faintly rank smell. She kicked what appeared to be a shrivelled condom into the side of the wall. Obtained from a vending machine at Inn Ya Face?
Preston Devereaux was leaning on the wall under one of the oak trees. He, too, had a cigarette.
‘Congratulations, Mrs Watkins.’
‘I’m sorry. I was just … a bit…’
‘You were bloody furious. A woman scorned.’
‘I’m sorry. You’ve had a pretty bad week, too.’
‘How are you feeling now?’
‘Me?’ Devereaux leaned back against the wall, scratched his jaw. ‘Well, since you ask, last night I got drunk. Today, I sold the offending Land Rover for peanuts. Couldn’t stand to see it any more. I’m OK. Something happens, you live with it, move on. You don’t pick at it, like a townie.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Sorry if I’m causing offence again. I assumed you were local, name like Watkins.’
‘Local origins. I’ve moved around.’
‘Well, me too. But we came back, didn’t we? God help us.’
‘I hoped I’d be able to talk to you before the meeting,’ Merrily said. ‘But I think you answered my questions back there, anyway.’
‘You were really going to ask me that? If I’d seen the ghost of Sir Edward Elgar on his bike before the crash? Good God.’
Merrily shrugged. ‘My job.’
‘Well, if you get to know me better you’ll know it’s not in my nature to make excuses or throw the blame at anyone living or dead. I was tired. Had a long drive, wanted to get home. Perhaps, if I hadn’t been so tired, I’d’ve reacted quicker and there’d be two fewer funerals in Worcester. Who knows?’
‘If you’d been less tired, you might have been going faster and the result would have been the same. Only you’d probably have been seriously injured.’
‘I really don’t know.’ Devereaux shook his head slowly. ‘But what I won’t do, Mrs Watkins, is associate myself with the clowns who say this road’s haunted. So if that’s your idea of a cover-up, I’m sorry.’
‘I don’t know what’s happening to places like this. At one time, we absorbed things. We, the community. Communities closed ranks, healed themselves. Scabs formed that eventually dropped off. Kind of people you got here now, the townies, they just got to keep picking and picking at it.’
‘What about the Royal Oak?’
‘The Royal Oak?’ He snorted. ‘Problem at the moment, but it won’t last. They never do, these places. We just got to sit it out. Make a fuss, you just give them more notoriety, and they love that. Look, I’m more sorry than I can say about what happened to those two kids. I was a wild boy, too, drove too fast, inhaled my share of blow. Not for me to take a moralistic stance. But, this all-encompassing fear of the Royal Oak … live with it, is what I say. Nobody can seem to live with anything any more.’
‘Well, yeah, everybody expects a perfect life. But it’s been suggested that a lot of Class A drugs pass through the Royal Oak. I don’t know if that’s right, but that’s what they say.’
Devereaux stared at her. ‘Do they? Who?’
Merrily didn’t know how to reply, never entirely happy about being Bliss’s snout, even if it was a two-way street.
‘Aye, well, they’re probably right, Mrs Watkins. And that’s not good. But it’ll pass. Be surprised if that place hasn’t changed hands again by this time next year. Raji Khan’s a businessman. When it goes off the boil he’ll get rid.’
‘You know him?’
‘Stayed with me when he was looking over the Oak. Stayed in one of my lovely holiday lets. Clever man, young Mr Khan. Knows how to surf the economic tides.’
‘You mean Mr Holliday was right about tourism grants to bring ethnic groups into the sticks?’
‘It’s the way this government operates.’ Devereaux took a long pull on his cigarette, holding it between forefinger and thumb. ‘But you know what makes me, laugh, Merrily – you don’t mind if I call you that … ?’
‘Not at all.’
‘What makes me laugh, my dear, is the way middle-class white folks move here from the harmless, peaceful suburbs, saying how glad they are to get away from the big, bad city, with all the drugs and the crime. Truth is, that was an imagined situation fuelled by Crimewatch and the Daily Mail. They’d never actually seen any of it…’
He laughed, at length, the cigarette cupped in his hand.
‘And now here’s the so-called ghost of Edward Elgar – poor dysfunctional bugger he was – and half of them think he’s a traffic hazard and half of them think he’s on their side against Raji Khan. What can you do with people like that? Hello—’
A young man in a rugby shirt was edging round the church gate. He stood in front of Devereaux and did a theatrical salute.
‘They’ll be out in approximately five minutes, sir.’
‘Good lad.’ Devereaux turned to Merrily. ‘My younger boy, Hugo. Took the precaution of stationing him in the vestry, out of sight. What’s the verdict, son?’
Hugo shrugged. ‘No problems, really. Well, that Stella got a bit hysterical, but they talked her down. I think they’re going for what Mrs Watkins suggested.’
‘Which is what? I’d left by then.’
‘Well, I’m not really…’
Hugo was about nineteen, lean like his dad, gelled dark hair and an earring. He looked at Merrily.
‘Mr Devereaux,’ she said, ‘are you saying you had a spy in the vestry all the time?’
‘Dad’s the worst kind of control freak,’ Hugo said.
‘Local intelligence is very important,’ Devereaux said. ‘You live in a village, Merrily, you know what it’s like. They weren’t going to say much with me there, were they? Too official.’ He smiled. ‘No, I exaggerate. Hugo was at the back already, doing the lights.’
He put out his cigarette in a fizzing of sparks against the church wall.
‘Tell me what you’re proposing,’ he said.
‘Well … it’s a requiem service in the church. A holy communion for the dead. So that would be a service for the two people who … died in the accident.’
‘Because they’re dead. It’s a big thing, death, but funerals today are often cursory and don’t bring … don’t always bring down the curtain. Don’t bring peace, or even the promise of peace, for the living.’
‘And how would this service achieve that?’
‘Mr Devereaux, we could sit down and I could give you the theology in depth and take up the rest of your night. Let’s just say that it does.’
‘You’re very confident.’
‘I’m not confident at all. That is, it’s not self-confidence, it’s…’
She raised her gaze to the darkening sky. Preston Devereaux laughed.
‘Well … who am I to argue with that? All right, then, go ahead. It’s your show now. This is just a straightforward service, I take it?’
‘Inasmuch as any service is straightforward.’
‘What I mean is, you wouldn’t be conducting what the press could call an exorcism?’
‘You’re right, I wouldn’t.’
‘Because none of us wants silly publicity, and if you can deal with it for us in a discreet and dignified fashion we’d be most grateful to you. Discuss it with the Rector, I should. I think you’ll find he agrees.’
‘Nice to talk, Merrily. Goodnight to you.’
Preston Devereaux clapped a hand on his son’s back and they walked away to a dark 4x4 parked in front of Merrily’s Volvo. She watched them go, feeling faintly sick. A bat sailed in front of the church lamp like a blown leaf.
Deal with it for us. Coming out of the church she’d felt halfway in control again, now she was a puppet with strings so tangled you couldn’t tell who was pulling them. Merrily heard the voices of the villagers emerging from the church and walked rapidly away along the roadside towards the vicarage.
A car pulled alongside.
‘You all right, Merrily?’
Bliss’s face at the car window. She’d actually forgotten all about Bliss and his incident. She pulled back in mid-stride.
‘Is this going to improve my night, Frannie?’
‘Quite honestly,’ Bliss said, ‘I’d say probably not.’
Power of Place
Merrily jerked her head away. ‘Oh God…’
The DC, who was called Henry, pulled back his lamp.
‘You could’ve waited over by the truck,’ Bliss said. ‘I did warn you.’
And maybe she would have hung back, but a call a few minutes ago from Lol to say that he’d found Jane had fortified her, made her feel obliged to go across to join Bliss and what lay, in its abattoir splatter, across the jutting shelf of stone.
Bliss had driven up to the car park opposite the Malvern Hills Hotel at the foot of the Beacon, where they’d got into Henry’s police 4x4. A roundabout route along dirt tracks had taken them to the other side of the hill, Henry parking in some woodland before leading them by lamplight, like a shepherd, along an uphill mud footpath.
It had brought them to a wide-mouthed cave in a wall of rocks, like a black gable under a roof. Two uniformed policemen were in the opening, smoking cigarettes. Incident room, Bliss had said, and laughed.
Merrily swallowed. Being sick wouldn’t help the forensics.
‘You think there’s a chance he did this to himself?’
The Home Office pathologist, Dr McEwen, looked at Bliss, probably to check that it was OK to speak in front of the woman in the dog collar. Bliss nodded.
‘I’d say the chances that your man did this to himself are fairly remote.’ McEwen was a soft-voiced Irishman in a red and blue baseball cap. ‘With a suicide – if we assume this is something the individual has never attempted before – he’s usually unsure of the best place to go in, so you’ll normally find two or three test cuts above and below the main wound. Now, if you see here…’
This time Merrily didn’t look, turning away towards the few lights of somewhere in Worcestershire laid out like a broken necklace under the ochre-streaked charcoal sky.
‘But there is more than one cut.’ Bliss’s fluorescent orange hiking jacket creaking as he bent down.
‘Sure, but they’re not what anybody would call test cuts,’ McEwen said. ‘This one here looks like knife-skid, but this one, arguably a secondary slash, is far too deep. See what it’s done to the trachea and the muscle there? There’s also a wound on the back of the head, which might … Look, give me a few minutes more, all right?’
‘Are these wounds consistent with that knife?’
‘Back of the head, though, that looks more like your blunt instrument. I haven’t seen the knife – you got it there?’
‘Bagged up,’ Bliss said. ‘Kitchen knife, eight-inch blade. Found in the grass not far from his right hand.’
‘Assume he didn’t do it to himself. And I’d guess you’re looking for more than one person, Francis. Probably more than two. If it happened here, which is how it looks by the blood-spatter, then … a muscular young feller like this, he’d take some holding down, wouldn’t he?’
‘Maybe somebody else holding his head back by the hair over the top of the stone to expose his throat for the knife. Henry, what did you say about this stone?’
‘Known locally as the Sacrificial Stone, boss. That’s all I can tell you.’
‘There you go, Merrily. Can’t say fairer than that.’ Bliss took her arm and led her away, back up towards the cave. ‘And this is Midsummer’s Eve, right? Talk me through this.’
‘Ritual sacrifice. Just to get me started.’
‘That’s why you wanted me to come up with you?’
‘No doubt we’ll find a proper expert tomorrow, if we need one. But as you’re here … fair to say your personal experience extends to aspects of pagan worship?’
Merrily glanced back at the stone, a steep wedge in the hillside, the dead man, with his black bib of gore, arching back over it like he’d been been using it for working out, about to perform some dynamic form of sit-up.
‘Frannie…’ She dug both hands hard into her jacket pockets, turned away to where the path wound around to the earthen ramparts of the Iron Age fort. ‘It doesn’t happen, does it?’
‘Yes, it does,’ Bliss said. ‘You think of that poor kiddie found in the Thames a few years back.’
‘Yes, but that wasn’t—’
‘One of ours? Tut, tut. This is multicultural Britain, Merrily. Suggesting that the only valid form of ritual sacrifice in this country should be conducted by white men in white robes with sickles is tantamount to—’
‘Oh, I see. Because this guy’s black—’
‘A black man found with his throat cut at a famous Ancient British monument … that’s slightly cross- cultural, isn’t it? I don’t think it’s anything like that, but we need to eliminate it. Tell me about Midsummer’s Eve.’
‘Most traditional forms of paganism would focus on the solstice sunrise. Which is still a few hours away. But it’s stupid anyway … modern pagans just don’t do this kind of thing.’
‘Never say that, girl. There’s always some bastard who’ll do anything. But I take your point.’
‘Also … I mean, how long’s he been dead?’
‘Few hours, max. Found by some kids. Teenagers.’
‘So he was probably killed before dark. Still be a few walkers about. They’re going to stage a sacrificial ritual with the constant risk of an audience?’
A burst of light made Merrily turn in time to catch the second contained flash from a crime-scene camera, bringing the horror luridly alive: the obscene hole in the victim’s throat like parted lips with a protruding tongue. She thought of hostages in Iraq dying on video, heard the keening of the knife in the air, saw the blade shining red-golden in the sunset. A slash, a spurting, a choked-off scream. She shivered.
‘You’re doing well,’ Bliss said. ‘This is what I wanted to hear.’
‘Look, if you need a cig, go ahead, just don’t drop the stub.’
‘You don’t look it. I’m sorry, Merrily, I didn’t think. I do tend to use people, me.’
‘Really? I’ve never noticed that side of you.’
Bliss grinned. Headlights washed across the sloping trees below them. The turf under Merrily’s feet felt as springy as an exercise mat. With the smoky hills snaking away before her, it was like standing on some kind of natural escalator. Power of place.
‘It’s an execution, isn’t it?’
‘Possibly,’ Bliss said. ‘Of sorts.’
‘And you’re thinking the victim’s connected with the Royal Oak.’
‘A good detective is open to all possibilities.’
‘Only…’ She hesitated. ‘… A guy in the parish meeting just now was insisting that the licensing authority had been tolerating what was happening at the Royal Oak because you got better tourism grants if you could show the government you were encouraging black and Asian visitors.’
‘Must send the council a picture. This could be worth thousands.’
‘So I was wondering…’
‘A racist execution?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You know what I think, Merrily? I think if this lad had been found with the same injuries behind one of the garages on the Plascarreg Estate we wouldn’t be asking ourselves any of these questions.’
‘Power of place,’ Merrily said.
It was another ninety minutes or so before they went back to the British Camp car park. Bliss had offered to get Henry to take Merrily back to her car at Wychehill, but she’d hung on, watching the police tape going up, lights bobbing around the hillside.
Bliss had wandered off to consult with his team and Merrily had phoned Lol, asking him to get a message to Jane: don’t wait up.
‘Henry says people come up here for the Midsummer sunrise,’ Bliss said as they climbed down from the 4×4. ‘In which case they’ll be disappointed tomorr—’ He looked at his watch. ‘Dear me, it is tomorrow. Anyway, I don’t want any bugger on that hill until we’ve been over it in daylight.’
‘How long are you staying?’
‘I’ll drive you to your car and then I’ll come back for an hour or two. See if I can make enough progress to stake a claim.’
‘On the case?’
‘Soon as Howe gets in tomorrow, she’ll be working out how to remove me from the investigation. Being so close to the Worcester border doesn’t help.’ Bliss unlocked his car. ‘Don’t want to be too tired to put up a decent resistance.’
He drove past the side of the Malvern Hills Hotel and into the road that led back to Wychehill.
‘However,’ he said, ‘if I did want to keep going until sunrise, and probably the sunrise after that, the answer would be in the knapsack that one of the lads has found among the rocks. Up by the Giant’s Cave, as it’s known.’
‘A knapsack … full of … ?’
‘In very saleable quantities. We’ll know for certain in the morning if it belonged to our friend.’
‘He was a dealer?’
‘Not for me to defame the dead without forensic evidence, but … yeh.’
‘He was dealing on Herefordshire Beacon?’
‘Oh heavens! A purveyor of narcotic substances on a national monument. Merrily, imagine for a moment, if you’re a Malvern professional person throwing a dinner party, how much more civilized it would be to stock up on the After Eights on a balmy summer evening with all-round views.’
‘Luckily I’m a vicar who can’t afford to throw dinner parties. Bloody hell, Frannie.’
‘But what puzzles me is who would brutally unthroat a drug dealer … and then not even nick his flamin’ stash?’ Bliss cruised down the hill past the darkened Royal Oak in its tree-lined quarry. ‘I’m norra great believer in coincidence, Merrily.’
‘Look … what can I tell you? I’ve been to a public meeting where the community had to decide what it wanted me to do about the ghost of … of a cyclist. If anything in that connects with an appallingly nasty murder of a drug dealer on the lower slopes of Hereford-shire Beacon it isn’t obvious to me. But then, it is late.’
‘But you’ll be coming back, I take it.’
‘And I might not be. So keep me informed.’
‘And you keep me informed.’
In the north-eastern sky, she could see amber strips. Probably a false dawn. Midsummer morning in Elgar’s England.
‘Not only did they not take his drugs,’ Bliss said, ‘they didn’t even nick his mobile. Work that out.’
‘Both in prehistory and in the medieval period, the Malverns were in effect a ritual landscape against which various religious rites were played out.’
Jane, at breakfast, said, ‘I haven’t been trying to avoid you.’
‘Did I say you had?’
‘Lol said you had. Which means the same thing.’
‘Actually,’ Merrily said, ‘I was feeling bad that I hadn’t been, as they say, here for you. Maybe you could take me to see this Coleman’s Meadow? When you get home from school.’
After some sweaty, befuddled dreams that she couldn’t remember but knew were unpleasant, Merrily just wanted to do something normal. She sat and looked at Jane across the refectory table. Wished they could stay here like this all day.
Jane said, ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Difficult night.’ Merrily put an extra spoonful of sugar in her tea. ‘After the meeting, Frannie Bliss took me to look at a murder scene.’
‘Scousers really know how to show a woman a good time. Like … why, exactly?’
‘Because the dead man was found with his throat cut on something called the Sacrificial Stone at Herefordshire Beacon and Bliss wanted to eliminate the possibility of it being a ritual midsummer slaughter by pagans.’
‘Wow. For a vicar, you really—’
Merrily watched her daughter, translating every facial twitch: Jane trying not to be impressed while remembering she had guilty secrets and couldn’t afford to be too abrasive over…
‘Pagans doing ritual murder? That is so insulting.’
‘As Bliss pointed out, there are pagans and pagans. Anyway, it was bloody horrible, and I didn’t get back until nearly two a.m. So if you’ve been trying to avoid me, I’ve not been aware of it.’
‘Who was the vic?’
Kid watched too many American crime shows on Channel Five.
‘When I left, he was still unidentified. Jane … do you know anything about a dance venue called Inn Ya Face?’
‘Best thing about that place –’ Jane spread a slab of honey, obscenely, on a crumpet ‘– is its name.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I’ve been, obviously.’
‘When? You never mentioned that.’
‘We didn’t stop long. I mean, it’s a good place to go because there’s masses of parking space, supervised by these hard-looking guys so you don’t get your car nicked, and it’s free. We thought we might go again some time, if there was anybody particularly cool appearing, but we somehow never have.’
‘You and Eirion?’
‘Dr Samedi was supposed to be on – you remember Jeff, from Kidderminster?’
‘Oddly, I was only thinking about Dr Samedi last night. He’s still in business?’
‘Yeah, but we got the wrong night. There was this really poxy band on, thought they were the new Chemical Brothers. Really bad. Not bad as in wicked, bad as in … crap.’
‘Talking of chemicals—’
‘Whoever told you I’m doing drugs is—’
‘I meant the Royal Oak. Inn Ya Face. Could you – if you wanted to – get much there?’
‘Mum, how naive are you? You can get it anywhere. There are like ten-year-old dealers outside playgroups? I mean, all that meet-me-on-the-corner-when-the-lights-are-going-on stuff … that’s costume drama.’
‘That’s an exaggeration, right?’
‘Not much of one. Prices have never been lower in Hereford. So I’m told. Look, Mum … erm…’ Jane’s eyes flickered. ‘You heard from anyone? About … me?’
‘I don’t know … Morrell?’
‘The head?’ Merrily drank some hot tea. What was this? ‘Why Morrell, Jane? Does he know about your serial truancy?’
‘Serial—? Mum, that is absolute sh—’
‘How many times?’
Jane picked up a piece of crumpet, put it down again, stared at it and sighed.
‘I swear. Look, if I’d asked for time off the premises to work on my project I’d’ve got it. I just didn’t want to…’
‘Tell them exactly what the project involved.’
‘Because … All right, because I went round to Councillor Pierce’s place to ask him about this housing plan, and there were all these county council guys there, and one was a woman from the education authority.’
‘Why don’t I like the sound of this?’
‘I mean I wasn’t, you know, rude to them or anything. Just tried to get my point over about Coleman’s Meadow being, essentially, an important ancient monument, and they said that was all crap, and Alfred Watkins was a misguided old man. They called it “acceptable infill”. And Lyndon Pierce said he wanted to build Ledwardine up into a thriving little town with like restaurants and massage parlours?’
‘He said that?’
‘Well, he said restaurants. And a new village hall – leisure centre – that’s already going ahead, apparently.’
‘That’s rubbish. I’d have heard. Been consulted, even.’
‘No, really. They’re getting a Lottery grant.’
‘Seems very unlikely to me. I was at a christening tea in the village hall yesterday. It’s going to be redecorated next month.’
‘It sounded like a seriously done deal to me,’ Jane said.
‘I’ll check it out. What did you say to them?’
‘Nothing. Not really. When this woman started banging on about Morrell, I just got out of there.’ Jane stood up, brushing cat hairs from her skirt. ‘You do look knackered, Mum.’
‘I am knackered – let’s not get sidetracked.’
Merrily inspected Jane in her school uniform, hoping it wasn’t only familiarity that made her daughter look innocent rather than sultry and faintly menacing like some of the other girls you saw waiting for the school bus. Jane going, on her own, to see Pierce … that was kind of admirable, but whether Pierce would regard it as mature and socially aware was a different matter.
‘You haven’t done anything else I should know about, have you?’
Call it intuition.
‘He used to shoot blue tits off nut dispensers,’ Jane said.
‘Lyndon Pierce. When he was a kid. Lucy Devenish tried to stop him and he pointed his airgun at her, and then Gomer—’
‘Gomer told you this?’
‘Gomer took the gun off him and flattened it under his JCB. I bet the bastard didn’t put that in his election leaflets.’
‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to try and blackmail him or anything.’ Jane shouldered her airline bag. ‘I’m probably not even going to say anything about his old man, Percy Pierce, doing a dirty deal with the disgusting Rod Powell to get this, like, agricultural restriction lifted.’
‘So he could build Lyndon’s revolting Las Vegas-style villa. I’m not going to hang that on him … yet.’
‘Good,’ Merrily said. ‘I’m delighted you’re probably not going to attempt to blackmail the local councillor, because it is, as you know, a serious crime.’
‘Building on Coleman’s Meadow is also a crime,’ Jane said. ‘Well … better get off, I suppose.’
The phone started ringing. Merrily rose.
‘There is something I don’t know, isn’t there?’
‘Well, obviously, there must be lots of things, Mum,’ Jane said. ‘But I can’t imagine anything that would cause you a particular problem.’
‘When did you ever?’
As soon as Merrily heard Spicer’s voice on the phone, flat and neutral as underlay, it came to her how much she didn’t want to go back there.
‘You had a good night, then,’ he said.
‘I had a bloody awful night. But how would you know?’
The time for civility was long gone. It was clear that Wychehill – whatever Wychehill was – needed help, the element of nervous dysfunction quiveringly obvious. And, as Lol had said when she’d rung to tell him about last night, it was surely time that Spicer did something about it, rather than some outsider. Of course, that could just have been Lol not wanting her to go back either.
‘I’m glad you went,’ Spicer said.
‘You were told to call me off, weren’t you?’
‘Yeah, but I couldn’t reach you, could I?’
‘Of course you could.’
‘Who told you to call me off?’
‘He’s just a funny bloke. Proprietorial. His family goes back. I mean, really goes back – Norman times. I’m not saying he doesn’t like outsiders, exactly – the guy’s running upmarket holiday accommodation on his farm – but he likes to be in control. And people in Wychehill like him to be in control. They’re all outsiders and they like to buy into the history. Even Holliday.’
‘So Holliday was firing Devereaux’s bullets?’
‘Holliday would’ve run with Elgar’s ghost, all the way to the News of the World, even if he doesn’t believe a word of it. Maybe because he doesn’t believe a word. I can understand Devereaux not wanting that – I wouldn’t want it.’
‘But you weren’t there last night.’
‘No point. It was a stitch-up. But like I say, I’m glad you went. It worked out. A requiem will be spot-on. Everybody happy.’
‘Why do I feel I’ve been stitched up?’
‘Trust me, it’s the best thing. Devereaux respects you now. That counts.’
‘What about Stella Cobham?’
‘Oh, he isn’t gonna forget that, is he? She came close to making a fool of him.’
‘And what’s your feeling now about … what we’re dealing with?’
‘Don’t matter what my feelings are. What are yours?’
‘It’s impressive. But if there’s going to be a requiem, maybe you should do it.’
Startled by the force of Spicer’s response, Merrily said nothing.
‘It’s not my thing. All right? I can get you the names and addresses of the dead kids’ parents. Been in touch with the priest handling the joint funeral in Cookman’s parish. I can make the arrangements – all you have to do is show up.’
‘This coming Sunday? Evening?’
‘Why not? Thank you, Merrily.’ A long expulsion of breath; he was smoking. ‘I hear you were up on the hill last night.’
She was getting used to how long it took him to get around to crucial issues.
‘All it was … a CID man I know was in charge up there. He thought I might be able to help. He was wrong.’
‘Why’d he think that, Merrily?’
‘Because it looked as if there was a ritual element to it.’
‘Nah,’ Spicer said. ‘It’s urban business, innit?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘He was a bouncer. At the Oak.’
‘I didn’t know that. Syd…’
‘Are there still serious drugs coming out of there, in quantity?’
‘That what your pal thinks?’
‘Not my place. But I did hear something about Preston Devereaux’s boy. Not Hugo, the other one.’
‘Louis. He’s about twenty-three now. What did you hear?’
‘That he’d gone off the rails after the hunt ban.’
‘Yeah, that’s true. Youngest-ever master of the East Malvern hunt. Lived for it, totally. Ban came in, he had a breakdown, of sorts. Like his life had been cut off at the roots.’
‘But his father … moved on?’
‘As he likes to say. Yeah, he sold the horses. All the other hunts, with the tacit approval of the gutless wankers in the Cabinet, are doing pretend drag hunts where foxes just accidentally get killed. Preston’s too proud.’
‘So when he says, you move on…’
‘He means, you move on, disguising your rage and loathing. Don’t give them the satisfaction.’
‘And does that also explain his attitude to the Royal Oak?’
‘You’re doing very well, Merrily,’ Spicer said. ‘It usually takes outsiders years to acquire that level of local understanding.’
‘I live in a village.’
‘He’s right,’ Bliss said. ‘Roman Wicklow. A hard-boy.’
He wouldn’t talk on the phone, so it was back to that same table in the Cathedral cloisters. Outside, it was an all-too-typical midsummer morning: small, white sun crowded by sour clouds, not very warm.
‘His form includes ABH, malicious wounding and possession of Class A. Bromsgrove’s his old playground, so they’ll be looking there.’
‘They? Not you?’
‘Mr One-night-stand, me.’ No doughnut this time, Bliss was drinking black coffee. ‘Left to meself, I’d be roasting Raji on a slow spit. But when you’re off the case, you’re off the case.’
‘Annie Howe’s taken over?’
‘Since first light. Legitimately. It’s a Worcester thing now, from all angles.’
‘But you’re still interested?’
‘In an academic way.’
‘I managed to…’ Bliss sipped his coffee, winced, added sugar. ‘Before they broke the news, we had another word with two of the little scallies who found the remains. Thirteen-year-olds sharing a six-pack of Fosters, so a little mild pressure was permissible. Finally admitted this wasn’t the first time they’d seen Roman up the Beacon.’
‘Mr Khan was terribly shocked. Assuring me he’d have fired Roman at once if he’d so much as suspected. And, you know, strange thing, I think he was shocked. Mr Wicklow dealing on the Beacon? Handful of rocks and a few piffling grams?’
‘You think he really didn’t know?’
‘That kind of trade would be far too trivial for Raji, not to mention dangerously close to home. Yeh, I believe him when he says he’d have had Wicklow’s balls if he’d found out. Wicklow was freelancing. Probably made the arrangements in the pubs in Great Malvern, then met the clients in the fresh air, with those wonderful, far-reaching views of anybody approaching and a nice cave to shelter in.’
‘Therefore Khan’s not involved?’
‘Oh, I never said that.’ Bliss looked down into his coffee, lowered his voice. ‘If he’d found out that one of his people was operating on the side and figured it was time an example was made of someone foolish enough to abuse his position … well, that just might explain why the goody bag was left at the scene.’
‘He had Wicklow killed?’
Bliss smiled. ‘Try and prove it.’
Merrily leaned back. A stray blade of wan sunlight tinted an edge of the Bishop’s lawn. Another world.
‘So ritual murder’s definitely ruled out?’
‘It was never really ruled in. Also, Doc McEwen’s knocked down his own theory that it would’ve taken several people. Wound on the back of the head now suggests that Wicklow was clobbered first and then dragged to the stone before his throat was cut. Assuming an element of surprise, one person could have done that.’
‘And it wouldn’t have taken long, I suppose?’
‘By comparison, no time at all.’ Bliss looked at her, his eyes slitted. ‘Still funny it should happen when you’re around, though.’
‘You’re considering the possibility that I did it?’
‘Can you think of a better way of little Francis becoming Annie Howe’s favourite detective in the whole world? Instead of off the flaming case.’
Merrily hadn’t yet been to the office, slightly worried about facing Sophie, whose reasoning, on the issue of Wychehill and Syd Spicer, had been, as it had turned out, flawless.
Sophie wasn’t in, however – probably over at the Palace, dealing with the Bishop’s mail. The computer was switched off, but four messages were on the answering machine, one of them non-routine and left less than four minutes ago.
‘Mrs Watkins, this is Winchester Sparke.’
Sophie came in with a cardboard file under her arm, sat down opposite Merrily and began to unpack it, assembling a small pile of letters on the desk.
‘I need to speak with you.’ Winnie Sparke’s voice was harsh and frayed. Please call me back. I— The cops have taken Tim. Came pounding on his door … took him away.’
Lord of Dread
Merrily rang Bliss on his mobile.
‘Hold on a mo.’ She heard the sound of feet on stairs and then an outside acoustic, city traffic. ‘Yeh, I’ve just heard. It was a surprise to me, too. You know anything about this feller?’
‘He’s a composer. A music teacher. What’s the basis for it?’
‘I don’t know, Merrily, it’s not my case.’
‘Can’t you find out?’
‘If I make a nuisance of meself. Hate to use a hackneyed old phrase, but what’s in it for me? And I don’t want a mention in your prayers; you’re a Protestant.’ He sniffed. ‘All right, here’s my inspired guess: an outrage crime.’
‘Is an outrage crime what I’m thinking it is?’
‘Way I’m looking at it is, we’ve got two local dealers taken out within a fortnight, both in rural areas. I told you about the guy in Pershore?’
‘But didn’t you say he was shot in his car? Modus operandi doesn’t exactly tally, does it?’
‘Modus schmodus, Pershore’s still only half an hour’s drive from Wychehill. But is Annie Howe looking at it from that perspective? Oh no, too small-time and messy. Annie wants an outrage crime. By which I mean where some normally law-abiding person or persons is pushed well beyond the limits of socially acceptable behaviour by the perceived collapse of everything he or she holds dear.’
‘That’s vigilantism, Frannie. That’s Death Wish 2. I’ve never met Tim Loste and I don’t know that much about him. But a musician and choirmaster, however troubled, doesn’t really strike me as the most obvious serial killer of drug dealers.’
‘Doesn’t matter. Annie wants Loste because he’s white and middle-class. I’ll see what I can find out and get back to you.’
Merrily held the phone to her ear long after the click, watching Sophie sorting the Bishop’s correspondence, recalling her reaction to the Royal Oak becoming Inn Ya Face.
One day, I think, we may be pushed too far.
‘You were off sick on Monday,’ Robert Morrell said.
Sick was a dirty word to Morrell. He worked out three nights a week in the school gym, did the London Marathon, and his skin was lightly tanned all year round. You had to be suspicious of a head teacher with a sunlamp.
Jane nodded. ‘It was a migraine. I get them sometimes in summer.’
‘And it persisted through yesterday.’
‘Well, I was going to come in yesterday, and I went out to wait for the bus and it … it just came on again.’
‘You been to the doctor, Jane?’
‘Well, no … I know what it is. It’s a migraine. I’ve had it before. It’s like … it’s horrible. First of all, you see these big black spots in front of your eyes, and then it…’
‘Comes and goes, I imagine.’
‘Yes, it does. That’s what it does. Comes and … goes.’
‘And this … conveniently capricious migraine was presumably in remission on Monday night when you paid a surprise visit to Councillor Pierce at his home.’
Oh God. Any vague hope that Jane had had that this was not why Morrell had sent for her hit the deck like a bag of flour. It was going to take a lot of sweeping up.
‘I … erm, the migraine seemed to be easing off by the evening, so I went for a walk in the cool air to clear my head … and I just happened to be passing that way and … you know … got chatting to these people. Not knowing who they were, at first. Only, the thing is, I’m using aspects of local history for my art project, and I was thinking that now I was feeling better I could at least do some work on the, erm, project, and so … I’m sorry, Rob, this probably sounds…’
‘Yes, it does, Jane.’
‘I didn’t … I mean…’
Jane’s resolve collapsed. She really didn’t like this new policy of Morrell’s where, when you reached the sixth form, you were permitted to call him Rob. Like you were all mates. So that when you did something wrong, it was like you’d let down your mate. Which was totally ridiculous because there was no way Jane would ever get close to having a mate like Morrell, with his tracksuits, his sunlamp, his neatly shaven head, his minimalist office, his Tony Blair smile…
He did it now, that ghastly smile, and then he leaned back in his executive chair and spoke with the kind of horrible lazy fluency that must have persuaded the thick bastards on the education authority that he was smooth enough to do this job.
‘Jane, tell me … which particular part of your project involves haranguing elected members and officers of the Herefordshire Council for performing their democratic duty in opening the way for the kind of much-needed rural housing that may enable you and your fellow students to remain in this area when you leave the education system, rather than becoming economic migrants?’
By the time Jane had worked this out, it was too late for any kind of smart response. Morrell’s smile vanished, like that of the tiger deciding it was time to stop playing with his prey and get down to the meal.
‘Perhaps I need to make it clear to you, Ms Watkins, that, as a sixth-former, you are an ambassador for this school in the greater community. Do you understand what I mean?’
Jane just nodded; couldn’t even manage a respectable display of dumb insolence.
‘All right. On this occasion, to save further embarrassment, and to protect our exemplary record on truancy, I informed Councillor Mrs Bird – the vice-chairman of Education and one of our governors, as I’d have thought you would remember – that on this occasion you’d been given time off to work on your project.’
‘Thank you,’ Jane said feebly.
‘And I’ll thank you –’ Morrell’s palm slammed down on his desktop ‘ – not to drag the name of this school into disrepute in future, with your lies and your childish fantasies. Do you understand what I’m saying? Far from covering up for you, next time…’
‘Good,’ Morrell said lightly. ‘Off you go.’
Bending his shaven head over some report, he highlighted a line of type with a yellow marker pen. In the doorway, ashamed of her craven attitude, Jane turned round.
‘It’s not low-cost housing, you know. It’s luxury, executive—’
‘Geddout, Jane,’ Morrell murmured. ‘You’re beginning to bore me.’
Jane just like fell out into the corridor, knowing her face would be red and scrunched up. Feeling the heat of tears and weight of the Establishment. It was like … Stalinist: the Council, intent on crushing all opposition, putting the word out to the chief of police to warn her off.
She stumbled into the toilet to wash her face and then went into one of the cubicles and fumbled out her mobile to leave a message on Eirion’s phone, see if he could pick her up after school. Needing someone to howl to.
Soon as she switched on, the voicemail signal buzzed, and she clapped both hands around the phone because Morrell was strict on the use of mobiles during class-time – confiscation had been known, for as long as a week, and in this case would be guaranteed, and then the secret police would have all her private contacts.
You have one message. To access your messages, press one.
Probably be Eirion, saying he was going to be tied up tonight. Jane pressed one.
‘Hello, Ms Watkins.’ This strange, cheerful man’s voice. ‘My name is Jerry Isles, and I work for the Guardian newspaper. I’d like to discuss your campaign on behalf of the, um, Ledwardine ley? Could you please call me back?’
Jane stood there, with her back to the cubicle door, staring into the toilet, the mobile feeling like a stick of dynamite with a fizzing fuse. When she and Eirion had done the document for the Net, she’d put her mobile in as the contact number, mainly because she didn’t want anybody ringing the vicarage. Expecting maybe a couple of concerned ley-hunters who might be prepared to send letters of protest to the council.
The Guardian? Jeez.
* * *
‘And what do you know about this man Loste?’ Sophie asked.
‘Nothing.’ Merrily spread her hands. ‘Hearsay. I’ve never met him. I’ve never even seen him.’
She’d just called Winnie Sparke. The call had lasted around half a minute, Sparke insisting that she didn’t like to speak on the phone and could they meet this afternoon, somewhere other than Wychehill? Great Malvern would be appropriate. She knew a place they could be private.
‘You’re going?’ Sophie said.
‘What can I do?’
‘This man has been taken in for questioning about a peculiarly savage and revolting murder and you propose to meet his girlfriend somewhere private.’
‘I’m not sure she’s his girlfriend.’
‘Do you even know anything about her?’
‘There are only twenty-four short hours in a day, Sophie.’ Merrily slumped back in her chair, leaning it against the wall. ‘And I’m already working most of them.’
‘I’m sorry. I’ll see what I can find out.’
‘I’m sure you’ve a stack of letters to do for the Bishop—’
‘Shush,’ Sophie said, as the phone rang. ‘Gatehouse. Yes, she is.’ Sighing. ‘One moment, Inspector.’
Merrily sat up, groping for the phone.
‘Mr Loste, Merrily.’ Bliss coming at her like a fast train hissing from a tunnel. ‘If you wanna know, in absolute, pain-of-death confidence, why they’ve brought him in, listen up, because I don’t have much time. You got shorthand?’
‘Sophie’s is better.’
‘Then put me back to Sophie. And this really doesn’t go any further than the two of you, understand, or I’ll be in more shite than you could ever imagine.’
‘What I’m giving you is a text message received by Raji Khan last night, transmitted from Wicklow’s mobile. Read and destroy, then call me back and tell me what you think.’
‘Texted by Wicklow?’
‘Texted, almost certainly, after Wicklow’s death by Wicklow’s killer or an accomplice and passed on to Howe by Khan in his capacity as an upright citizen. You’ll find it fairly unbelievable. Gimme Sophie.’
Merrily handed over the phone and played nervously with her Zippo, watching Sophie reaching for a notepad and pen, beginning to write.
‘Sign? Oh, thine. I’m sorry … continue.’
Arcane Pitman loops and whorls and dots. Everything suddenly moving unintelligibly fast.
‘Yes … yes…’ Sophie’s eyebrows raised. ‘My God, yes … so it is. No, I won’t do that. Thank you, Inspector.’ She hung up, tore off the top page of her notebook and sat down to transcribe. ‘I recognized it at once.’
‘Let me finish.’
Sophie reversed the shorthand notebook, pushed it across the desk to Merrily. She’d hand-printed the transcription. ‘I was instructed not to put it into the computer.’
Lord of dread and lord of power
This is thine, the fateful hour.
When beneath the sacred oak
Thrice the sacred charm is spoke,
Thrice the sacrificial knife
Reddens with a victim’s life,
Thrice the mystic dance is led
Round the altar where they bled.
‘What is it?’ Merrily looked up. ‘Black Sabbath?’
‘It’s…’ Sophie frowned ‘… Elgar, I’m afraid. His librettist, anyway. It’s an extract from the cantata we discussed.’
‘The Dream of—? It can’t be.’
‘Gerontius is an oratorio,’ Sophie said with no sarcasm. ‘Of a kind. The cantata is Caractacus.’
‘Oh. The one set on…’
‘Herefordshire Beacon. British Camp.’
‘Literally. The passage relates to where Caractacus, facing his final confrontation with the Romans, is directed by various prophecies from what you might call Druids of the old school. The libretto … particularly on paper, it lacks a certain subtlety of expression. Elgar wasn’t famous then. It was written by a neighbour, a Mr Acworth. A retired civil servant, as I recall.’
‘And this bollocks was texted to Khan?’
… the sacrificial knife
Reddens with a victim’s life
Merrily stood up and turned to the window: Broad Street traffic, T-shirts, summer frocks.
Inn Ya Face.
The phone went again and Sophie took it, her reading glasses dropping down on their chain. She wasn’t on long.
‘I’ll tell her,’ she said. ‘If I see her. Thank you.’ When she looked up at Merrily, her face was creasing with an unexpected, almost motherly concern. ‘You can’t react to everything.’
‘Just tell me.’
‘Detective Chief Inspector Howe’s office. She would like to meet you in Wychehill later this afternoon.’
‘Howe wants to see me?’
‘The sergeant said she very much hopes it will be convenient.’
‘Which means if I don’t show there’ll be a police car outside the vicarage at some ungodly hour.’
‘I’m sorry, Merrily.’
What the hell was this about? Merrily sat down, laid her palms on the desk, took two long breaths and called Bliss back.
‘No idea,’ Bliss said. ‘But whatever the bitch wants, you keep me well out of it. What do you reckon about the text?’
‘If it wasn’t so bad it’d be creepy. How many people would recognize the words of an Elgar cantata?’
‘In the Malverns,’ Sophie murmured, ‘about four thousand.’
‘Not a great many rival dealers,’ Bliss said. ‘That’s for sure. We must be looking at one of the principal reasons for them picking up Mr Loste.’
‘Maybe he’s just advising them, as an exper— No. Sorry, I’m overtired. It was texted to Raji Khan personally?’
‘To the Royal Oak landline.’
‘Would that work?’
‘You can text a landline and the message gets read out over the phone.’
‘Loste has an oak,’ Merrily said.
‘I just thought. Loste has an oak planted in his front garden.’
‘It is when your garden’s barely big enough for a dwarf apple-tree. A lot of oaks here, that’s all I was thinking. Sacrificial oak. Royal Oak…’
‘And the oak was the sacred tree of the Druids. Even I know that. What does it tell us?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe Annie Howe does?’
‘You know,’ Bliss said, ‘if it turns out Annie’s pulled the right man within just a few hours … I’d really hate that.’
When Merrily got back from the health-food shop with some hard-looking bean and chick-pea pasties, Sophie was printing out a document.
‘Didn’t take long to find her.’
It was from Amazon.
Most popular results for Dr C. Winchester Sparke
Homing (trade paperback, March 2004)
A Healer’s Diary (with Declan Flynn, hardback, October 2001)
Life-defining: a self-help tutor (paperback, June 2000)
Legacy of the Golden Dawn (paperback, reissued 2002)
‘A writer,’ Merrily said. ‘It makes sense. I wondered what an American woman was doing living in the Malverns on her own. Kept meaning to ask people, but it never … A writer can live anywhere.’
‘All her books appear to fall under the general heading of Mind, Body and Spirit,’ Sophie said, with faint distaste, ‘so I’m not sure how seriously we can take the Doctor.’
‘New Age. She comes over as very … almost archetypally New Age.’
‘Be careful,’ Sophie said.
Winnie Sparke cupped her hands, drank from the holy spring and then looked up at Merrily, holy water rippling down her face, hands pushing her wet curls back over both ears.
For a moment she looked stricken and feral, like some captured wood nymph.
‘You have to help me. He’ll die in there, I’m not kidding.’
Inside the nineteenth-century gabled building which enclosed the Holy Well, the once-sacred healing water ran from a thin plastic pipe into a stone sink. On the floor, a red cross was marked out in tiles. On the wall above the pipe someone had scrawled, in black, The Goddess For Ever.
Neo-pagan graffiti. Up in the wooded hills on the outskirts of town, it all seemed a little sad, a New Age fringe thing, no longer part of mainstream Malvern.
‘You have contacts in the police, I know you do,’ Winnie Sparke said. ‘You have to get it over to them that Tim didn’t do this thing.’
Like Wychehill on a grand scale, Great Malvern clung to the sides of hills, its houses and shops and public buildings like the seats in a long stadium with the vast Severn Plain as its arena. The difference being that the real action had been up here, where a village had grown into a fashionable resort town founded on a Victorian faith in the curative powers of spring water.
Now all that was long over, and Great Malvern was just a busy town with heavy scenery. Steep streets, an historic priory church built of exotically coloured stones, a good theatre and most of the wells and springs hidden away. Nowadays, if you wanted to drink the pure, healing water you were advised by the health police to boil it first, C. Winchester Sparke had said in disgust.
‘Like, nobody understands any more. Nobody gets it about the energy of springs. The water’s gushing and gurgling all through these rocks, like a blood supply, and nobody’s revelling in it any more. It’s become repressed, stifled … like the long-forgotten Wychehill well.’
‘There was a well at Wychehill?’ Merrily said.
‘According to legend. Hell, more than that – according to history. There was this holy well at Wychehill that was supposed to have stopped flowing and nobody knows where it is. My theory is that it was blocked during the damn quarrying. Explains a lot about Wychehill.’
Winnie Sparke had said they had to meet here because Wychehill had too many furtive, prying eyes. Including Annie Howe’s this afternoon, Merrily thought, so it wasn’t a bad idea. They were lone pilgrims at the Holy Well. She’d found Winnie sitting on its steps, wearing a white summer dress and a cardigan decorated with ancient Egyptian figures making camp hand gestures.
‘Why would they think he killed this man, Dr Sparke?’
Merrily stood in the doorway arch, looking down at the trees softening the vast green vista of the plain. Obviously, she couldn’t tell Winnie Sparke about the text.
‘Please don’t call me Dr Sparke. People over here, an American called Dr Something, they think you purchased it off the web for like thirty dollars?’ Winnie smiled wanly through the water-glaze. ‘There’s a public bridle-way across there.’
‘With a park bench,’ Merrily said. ‘Do you mind if we sit on the bench? I didn’t get to bed until first light.’
‘OK, we’ll sit on the bench. Whatever. It’s just I’m feeling like I need to move, make things take off … This is a very stressful time.’
In full daylight, Winnie looked older. A woman well into middle age but with good skin and good hair. They walked down from the Holy Well, across a small parking area and on to the bridleway, which sloped scenically away into the trees. They sat on the bench.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t really know … you and Tim Loste?’
‘Friends. And fellow searchers. Tim came to Wychehill for a purpose. He had an inheritance which allowed him to throw up his teaching job and pursue his … calling.’
Merrily waited. The sun, hidden for most of the day, was now warm on her face.
‘Elgar. People keep calling it an obsession – I hate that word, it implies a sickness rather than a penetrating, inspirational, creative focus. Is it so bad to be driven?’
‘Depends what you’re driven towards, I suppose.’
‘Towards what drove Elgar. What made him into the greatest composer these islands ever had.’
‘And does Tim Loste know what that was?’
‘Oh, sure. I believe we’ve gotten close to that. The results will be Tim’s own piece for orchestra and choir, with a divine theme, involving Elgar himself as a character. A major work about the stress and agony leading up to the realization of a great and beautiful mystery.’
‘And your part is … ?
‘I get to write the words, the libretto.’
Winnie looked away, at the view.
‘And what is the mystery?’
‘It’s a mystery,’ Winnie said. ‘Hell, if we were in Wychehill, I wouldn’t even be telling you this much. But, believe me, it’s an awesome thing.’
‘You don’t like Wychehill?’
‘I like my cottage. I like my views, I love the Malverns. No, I don’t like Wychehill the way it is right now. I bought in a hurry after my divorce, and at some stage I’m gonna move on. I’m being frank with you. See, in Wychehill, they regard Tim not as a precious, fragile talent but as some kind of village idiot, a liability. You ask people there, like that asshole Holliday, if they think he killed the guy on the hill, they’ll go, sure, why not … look at the history.’
‘I heard he … smashed a window at the Royal Oak?’
‘Oh wow, a window, yeah.’ Winnie sighed. ‘Sure, he did that. And got himself caught and beat up on by the muscle there. Who told you about that? Syd?’
A worrying idea settled on Merrily like cold air around her shoulders.
‘Who exactly … who was it beat him up, do you know?’
‘The muscle! They have these doormen who— Oh.’ Winnie’s head began to nod like a dog ornament on a car’s rear-window shelf. ‘OK, right, now I see where you’re coming from. You think this guy, Roland…’
‘OK. Look, maybe it was him, maybe it wasn’t, I wouldn’t know. Only the cops could think that was significant. Truth of it is, Tim wouldn’t even remember who it was beat up on him. The night it happened – two, three months ago? – he was up on the Beacon trying to puzzle something out in his work, and the wind was in the wrong direction, blew it up the hill, this techno, hiphop shit – barbaric, he called it, like an invasion. He couldn’t shut it out. It was filling up his head and he went a little crazy.’
‘He’d been drinking?’
‘I’m working on that.’ Winnie Sparke looked down. ‘I’m trying to clean it out of him with meditation.’
‘What happened next?’ Merrily said.
‘He coulda just walked away. He can walk seven, eight miles up there on a clear night, I’ve known him do that. But … he stormed off down to the Royal Oak, took a rock out the wall, and he hurled it through a window. And then he like … he just stood there on the parking lot, screaming like a mad person. Like, if it was me, I’d’ve put the damn rock through the glass, run like hell. He just stood there screaming. Like he wanted them to come out for him. I guess he has a certain masochistic streak. And they obliged, my God, did they oblige…’
‘He was badly hurt?’
‘Those guys don’t pull punches and they hit where it doesn’t show. It was lucky Helen – the roving nurse? – was passing in her car, and she went to fetch Syd and they pulled him out, took him home. Didn’t leave the house for five days. I wanted to have a doctor check him over, but he said … he refused. I guess the main damage was emotional. Spiritual. He became depressed, couldn’t work for maybe two weeks. But hey, nobody could think he’d take such an extreme…’
Winnie’s dark eyes were shining hot and bruised under the heavy curls.
‘I checked you out. On the Church of England Deliverance website. Also, some news stories. A lot happened to you, very quickly. Guess that was to do with being a woman in this job. Not too many women exorcists?’
‘Not many, no.’ Merrily anticipated the way this might be going. ‘Maybe I’ll write a book about it. In about thirty years.’
Winnie smiled ruefully in the shadows of her hair.
‘Wicklow…’ Merrily groped for a way of putting this without mentioning the text message. ‘Roman Wicklow’s body was found on what’s called the Sacrificial Stone. Nobody seems to be sure whether it ever was that, but it’s … obviously in a place immortalized in Elgar’s Caractacus, as the site of Druidic blood rituals. It wouldn’t be too hard for the police to see connections. I mean, the music Tim Loste puts on with his choir in the church. Obviously Elgar, but … ?’
‘They did Caractacus once.’ Winnie Sparke looked down at her hands, still wet, in her lap. ‘OK. Tim is director of an amateur choir made up of men and women from all over the three counties. They did Caractacus, with incomplete instrumentation, and in spite of all of that it was pretty awesome. Tim wanted to stage it, open-air, on the Beacon, tap into that original energy, but the expense ruled it out. And the logistics. Getting an orchestra up there? And if it rained? And, worse than that, what if there was some rave thing on at the Oak, at the same time? Some nights, the amplified sound carries miles, drowns the valley.’
‘I imagine it must’ve become the bane of his life, that pub?’
Winnie Sparke gave Merrily a hard look, like she was beginning to wonder if she wasn’t talking to the wrong person.
‘I’m just trying to look at it from the police’s point of view,’ Merrily said.
‘That an artistic guy like Tim Loste could overpower some professional thug and then take out his throat?’
‘I don’t know … anything about him. I don’t know how big he is or how old…’
‘He’s a creative person who hates violence, is all.’
They stopped talking while two women on horses clopped past.
‘And he wasn’t at the meeting at the church last night,’ Merrily said. ‘I would’ve expected him to be there.’
‘Uh-huh.’ Winnie shook her curls. ‘I wouldn’t let him near the church last night. I came on his behalf. See, when he heard about that meeting, he was scared you were gonna try to work some kind of exorcism … to dispel the spirit of Elgar? Me, too. I was just so mad at Syd for bringing in an exorcist, I wanted you to realize the hugeness of this thing you were being asked to do. Like if you’d jumped the wrong way in the church, I was ready to take it to the media – hey, here’s the Church of England gonna drive the spirit of Elgar out of his beloved hills?’
‘Nobody would dare consider anything like that. There’d be a national outcry.’
‘Yeah, you say that now. But if you saw Tim, the state he was in, believe me, you might’ve been ready to look at something drastic. He needed … he needed to calm down some.’
‘So you told him to stay away.’
‘I was scared he’d start yelling, say something stupid.’
‘Where did you find him, in the end?’
‘The place I left him. The one place I could be sure … and I’m not gonna tell you, OK? You don’t need to know that.’
‘The police might need to. If you can prove he couldn’t have been anywhere near the Beacon when—’
‘I can’t prove it, I wasn’t with him, OK?’ Winnie looked away. ‘I can’t talk to cops, their minds run on narrow rails.’ She stood up. ‘I’m sorry, I need to walk.’
Merrily followed her along the bridleway, thinking that the Malverns weren’t exactly wild any more; few areas of this long, bumpy spine were unreachable by well-used footpaths.
‘The gentle heart of England,’ Winnie Sparke said. ‘Miles of fertile, tranquil lowland … and then, suddenly, you have these volcanic rocks. Like a long altar rising from the plain of the Severn. And, you see, that … is precisely what it was – a place of spiritual significance since the Stone Age. To the early Christians, a dark place.’
‘You mean a stronghold of pagan worship?’
‘Still rich in stories of curses and the devil. So I guess what you had was a wilderness place for early Christian hermits to test their faith. A retreat for hermits and seers and prophets, riddled with springs – life-force. And I guess what you have now, Merrily – battered, hacked-at and under-esteemed – is the remains of an altar.’
‘An altar to Elgar?’
‘Sure, for some people. Hell, for a lot of people. But where was Elgar’s altar?’
‘I’m not sure what you mean.’
‘He pulled music from out the air. He used to say that.’
‘And he listened to the trees.’
‘He had a thing going with trees,’ Winnie said. ‘This is true. I’ll explain all this to you one day, but not right now. I…’ She took Merrily’s arm. ‘You’re a spiritual person. Syd, too, but Syd was a soldier and he doesn’t talk about it.’
‘He’s a priest. He has to talk about it.’
‘He doesn’t talk about himself. You don’t know how he’s reacting. Sure, he’s helped Tim, but that doesn’t mean he understands.’
‘And you’re a writer.’
‘It’s a living,’ Winnie said. ‘Just about. Listen, I … Thank you for hearing me out. We can be friends, right?’
‘I hope so.’
‘I don’t have too many friends in Wychehill. It’s like I said about the rocks. Wychehill’s built on a place hacked out from the rocks. A great open wound, prone to infection. Part of what Tim’s doing at the church, with the music … it’s about that.’
‘Healing the rocks?’
‘As a priest, you should maybe think about that. Meantime, you remember what I said about Tim. And you tell … whoever … that wherever they’re holding him they should look out for him, you know what I’m saying? Day and night.’
Merrily had just a few minutes to get back to Wychehill to meet Annie Howe, for whatever reason. Only about three miles, so no problem. She drove past the British Camp car park at the foot of the Beacon, where two marked police cars were on display. Also, outside the hotel across the road, a bill for the Worcester Evening News which read: HUNT ON FOR MALVERN RITUAL KILLER.
Maybe the holding of Tim Loste was not yet official. But he looked far more guilty to Merrily now than he had before she’d spoken to Winnie Sparke.
Weight of the Ancestors
On the computer in the scullery, Jane tapped in the URL that Eirion had dictated. She found, with an unexpected sense of shock and dismay, the picture of herself looking what he’d described as pissed-off but sexy. Behind her, Cole Hill was serene and enigmatic in its morning gauze of bright mist.
Oh God, why had she let him talk her into this? Probably all that stuff about the firm young breasts inside the school blouse. Underneath, she was just a whore.
‘Yeah, got it,’ she said into the mobile. ‘What site is this?’
‘EMA,’ Eirion said. ‘Earth Mysteries Affiliates. It’s a campaigning outfit – kind of a mystical Greenpeace. Didn’t waste any time, did they? But then it’s probably the best story they’ve had all year.’
Under the picture, it said: Jane Watkins – fighting for Alfred’s ley. Below that, the hand-drawn map that she and Eirion had scanned, showing all the points on the Cole Hill line.
‘But it’s only been up a few hours. How could the Guardian have got on to it so soon?’
‘They wouldn’t have. What’s obviously happened is that one of the guys who runs the EMA site saw there was a potential news story here and scored himself a tip-off fee. I mean, I could’ve tried that, but the papers are never as interested if it comes from the people involved – just looks like you’re desperate for publicity.’
Eirion was at home in Abergavenny. He’d left school early; you could apparently do that on the smallest excuse when your final days as a schoolkid were ebbing away.
‘I’m not sure I am now,’ Jane said.
‘Not sure you’re what?’
‘Desperate for publicity.’
Feeling a little intimidated, to be honest. She told him about Morrell.
‘Jane, you can’t have it both ways. You started this. When are you going to call him back?’
‘The Guardian guy? Don’t know whether I am. I mean, the national press? Like, I thought it was OK pissing off the council, but that bitch can really damage me. And Mum, probably.’
‘I doubt it,’ Eirion said. ‘She’s only a councillor, isn’t she? A servant of democracy.’
‘She doesn’t think she’s a servant. Vice-chair of Education? She thinks that’s serious power. It’s obvious she went straight to Morrell and told him that one of his students was making trouble for her mates.’
‘It’s the way they work. He’s their employee. But she couldn’t really threaten him. Least, I don’t think she could.’
‘Irene, Morrell is, like, insanely ambitious, and he’s quite young. Moorfield’s just a stepping stone. He’s not going to offend a powerful councillor for the sake of one student … who he hates and would really like to get rid of anyway.’
‘You don’t know that.’
‘You’ve never seen him! All right … what should I do?’
There was a silence.
Come on, there shouldn’t be a silence! Eirion’s dad was a BBC governor in Wales and he had a cousin who was news editor on the Western Mail in Cardiff. Eirion was, like, totally steeped in the media.
‘I don’t know,’ Eirion said.
‘Let me think about it. I’ll call you back.’
‘Soon. I’m sorry, Jane.’
She sat staring at the screen, feeling terminally forlorn.
Jane Watkins – fighting for Alfred’s ley. As Lol had pointed out, there was no proof that it was Alfred’s ley. Alfred might not even have known about it. Or, worse, he might have discounted it. There could be some element here that totally disqualified Coleman’s Meadow. Just because it looked right…
Could be she’d stitched herself up.
Jane couldn’t face looking at that smug pout any more and switched off the computer. Just sat there waiting, dolefully stroking Ethel who was sitting in the in-tray. Best thing would be to leave it for a day or two, give the dust time to settle.
On the other hand, the planning committee would be meeting next week to make a decision on Coleman’s Meadow.
Sure, she could leave it. She could walk away and spend the rest of her life regretting it, despising her own cowardice.
Or she could take some more time off school, in open defiance of her head teacher, and follow it through, because…
… Forget earth-energy, forget spirit paths; at the very least, whether Alfred Watkins had known about it or not, this was a rare alignment of ancient sacred sites which had somehow survived for maybe…
… Four thousand years?
Four thousand years of mystical tradition against one more year of schooling for somebody who wasn’t sure whether she even wanted to go to university at the end of it.
Jane felt the weight of the ancestors on her shoulders.
This was probably one of those situations where Mum would go to the church and pray for guidance – Jane thinking that if she did that, after all she’d said over the years, it would at least give God the best laugh he’d had since he hit the Egyptians with a plague of locusts.
The scullery phone rang.
‘Look, Irene,’ Jane said, ‘I’ve been thinking—’
‘Jane, I’m really sorry…’
‘I’m also sorry for not being Eirion. Listen, flower, you can probably guess what’s coming.’
‘You have to go back to Malvern. Don’t call me flower.’
‘Right. I’m sorry. I’m there now, and I have someone else to meet. Will you be OK?’
‘Sure. I’ve already fed Ethel. I’ll get something for me later.’
‘Is everything all right?’
‘I won’t be late. I promise I won’t be late this time.’
‘Honestly, take as long as you like,’ Jane said.
She hung up and felt tearful. Felt like a stupid, ineffectual kid who got caught up in fads and crazes and thought she was so smart and spiritually developed but, faced with a crunch situation, didn’t basically have the nerve to follow through.
Tim Loste’s house. The heart of the enigma.
A flat, grey Victorian or Edwardian town house that just happened to have been built in the country. A tiny front garden held in by iron railings. An oak tree that shouldn’t be here.
Merrily stepped into the house called Caractacus with some trepidation and an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. Well, not quite, because she knew where this feeling was coming from, remembering when Bliss had invited her to the home of a suspected serial murderer obsessed with the Cromwell Street killings. All black sheets and pin-up pictures of dead celebrities.
‘Stay with me,’ Annie Howe said, ‘and don’t touch anything. We’ve been over it forensically, but— What?’
‘Nothing,’ Merrily said.
In the dim, narrow, camphor-smelling hallway, she’d come face to face with a dead celebrity.
He was life-size, in bowler hat and hacking jacket. Standing there behind his black, yard-brush moustache and the high handlebars of Mr Phoebus, as if he was about to wheel the bicycle out of the shadows towards the front door.
‘Yes, rather startling at first, isn’t it?’ Howe said.
The black and white photograph, massively blown-up, had been fixed to a wooden frame and propped up against the end wall of the passage so that it filled almost the full width, and when you came in by the front door you were looking directly into the grainy eyes.
Of all the pictures of Elgar, why this one? Merrily had the feeling that the huge, stately Mr Phoebus, important to Elgar, was also very important to Tim Loste: a bike that meant business, could take Elgar anywhere, a symbol of the mobility of the spirit.
It still didn’t have a lamp.
‘What are you thinking?’ Annie Howe said.
‘Just wondering what I’m doing here.’
Howe said, ‘My understanding is that you’ve been here two or three times in the past few days.’
‘I’ve never been here before.’
‘In the village, then. Before and possibly even during the murder of Roman Wicklow. So I thought I’d like to hear about the purpose of your visits.’
‘Don’t you know?’
‘Well, frankly, the version of it that one of my officers was told seemed too ridiculous.’
‘Even for me, huh?’
Merrily had come directly to Loste’s cottage because this was where the police car was parked, along with a silver BMW, presumably Howe’s. There had been a uniformed constable at the gate and Howe, in a mid-grey cotton suit, had been in the front garden, examining the oak sapling. Her fine, light hair was clipped close to her skull, her make-up minimal. Jane had once said she looked like a Nazi dentist. Unfair. Sort of.
Howe opened a panelled door to the right, stepping back.
‘Living room. If you take a careful look around, perhaps you could tell me if there’s anything there that strikes as much of a chord for you as the Elgar blow-up evidently did.’
An atmosphere like a faded sepia photograph and more old photographs hanging from a wooden picture rail all around the mustard-coloured walls. Some of them were portraits of Elgar, some landscapes – Merrily recognized Stonehenge and Glastonbury Tor, but the rest were less easy: unknown hill scenery, might be Malverns, might not. Also churches, none of them obvious, no Hereford or Worcester cathedral, no Malvern Priory.
Over the tiled fireplace was a large framed photo of an obvious oak tree, a huge and ancient one, bulging black against the light. It was the only one in colour, but all the colour was in the sky. On the mantelpiece below it was a scattering of acorns and a bottle of whisky, half empty.
Howe looked at Merrily.
When beneath the sacred oak. Obvious where Howe was coming from. But what could Merrily add to it? Nothing. She was mystified.
‘Well, he … clearly has a fascination with oak trees, Annie. But I expect your well-honed deductive skills had told you that already.’
On the way in, she’d spotted a line of what she’d thought were potted plants until she’d noticed the leaves. Somehow, she felt this was Winnie Sparke’s doing, filling the place – filling Tim’s life – with oak trees. Why? Druidry, Caractacus? What was this about?
‘Maybe he can get some kind of weird buzz by smoking acorns or something,’ Merrily said and then regretted it. Howe was in there.
‘So what exactly have you heard about Mr Loste and illegal drugs?’
‘Nothing … I was being…’ Merrily sighed. ‘Facetious. Something about you brings out the child in me.’
She looked around. There was a long writing desk with a musical score on it and an empty whisky bottle in the footwell. A bookcase, a CD cabinet. Two leather easy chairs but no television or radio.
‘I mean … what do you want me to say? He has a thing about oaks. How that ties in with the Royal Oak I have no idea. Is that one of the reasons you’ve nicked him?’
Howe said, ‘Do you know of a connection between oaks and Elgar?’
‘No, do you?’
Howe took down a book with pages marked by luminous Post-it stickers. It was a biography of Elgar, whose name, as far as Merrily could see, occurred on the spine of virtually every volume in the bookcase. Howe opened it out on the writing desk. A paragraph was marked by a pencil line.
In July 1918, about two months after the Elgars had moved to Brinkwells, they were visited by their friend Algernon Blackwood, writer of ghost stories. Elgar took Blackwood to see a copse of, according to Alice Elgar, ‘sinister’ trees which were said – although Blackwood may have invented this – to have once been Spanish monks punished for practising black magic. Elgar found them fascinating.
Merrily looked up. ‘Doesn’t say they were oak trees. Where’s Brinkwells?’
‘Elgar lived there for a while before returning to Worcestershire.’
‘So what does that tell us? Anything at all?’
‘Evidently not.’ Howe shut the book. ‘But it was the only marked page in any of the books that wasn’t self-explanatory.’
‘I don’t get it. What are you looking for, exactly?’
‘Part of your … curious job, as I understand it, Ms Watkins, is to monitor the activities of religious cults.’
‘Wouldn’t put it that strongly.’
‘Are there practising Druids in the area that you’re aware of?’
‘There are Druids everywhere. It’s a popular form of paganism. No strict rules, no dogma, dress optional.’
‘And the veneration of oak trees.’
‘That’s traditional. And still valid, sure. But if you want me to look around here and tell you that Tim Loste is an obvious Druid, I’d say it was far from obvious … and even unlikely, unless you’ve found robes and pentacles and stuff in his wardrobe.’
Howe said nothing. Merrily was reminded of those infamous satanic child-abuse investigations of the 1980s and 1990s when McCarthyite social workers would seize, as damning evidence, any fragment of conceivably occult paraphernalia, like a broomstick in the broom cupboard or a video of Rosemary’s Baby.
‘Also, modern Druids don’t practise human sacrifice. They tend towards vegetarianism.’
‘Not historically, however.’
Evidently still trying to stitch something onto that texted quote from the choral work after which this house was named.
‘Have you asked him where this sudden interest in oaks comes from? Well, of course you have, but what did he say?’
‘He said nothing. He froze up on me. Why do you think I’m here asking you?’
‘I dunno.’ Merrily shook her head. ‘You’ve got bugger-all, really, haven’t you, Annie? You’re holding this guy on a few tenuous threads.’
‘Let’s go outside,’ Howe said.
* * *
DCI Annie Howe: always a problem here. Howe was an ironclad atheist, therefore suspicious of the clergy and now clearly appalled that modern womanhood should also have descended, at this stage of human evolution, to medieval dressing-up games.
As for Deliverance…
There had been one surreal happening, in the heat of midday in a hop yard in the Frome Valley, when the reinforced walls of Howe’s scepticism might have been badly breached … if she’d allowed it. If her reaction had not been flat denial, the whole incident apparently edited from her conscious memory.
Merrily followed her into the overgrown pocket garden, with its centrepiece oak sapling, thinking there was no real reason for Howe to have brought her here. It was as though she had to seize on any opportunity to look Merrily in the face and repeat, wordlessly, Nothing has ever happened to dent my belief that you are wasting your intelligence on fairy tales.
They walked to the rear of the house under the galvanized metal car port. Still no car in it. Presumably Loste hadn’t got it back yet, after his crash. A small square yard ended at an iron gate opening to a well-trodden mud path leading directly on to the hill – the hill far closer here than in the Rectory garden.
‘This is how Loste gets to the Herefordshire Beacon, or indeed into the whole network of Malvern footpaths,’ Howe said. ‘He spends whole days walking up there, and – I’m told – whole nights sometimes.’
‘I think if I had to live in this house I might do that, too,’ Merrily said.
‘Never locks his back door. Seems to feel a certain … ownership.’ Howe opened the gate and went through. ‘His hills.’
‘Uh-huh.’ Merrily shook her head. ‘Elgar’s.’
‘Elgar’s dead,’ Howe said.
‘In a manner of speaking.’
‘The music lives on, I suppose. Loste sometimes takes the music with him. He has an MP3 player containing, I’d guess, everything Elgar ever wrote, some of it repeated with different orchestras, soloists, et cetera.’
‘And that could be a bit mind-blowing, you think?’ Merrily stepped onto the path. ‘Up on the Beacon, head full of Caractacus, Druids chanting about human sacrifice? Something explodes in his brain and he goes for the nearest drug dealer with a knife he just happens to have on him?’
‘You know Caractacus, Ms Watkins?’
‘Sophie knows it. Sophie in the office.’
Howe deliberated for a moment.
‘We have – and this is confidential – another link to Loste, relating directly to the concept of Druidic sacrifice as described in Caractacus.’
‘What kind of link?’
Howe didn’t reply.
‘I suppose a lot of people around here are likely to know all the gory bits,’ Merrily said.
‘Not all of these people are as vocal in their opposition to the Royal Oak as Timothy Loste, or as … demonstrative.’
‘As in throwing a stone through a window?’
‘An act of wilful damage as a result of which several people suffered minor injuries. He would, if we’d known about it at the time, have faced charges.’
‘If he hadn’t been severely beaten up by the injured parties, making them less inclined to press charges.’
‘One of the men forced to restrain him,’ Howe said, ‘was Roman Wicklow.’
‘You know that for certain now?’
‘We’ve spoken to both of the other doormen, who’ve signed statements to that effect, also providing us with a full and graphic description of Loste’s behaviour that night and some of the threats issued by him during the struggle.’
‘So you see we don’t quite have bugger-all.’
Merrily looked away, up the steep path into the hills, soon barricaded by hard blue sky. It didn’t look that good for Tim Loste, did it? No longer seemed like a case of Howe’s people going for the easy option first, to save laboriously unravelling strands of rivalry in the West Midland drug community. She wondered how she was going to bring up the suggestion that the police should keep a serious eye on Loste for as long as he was in their care because of the risk of suicide or self-harming.
‘What about blood on his clothes? Forensic evidence … DNA?’
‘We should have some results tomorrow morning,’ Howe said. ‘I think it likely that they’ll enable us to move on to the next stage.’
She stepped onto a small tump by a gorse bush, looked down to the road where another police car was pulling in. Looked down at Merrily.
‘Right. I’ve been as open as I possibly can with you, Ms Watkins. I’ve put my cards on the table. I’d now like you to reciprocate. I’d like you to tell me – off the record for the present – exactly why you were called to Wychehill and what you know about the night Timothy Loste crashed his car into a telegraph pole.’
‘I wasn’t there.’
‘I don’t care if you were there or not – I’m looking for background information, not a witness statement. Gossip, if you like. I’m trying to get a picture of his mental condition, and my information is that he’s so obsessed with the late Edward Elgar that he’s seeing the man’s ghost around every corner.’
‘I’d say that’s an exaggeration. And, as far as that particular ghost story goes, he’s not the only one. At least, that’s the basis on which I was asked to look into it.’
‘Yes,’ Howe said, ‘we do know about the other one.’
‘Also, you and I … we wouldn’t necessarily agree on what claiming to have seen a ghost says about someone’s state of mind.’
‘I can think of very little that we’d agree on,’ Howe said.
‘And apart from anything, we’re talking about an artist, a professional dreamer. Which, in his line of work, is not necessarily a pejorative term. Elgar was a dreamer, Loste is supposed to be writing a musical work about Elgar.’
‘You know what? I’m getting bloody sick of this.’ Annie Howe came down from the mound, her scrubbed face actually colouring. ‘As if all so-called artists were wispy little tree-huggers. Have you ever seen Timothy Loste?’
‘I’ve tried, Annie. God knows I’ve tried.’
‘Then I’ll describe him for you. Loste is forty years old and, despite his alcohol problem, extremely fit. Has been known to walk virtually the length of the Malverns and back within a day by a different route. Knows those hills like the back of his hand, every rock and cave and crevice.’
‘Yes, but that hardly—’
‘At the Royal Oak that night, as I may have implied, it took three experienced doormen to subdue him … as he’s also about half a head taller than Wicklow was. And built, Ms Watkins, like the side of a house. Oh, and the rock he put through that window was, at a rough estimate, the size of a small television set and maybe twice as heavy.’
‘Now tell me again that we’re talking about a harmless, inoffensive little dreamer with a natural abhorrence of violence.’
A buzzard passed silently overhead. A uniformed policeman appeared in the garden.
‘They’ve been trying to get you, ma’am.’
Howe lifted her head. ‘Thanks, Robert. I’m coming now.’
If she was going to be head of CID for the proposed new Midlands mega-force before turning forty she didn’t have any time to waste.
Watching Howe talking tersely into her mobile, listening and nodding, functioning, Merrily felt useless, irrelevant. Chasing shadows, chasing lights. Sometimes it seemed that deliverance amounted to little more than this.
People nudging one another. Who’s that? What does she do? Oh, you’re kidding … Her role nebulous, her focus blurred. Why was she here? Who, in the end, would be healed?
What was clear, however, was that nobody else would try too hard to make sense of Loste, his obsession with Elgar, his oak-tree fetish.
Oaks. Sacred oaks. The Royal Oak. Too many oaks. Did any of this link into the history or even the folklore of the area? It wasn’t as if there was some ancient resident whose memory she could tap into. Nobody had lived here longer than a quarter of a century.
Well … except for one person.
Not someone she particularly wanted to approach, but…
Merrily slipped away, knowing that Annie Howe, having failed to get anything useful out of her, would have forgotten by now that she’d even been here.
Curse Came Down
The name on the gate was Old Wychehill Farm, suggesting that perhaps this was what remained of the original hamlet, while the present village was just fragments of a repair job for a quarry-ravaged hill.
In fact, Old Wychehill Farm was big enough to have been a hamlet in itself. Sunk into its own valley, half-circled by mature broadleaf trees with the swizzle-stick profiles of pines and monkey puzzles poking out of the mix.
The farmhouse, at the end of nearly half a mile of private drive, turned out to be the turreted house in the valley which Merrily had noticed that first morning – the turret crowning a Victorian Gothic wing added to a much older dwelling with timbers like age-browned bones.
She parked in the farmyard – courtyard, really. No animals in view, no free-range chickens. The three-storey house was enclosed by outbuildings of the same grey-brown stone. Some of the more distant buildings had curtains at their diamond-paned windows.
My lovely holiday lets.
A black pick-up truck eased in behind her. A stylish truck with chrome side-rails and silver flashes on its flanks. Two men getting out, squinting into the sun, one of them strolling across.
‘Looking for Mr Devereaux.’
The man stood looking her up and down, pinching his unshaven chin.
‘Shame about that.’
Apart from golden highlights and a sharper jawline, he looked a lot like Preston Devereaux. Same narrow features, same loose, unhurried gait as he’d wandered over. Except this guy was over thirty years younger and the other one was the younger son, Hugo.
‘Louis, this is Mrs Watkins,’ Hugo said.
‘Merrily.’ The face of Louis Devereaux, former huntsman, alleged former substance-abuser, split into this voracious and undeniably attractive grin. ‘And we’re stuck with Spicer. The injustice of it.’ Louis turned to his brother. ‘You better go and find the old man. No hurry. Want to come with me, Merrily?’
‘Is it safe?’
‘I’m a country gentleman,’ Louis said, ‘from a long, long line of country gentlemen. Of course it isn’t safe.’
He strode past her across the yard, turning the handle on a plain door. It didn’t open; it was jammed at the bottom. He gave it a kick.
‘Whole place is seizing up.’
His accent was posher than his father’s. Probably been away to public school. She looked up at him as he held open the door.
‘I really won’t keep him long.’
‘He might want to keep you, though,’ Louis said. ‘I would. End of the passage, look.’ He bent down, put an arm around her shoulders, pointing. ‘The Beacon Room.’
Following her into the passage. There was an old manure smell, as if this entrance had been used for the changing of generations of farm boots. It was a rear hallway, low, earth-coloured, windowless, the only light funnelled down the well of some narrow back stairs to her left … until she pushed open the door at the end into lavish sunshine from a long window framing a wow-gasp view of the great tiered wedding-cake of Herefordshire Beacon.
The Beacon Room. Obviously built into the Victorian wing to accommodate this view. The hill was a couple of miles away, as if it had been aligned for maximum impact.
‘Quite impressive, isn’t it?’ Louis said. ‘As crime scenes go. Lit up like a housing estate last night. Cops swarming all over it.’
‘Yeah, I guess it was. I suppose when it’s somebody you don’t know … Well, I’ve probably seen him, if he’s the one I think he is. At the Oak.’
‘You go there?’
‘Now and then. Not as often as I used to. Quite good for … you know … girls.’
‘I can imagine.’
‘And, of course, for pissing off Len Holliday and the Wychehill Residents’ Action Group,’ Louis said. ‘One tries to sympathize, but that guy…’
‘Don’t suppose you’re really aware of the Royal Oak down here. Or the road.’
‘Don’t suppose we are, particularly,’ Louis said.
She looked around the room. Lofty, wood-panelled, definitely a man’s room, even a young man’s room – minimal furniture apart from stereo speakers the size of small wardrobes. Racks of CDs and vinyl and potentially interesting framed photographs. Over the baronial fire-place was a period poster behind glass advertising Pink Floyd and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown at the Roundhouse in London. The names were wreathed in coloured smoke from a pipe smoked by a reclining naked man like some stoned 1960s version of Michelangelo’s Adam.
I was a wild boy, too. Drove too fast, inhaled my share of blow.
On the panelled wall over a writing desk with a worn leather top there was a framed black and white photo of a bunch of young long-haired men, one of whom was … Eric Clapton? The lean, grinning guy on the end was also unmistakable. He looked like Louis Devereaux with longer hair and lush sideburns.
‘Blimey,’ Merrily said. ‘Is that—?’
‘Dad was very well connected. Once upon a time.’
‘Images of a misspent youth, Mrs Watkins.’
Merrily jumped. Preston Devereaux was standing in the doorway, an older, duller figure than she remembered from the other night, a working man wearing a farmer’s green nylon overalls and a nylon cap.
‘Didn’t know him well,’ he said. ‘But you don’t throw away a picture like that, do you?’
‘Were you in a band?’
‘Never had the talent. Managed a couple, when I was up at Oxford in the late 1960s. Which meant carrying the amps, back then, and inventing light shows. I was good at that.’
‘Oh Gawd, Memory Lane time,’ Louis said. ‘I’m out of here.’
He bowed to Merrily, made an exaggerated exit.
‘Twenty-four next week,’ Devereaux said. ‘Going on ten.’
‘If ten means pre-pubertal, I’m not sure I’d agree. What were you doing at Oxford?’
‘So … what happened? I mean…’
‘What happened?’ Devereaux walked over to the Beacon window. ‘That happened. History. Roots. No escape. You think there is, but there en’t. Anyway…’
He stood in front of Merrily, hands behind his back.
‘No escape for me either, Mr Devereaux. What you said the other night about dealing with something in a discreet and dignified fashion…’
Merrily shook her head.
‘Become too complicated. When you’ve had a man murdered, and when the local man under suspicion of having killed him—’
‘Local man?’ Preston Devereaux almost left the ground. ‘There are no local men up there, Mrs Watkins. Why I was forced to come back.’
‘No, I’m sorry. Continue.’
‘I was just going to say that the man suspected of murder is also the man I most needed to talk to about … the cyclist.’
‘You can say Elgar in here, Merrily.’
‘Thank you. Anyway, it means I haven’t been able to get to Loste. And in the meantime, other questions have opened up.’
‘He was the first to identify the image in the road as Elgar. He’s obsessed with Elgar. He apparently hates what the Royal Oak has become.’
‘So I understand, yes.’
‘If his hatred of the Royal Oak has now led to a murder, I don’t … well, I don’t know how relevant that makes my idea of a requiem for two road-accident victims. And I do appreciate that one woman agonizing over the technicalities of a church service must seem entirely trivial to you…’
‘So what do you want me to do?’
‘You’re … as you’ve just implied, you’re the only person whose experience of this area goes back longer than about twenty years. I’d just like to get your opinion on a few things. Memory Lane, I’m afraid.’
‘Memory Lane. With all its potholes and its road kill.’
Preston Devereaux went back and shut the door. Above it were three wooden shields, one bearing a coat of arms and a motto in Latin. Each of the others, on either side, displayed a fox’s head, neither of them moth-eaten the way foxes’ heads usually were in these displays. Mementoes, perhaps, of Louis’s carefree youth.
Devereaux strode back to the Beacon window, pulling off his cap.
‘Must be the most spectacular view in the Malverns,’ Merrily said.
‘Hated it, Merrily. With a vengeance. A forsaken stronghold, symbol of defeat. Turned my back on it and everything that the Malverns’d come to stand for, all the starchy gentility of it. And then my father died.’
‘When was that?’
‘Back end of ’85. You learn that a farm that’s been in your family since the Conquest, that’s a family curse you can’t lose. And periodically the curse strikes, giving you a little reminder that it is a curse. Like in the 1980s, when you had new patterns in farm subsidy, new regulations, the EC. Getting so a farmer didn’t feel he owned his own land. My old man could see that was only the beginning. Which partly explains why he strung himself up in the tower.’
‘Oh…’ Merrily’s gaze went instinctively to the ceiling. ‘I didn’t know. I’m sorry.’
‘Which effectively did for my glittering future as a career scientist. Doing research at the time, bit of teaching. Having a good time. Had a smart city woman and a kid, and when I came home to bury the old man, everything in me was screaming, don’t look, don’t look. Don’t look at the state of the place, just get it on the damned market. And then I found out, as I say, that there was not a single local family left in Wychehill. And the curse came down.’
‘Your mother was still alive?’
‘Moved my ma down to Ledbury – she wouldn’t live here after that. Told her I’d take a couple of years off to pull it all together, before resuming the glittering career. Then we had Hugo. More roots.’
‘What … happened to the boys’ mother?’
‘Left a long time ago. Wilful London girl, didn’t get on with the country. Bit like Syd Spicer’s missus. We weren’t married, so no complications in those days. She went abroad, I got the boys. And we turned it around, by God we did, in spite of the shiny-arsed civil servants and the scum from Brussels. Diversification.’
‘I remember that as a buzz word put around by the Min of Ag.’
‘The pragmatic farmer’s way out of the agricultural crisis. Thatcher’s message. And, fair play, it worked for some of us. You felt a bit sick about it, but it worked. My case, luxury self-catering holidays. Not that they self-cater, they all eat out. But it works, and it provides employment locally. All nicely old-fashioned, and folks come back year after year, all the sad townies, and we charge ’em more every time and they still come.’
Preston Devereaux slumped into a wing-backed chair next to the big dead fireplace, smoke-blackened and flaked with log ash. He waved Merrily to a faded chaise longue.
‘All the antique furniture from the house we put in the units – what do we need with antiques, me and the boys? Install a Queen Anne writing desk in your stone holiday chalet, that’s worth an extra two hundred a week on the bill. You see the buildings out there?’
‘Turned over all the old stone barns and stables and chicken houses to holiday units, added a few new ones in the same style. Put the farm, what’s left of it, into new galvanized sheds painted dark green and nicely screened off. And the farm life, what’s left of that, goes on around the townies. Give them an illusion of what it’s like, let them into what country pursuits we’re allowed to practise now – shooting parties and the like, hunting, before it was banned. Joining what they think of as the Old Squirearchy for a fortnight.’
‘So the boys are part of that? Plenty for them to do. Don’t want to move away like you did?’
‘They won’t leave. All changed since my day, look. It was either/or back then. Now you can take what you want from the city and come back next day. And growing up in the country hardens you. We can deal with the towns better than the townies can deal with us.’
‘Only I heard that Louis…’
Merrily looked up at the foxes’ heads above the door – the way their mouths were always forced open around their pointed canines, to make them look like savage beasts gloriously killed.
‘Heard Louis what?’ His voice spiking.
‘Had some kind of breakdown? After hunting was banned?’
‘Who told you that?’
‘Can’t be sure.’
‘Selective memory you got there, Mrs Watkins.’ Preston Devereaux, relaxed again. ‘Aye, he loved his hunting. We ran the Countryside Alliance campaign in this area. Fight the Ban posters everywhere. Boy lost his rag at a demo, belted a copper guarding some Blairite toady. Weekend in custody. That’s the state we’re in – fight for our traditions, we’re branded criminals. This government’s scum. Anti-English. Don’t get me started. We lost. You move on. You ask me a question? I can’t remember.’
Merrily was confused by all the contradictions here. Trying to understand a man who, having been determined to escape his roots, came back to be driven by a born-again fervour fuelled by bitterness.
‘Oak trees,’ she said. ‘Tim Loste has a lot of oak trees. Which, for a man with a tiny garden…’
‘Elgar and oak trees. Is there some connection I might not have heard about?’
‘No idea. The only oak I know’s the Royal Oak. Which is a pretty common name for a pub, relating, surely, to the tree where Charles II hid from his enemies.’
‘No local legends about oaks?’
‘Not that I know of. Can I get you a drink? Some coffee?’
‘Thanks, but I’ll have to be off in a few minutes. I shouldn’t have come, anyway, without ringing.’
‘Drop in anytime, we’ve nothing to hide.’
‘Is there any kind of mystery … legend … rumour, connecting Elgar with Wychehill?’
‘Only the church. Longworth and his so-called visionary experience.’
‘What was that?’
‘They say it’s what he has on his tomb.’
‘Gruesome bloody thing, ennit? Not my idea of an angel. Story I was told as a child is that it appeared to the mad old bugger up on the hill, in a blaze of light, and drove him in a state of blind fear to religion.’
‘And to Elgar.’
‘Same thing. Elgar’s become a religion now. I’m not a fan, Merrily, as you may have gathered. If he hadn’t encouraged Longworth to build that bloody church there’d’ve been no Upper Wychehill for the townies to colonize. And what did Elgar ever do for the Malverns, anyway?’
‘We’ve always had that. We got the scenery, don’t need the bloody incidental music. Bugger always claimed he got his inspiration here but he cleared off soon enough when he was famous. And when he came back, as an old man, he came back as an incomer, that’s what gets to me.’
‘I don’t understand. If he—’
‘He’d changed. Starts out as a country boy, I’m not disputing that, even went foxhunting, according to some accounts. But then, soon as he makes it big, he’s off … big house in Hereford, then London, mixing with the nobs and the arty-farty veggies, George Bernard Shaw and the like. And when he finally returns, as this distinguished old man, he’s turned into one of them – having places laid at the table for his bloody dogs. Likely, he thought the hills’d give him his inspiration back, but it never happened, did it? Closed door this time. Given up his soul to mix with the great and the good and – excuse my terminology – lost his balls. Never wrote another thing that was worthwhile. No wonder he’s an unhappy bloody spirit. You believe that?’
‘That he’s unhappy, or that he’s…’
Devereaux leaned his head into a wing of his chair and looked at Merrily sideways through a bloodshot eye.
‘That dead Elgar still bikes the hills.’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Sorry. I’m not usually so … no, I suppose I am. I suspect there’s something happening … in the atmosphere. I’m just not sure it’s anything to do with Elgar.’
‘Well…’ Preston Devereaux smiled. ‘If you ever decide it is and you want to exorcize the old bastard … you can go ahead, far as I’m concerned. By all means. Wipe whatever’s left of him off the hills for good and all. Just keep quiet about it.’
Thursday began badly and got worse. Just as Merrily was about to corner Jane on the Coleman’s Meadow issue, Winnie Sparke was on the phone.
‘Merrily, you talked to the cops?’
‘Well, I have, but—’
‘Only I’ve heard nothing. Last night I barely slept. See, the one time Tim called me, Iwantedtofixhim a lawyer, he kept saying there was no need. He said it was crazy they could think he did it. He said they’d know that soon enough.’
‘Well, Winnie.’ Merrily sat down at the desk in the scullery. ‘Erm … I think there might be a need for a lawyer now.’
‘I have to know. I have to call his parents in France—What did you just say?’
‘Just that I think he may well need a lawyer. I’ve been trying to confirm the situation since last night but I’m not getting anywhere.’
She’d phoned Bliss, who’d come back to her late last night to say that Worcester were still holding Loste and studying lab reports, and that was all he could find out at this hour without inviting awkward questions.
‘So, like, how long can they hold a guy without a charge?’
‘No, look, Winnie, what I’m trying to say is—’
Merrily waved to Jane, hovering in the scullery doorway with her airline bag, meaning hang on. Jane raised a hand, smiled a worryingly wan kind of smile and was gone. Bugger.
‘—What I’m trying to say is I don’t know that there hasn’t been a charge, in the light of new forensic evidence. I—This is confidential?’
‘I talked at some length to the officer heading the inquiry, and frankly, after what she told me, even I’d have pulled Tim in for questioning. Even if it was only to have a look around inside his house. He comes across as a very strange person, Winnie, and he’s clammed up on them and that makes it look worse.’
‘And strange equals psychotic, right?’
‘Did you say you went into his house?’
‘With the police. I was asked to take a look at … some things.’
‘Because they’re trying to get a handle on him, find out exactly where he’s coming from.’
‘They had no goddamn right. You had no right.’
‘I tried to explain a couple of points, as best I could. I don’t think I was very successful. There was just too much I didn’t know. For instance, his background. I mean, how long have you actually known him?’
‘Background? Background could not be more respectable. Parents are both professional classical musicians. He was a music teacher at private schools, ending up at Malvern College. Played rugby for a local team. How respectable do you want?
‘This project of his,’ Merrily said. ‘The oratorio or whatever…’
‘He was working on that when you met him? Or was that your idea?’
‘What’s that matter?’
‘We didn’t go into this yesterday, but when he saw what he … when he saw the figure he identified as Elgar, on his bike … I’m just thinking of the big picture in the hallway … Very much a presence in the house, you’ll agree.’
‘He’s a presence in Tim’s life.’
‘And obviously a presence, on some level, in Wychehill.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘It’s just that this seems to be the image of Elgar that Tim’s … carrying around with him. And it corresponds with the … with the apparition that people – Tim included – appear to have been seeing.’
‘What’s that have to do with getting him out of gaol?’
‘And you’re a writer, specializing in books on mysticism, psychic studies, healing … the occult? You said you were helping him with meditation exercises. To deal with his drinking and … maybe to reach Elgar’s level of creative inspiration. A man whose previous output, I understand, has been … fairly ordinary. So he’s living with Elgar’s music, images of Elgar, in a place steeped in Elgar. He’s immersing himself on a very intense level…’
‘You don’t even wanna get him out, do you? All you want is to cover your own ass with the cops for whatever reason—’
‘This has nothing to do with the cops.’ Merrily felt a headache coming on. ‘But if you want to deal with that first … oak trees? Acorns? Little oaks in pots, the sapling that’s going to be bigger than his house?’
‘A symbol from the natural world that he could use for meditation. He was drinking too much, I was trying to use meditation to give him a focus. And also to make him more … receptive. Why are you asking me this stuff?’
‘Because the police are linking oaks to Druidism and Druidism to blood sacrifice and … you know?’
‘Oh, Jesus God…’ Winnie’s voice was suddenly perforated with panic. ‘This is shit! This is so wrong.’
‘I mean, why is it wrong? Elgar wrote Caractacus about Herefordshire Beacon. Full of Druidism and magic and prophecy and people’s throats being cut on sacrificial stones.’
There was a gap before Winnie’s voice came back, the fissures hardening up.
‘What are you, Merrily? Some kinda fucking stoolie for the cops? Like I need to waste my time with a police snitch? I don’t think so, lady. I think I told you far too much already, and all you did was you gave it to the cops.’
‘So from now on you can get off of my case, OK?’
‘Look, I’m just trying to—’
‘I’m gonna have a good lawyer I can’t truly afford go see Tim right now, and I don’t wanna hear from you again, so … like when we get him outta there you just stay the hell away from the both of us.’
‘Winnie, if you could just let me—’
‘Goddamn fucking stoolie bitch.’
The phone went down hard.
At the start of mid-morning break, the sixth-form common room was like a call centre, a whole bunch of them switching on their mobiles to, like, maintain the temperature of their love lives.
When Jane switched on hers, just to be sociable, not expecting anything from Eirion this morning, it went directly into its tune. And, not recognising the number, it was like…
‘Hi, Jane, this is Jerry Isles from the Guardian. I tried to leave a message on your voicemail yesterday – maybe you didn’t get it?’
‘Oh … did you?’
‘Never mind. Jane, I have to say it all sounds hugely fascinating. I used to be quite into leys a few years ago – we used to stay with friends in Cornwall, where you’re practically tripping over megalithic sites, so I’ve read Watkins, obviously, and this really brought it all back. Are you running the campaign on your own?’
‘Well … you know … me and a few friends, but—’
‘But it was your idea.’
‘Yes, only I’m not sure—’
‘You seem to be wearing school uniform on the picture. How old are you, do you mind?’
‘Good. And your parents know about it?’
‘My mother knows. I don’t have a father any more. She, erm … My mum’s cool with it.’
‘Well … I took the liberty of checking your map with the Ordnance Survey, and the line certainly seems to work. Who did the pictures?’
‘My … boyfriend.’
‘They’re good pix, on the whole. However, I think we’d like to do some of our own. We have a regular freelance photographer in your area, and the picture editor would like to send her along, if that’s all right with you. How about … are you free this afternoon?’
Through the plate-glass window beyond the tabletennis table, Jane could see Morrell in his shirt sleeves jogging across the quad towards the car park.
‘Look,’ she said. ‘I mean this is really good of you, but I’m not sure I want to go through with it now.’
‘Oh? That mean you’re no longer convinced?’
‘Oh, no, it’s true, it’s all true. Even though when I went to see the local councillor, there were all these council officials there, and they were all, like, Oh, it’s all nonsense and Alfred Watkins was a misguided old man. And the councillor was suggesting I was trying to mess up his plans for turning Ledwardine into some kind of town, which would be really crap. And I was warned that I should be careful what I said. I mean, I’m not worried about me that much, but my mum’s the vicar there, you know?’
The line went quiet. If they’d lost it, Jane decided she wasn’t going to call him back, at least not until tonight when she’d had time to think of a way he could maybe do the story but keep her out of it…
‘The vicar,’ Jerry Isles said. ‘No, I didn’t know that.’
Oh hell. Why, in this so-called secular age, were newspapers so fond of vicars?
Jerry said, ‘Tell me again, Jane, what these people from the council said to you … ?’
‘I don’t think I told you the first time, did I?’
‘About the councillor wanting to turn your village into a small town? That’s what I’ve got.’
‘You’re writing this down?’
Morrell jogged back and went into the main building, his car keys swinging from a finger.
Jane began to sweat.
Merrily sat in the scullery, watching the play of morning light on the vicarage lawn, the clusters of yellow wild flowers in the churchyard drystone wall that bordered it. A whole ecosystem, that wall.
What are you, some kinda stoolie for the cops?
Going back over it, she could pinpoint the exact moment when Winnie Sparke’s attitude had altered. It was when Merrily had revealed that she’d been inside Loste’s house. Winnie had been afraid of what Merrily – not the police – might have seen in the house and been able to interpret for Howe.
Which meant there was something she should have spotted in there and hadn’t.
She called Syd Spicer, not expecting him to be in. But he picked up on the second ring.
‘You’ve offended Sparke, Merrily. Easily done.’
‘She told you?’
‘She’s walking round wailing and gnashing her teeth. A woman who likes to be in control. And she can hardly control poor Tim at the moment, can she?’
‘You think he did it, Syd?’
‘I wouldn’t have thought so, but time will tell.’
‘I like an interventionist priest.’
‘Yeah, well, I don’t scale walls with pockets full of smoke bombs any more.’
It was the first reference that he’d made to his past, but this probably wasn’t the time to follow it up.
‘Loste and Winnie, Syd. What’s that actually about? This musical work, this search for Elgar’s source of inspiration. I mean, is there anything you haven’t told me that might relate to that?’
‘Lots, I imagine. I wouldn’t know what was relevant. Equally, I can’t betray a parishioner’s trust. I can point you in a certain direction, which I’ve done, but I can’t pass on what I’ve been told in confidence, can I? Would you? Maybe you would. Maybe you did.’
‘Because I’m a police informer?’
‘When Winnie Sparke takes offence, she doesn’t hold back.’
‘Why is Loste collecting oak trees?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘OK, Joseph Longworth’s vision. That sounds like a modern-day version of one of those old legends often connected to the foundation of churches. A vision indicating where to build.’
‘There are some documents relating to that. It’s in the parish records. Letters. Winnie has copies.’
‘Could I have copies?’
‘No reason why not, I suppose.’
‘Could you send them? Email anything?’
Spicer sighed. Merrily persevered.
‘Do you have any idea what Winnie Sparke might have meant when she talked about a great and beautiful secret?’
‘No,’ he said.
Merrily called the home of the dead girl, Sonia Maloney, in Droitwich. No answer. The Cookman number Syd Spicer had passed on turned out to be a spare line, which meant he hadn’t even tried it.
She came to the third on the list.
‘Who?’ Stella Cobham said.
‘Merrily Watkins. The Deliverance woman?’
‘Oh, yeah. Look, Merrily, I was just on my way out. Perhaps I could call you back.’
‘Won’t keep you a minute, Mrs Cobham. I just wanted – before I make any specific arrangements – to find out if next Sunday would be suitable for you.’
‘I’m sorry. What for?’
‘We were discussing the idea of a Requiem Eucharist for Lincoln Cookman and Sonia Maloney?’
‘It seemed to answer everybody’s … you know?’
‘Yeah, well, look. I don’t think we’ll be coming.’
‘But Mrs Cobham, it was your—’
‘Things have changed. Change of plan. Change of future.’ Brittle laugh. ‘We’re putting the barn on the market. I’m just off to the agent’s in Ledbury now, actually.’
‘Just like that?’
‘It was a wrong move. Nothing’s been right since we came here. We’re probably going to America. Paul knows this guy in Naples, Florida. Anyway, all I’m trying to say is … it really doesn’t concern us any more. Look, I’ve got to go, all right?’
Merrily threw the phone book at the wall.
In Their Proper Place
It had been Merrily’s plan to go into her own church before lunch, when it was quietest. Find a cool place in the chancel and lay all this out, the whole Wychehill mess. To ask the question, Is it time to leave this alone, walk away? An in-depth exchange with the Management on this issue was long, long overdue.
So what was she doing in Lol’s bed?
‘Oh hell…’ She gazed into his unshaven face. ‘This is a bit like adultery.’
‘In what way, exactly?’
Lol rolled off her. He looked almost hurt.
‘No, I…’ She trapped one of his legs between hers. ‘I just meant … cheating on the Church. The parish. Sorry. All I need is to offend you, and that’s virtually nobody left still speaking to me.’
He smiled. Maybe he hadn’t looked hurt a moment ago. Maybe she’d conjured that out of her own hurt.
Lol’s bedroom had a three-quarter bed in it. That was all. It was a very small room with no space for a wardrobe. He said he needed to sleep here because it had a view across Church Street to the vicarage – they could see each other’s lights at bedtime. Which was nice. But she’d sometimes wondered if he wasn’t just a little timid about using the bigger bedroom where Lucy Devenish had slept.
Whatever, this room was bare without being stark, a sanctuary, a space out of time. One day, perhaps, she might even get to spend a whole night here.
‘Then, at the same time,’ she said, ‘I get the feeling that I’m neglecting you.’
‘Some feelings you should listen to,’ Lol said. ‘This could be God telling you that you’re neglecting me.’
‘Dangerous to blaspheme in front of a vicar.’ Her fingers paddling over his thigh. ‘Especially when naked.’
He gripped her hand. They laughed, and when they stopped laughing she told him everything. About Winnie Sparke and Tim Loste and their beautiful secret and her own dismal morning.
‘I’m tired. I can’t get a handle on it any more. People’s attitudes change overnight. They want me to do something, then they don’t. They want to talk to me and then … Winnie Sparke, particularly. It was as if she’d picked a fight just to wind up the conversation because I was asking the wrong questions. Like mentioning the blow-up photo of Elgar.’
‘Let me get this right. Who’s seen Elgar, other than Loste?’
‘Stella Cobham. Who no longer wants to have anything to do with it because they’ve suddenly decided to move. Well, nobody just decides overnight to emigrate. Must’ve been very much on the cards when she came to the meeting in the church and poured it all out, thus burning her boats with Preston Devereaux who, according to Spicer, nobody likes to offend because he’s Old Wychehill…’
Lol sat up against the pillow, retrieved his little brass-rimmed glasses from the floorboards, and put them on.
‘But for a couple of things,’ he said, ‘I’d be suggesting that Elgar might be a psychological projection by Tim Loste.’
‘Well, me, too. Although, if we step over the threshold … sometimes, if the personality behind it is strong enough, a psychological projection may be perceptible to a third party.’
‘Musicians can be obsessive.’
‘Um…’ Lol hesitated.
‘Anything I can do about this?’
‘I don’t like to interrupt your work.’
‘What it comes down to,’ Merrily said, ‘is the only person I haven’t spoken to, can’t get at and may never get at.’
‘Who now seems to be the key to both mysteries, that is, the Elgar thing and the killing on the Beacon, whether he did that or not – and the circumstantial evidence is impressive. But the key to Tim Loste is Winnie Sparke, who isn’t talking. I don’t think she ever planned to say much, and yet she wanted to check me out. Why? I still don’t really know these people or what they’re doing.’
‘There must be other ways in,’ Lol said. ‘For instance … a lot of singers in a choir.’
‘You know any? I don’t.’
‘Not yet. But musicians can be obsessive. Leave this with me.’
‘Thank you, Lol. And thanks for keeping an eye on Jane, which I … I’m not getting anything right, am I? I’m a lousy mother, a lousy girlfriend, an inept exorcist and an incompetent parish priest.’
‘But at least you don’t suffer from low self-esteem,’ Lol said.
They went downstairs and shared half a loaf, a pot of hummus and a box of cress, and Merrily resolved to spend the rest of the day in penance, dusting and polishing the church furniture, finding sick parishioners to visit before…
… A last assault, tomorrow, on Wychehill. Or, more specifically, on Winnie Sparke.
‘And I want to look at Coleman’s Meadow.’
‘Why does Jane think Lyndon Pierce has some secret scheme to expand the village?’
‘Probably because he has. Don’t worry. Gomer’s looking into it.’
‘That’s reassuring.’ Merrily sat on the sofa and smoked half a cigarette. ‘Or maybe not. Pierce used to shoot blue tits, apparently. Nothing he could do for Jane to acquit himself after that. What if Sparke’s right and Loste didn’t kill that guy?’
‘Then Annie Howe will find out for herself. She’s not an incompetent detective, she just doesn’t like you. And your mind’s gone like a TV remote control switching from one channel to another.’
‘Too many channels nowadays,’ Merrily said. ‘That’s the problem.’
The grave was marked by a low wedge of sandstone and overhung by an apple tree from the old orchard over the wall. It was arguably the smallest, least ostentatious memorial in the churchyard.
Jane could have found it blindfolded.
The lettering tiny, and no dates. Lucy’s will had requested no dates, and somehow Mum had been able to comply, probably against all the regulations. And if this wasn’t a sign that Lucy had believed herself to be an eternal presence in Ledwardine, no date for her arrival, no date for her passing…
This always made Jane shiver, but with a kind of delight.
Underneath the name were the lines Lucy had chosen from Thomas Traherne (his dates were given: 1637–74), Herefordshire’s greatest, most mysterious poet.
No more shall clouds eclipse my treasures
Nor viler shades obscure my highest pleasures.
All things in their proper place
My Soul doth best embrace.
All things in their proper place. That spelled it out, really, didn’t it?
Jane placed her hands on the top of the stone for a moment. It always, even in winter, felt warm.
She stood up and looked back towards the church. Lucy’s grave was at the very end of the churchyard, right beside the path which led, through a small wooden gate, to the orchard, which had once virtually surrounded the village. Ledwardine – The Village in the Orchard – some guidebooks still called it that. And this was the coffin track. No doubt about it.
Way back, corpses would have been carried in, ceremonially, through the orchard. There was a long, flat, backless bench, probably the successor to generations of wooden benches on which the bearers had rested the coffins. The lych-gate at the front of the church had been a comparatively modern addition.
Jane looked towards the steeple and imagined what Lucy might have seen – might be seeing now: the churchyard like a circular clearing in the orchard. Perhaps there’d once been a circle of stones around where the steeple now soared.
Jane remembered the day Lucy had cut an apple in half and showed her the five-pointed star, the pentagram at the heart of every apple. An indestructible symbol of the paganism at the heart of Ledwardine. In those days – the days when she’d painted the Mondrian walls – Jane had seen paganism as the real religion, Christianity as a pointless distraction from the Middle East, Mum as misguided.
It didn’t seem as simple now. The church steeple was a powerful symbol and far more effective than a stone circle at indicating, from long distances, the alignment with Cole Hill. Now Jane felt – and arrangements like this underlined it – that paganism and Christianity had often walked together on the same straight path. She was sure that this was what Alfred Watkins had instinctively felt when archaeologists were slagging him off for including medieval churches in the otherwise Neolithic ley system.
Have I done the right thing? She still didn’t know.
Jane walked through the churchyard, past the south door and out through the lych-gate into the market place. Perhaps an old cross or an outlying marker stone might have stood here.
Across into the alley, through the broken gate and into the derelict orchard behind Church Street, past the hump of the burial mound, if that was what it was. And so to Coleman’s Meadow – the meadow of the earth-shaman – to Cole Hill, the sacred hill, the mother hill.
She felt choked up with emotion now, remembering the night she’d got drunk on cider with poor Colette and had started hallucinating in the orchard. Cider’s the blood of the orchard, Lucy had said later, and Jane could still hear her sharp headmistressy voice. It’s in your blood now. I felt at once that it had to be one or both of you … you and Merrily.
This had to be the right path.
Jane began to drift and, as on the night of Colette and the cider, could hardly feel the grass beneath her feet. When she stepped onto the ley it was as if she was floating on sunlit air-currents, and she saw Lucy waiting for her as she began to walk towards the steeple and the holy hill beyond.
‘Hi,’ Lucy said. ‘Are you Jane?’
Jane stood there, blinking. The woman wore not a poncho but a kind of denim smock with lots of pockets, and there was a square metal case at her feet.
‘Sally Ferriman. For the Guardian?’
‘Oh,’ Jane said. ‘Hi.’
‘You ready, Jane?’
Jane looked at Sally Ferriman, then up at Cole Hill, discovering that she had one of her own hands pressing down on top of her head as if she was trying to stop some part of it floating away.
‘Yes,’ Jane said. ‘I think so.’
Merrily reached the church door and then turned back.
She wasn’t ready. She went back to the vicarage and sat in front of the list of people whom she needed to tell about the idea for a requiem on Sunday. Crosses against Mrs Cookman and Stella Cobham. She tried the number for Sonia Maloney’s parents: still no answer.
One more name on the list. She’d agonized about this one, had wondered whether to consult Syd Spicer – or even Bliss – about it first.
She rang Bliss’s mobile. Switched off, but he rang back within a minute from outside the building.
‘They’ve still got Loste, and they may make an application to hold on to him, but there’s been no charge. They may still be waiting for forensics. However … it doesn’t look good from his point of view. They now have a witness who’s identified Loste as someone seen conducting what may have been a transaction on the side of the Beacon with a black man in a woolly hat.’
‘Loste bought drugs from Wicklow?’
‘That’s what it looks like. Usual rules, of course, Merrily.’
‘Not a word to anyone.’
‘So,’ Bliss said, ‘what do you have for me?’
‘Erm … another question?’
‘Jesus, Merrily, I can’t believe how one-sided this relationship’s become.’
‘I know. I’m sorry. This probably isn’t something you can answer, anyway.’
‘Fair enough. I’ll see you around, then—’
‘It’s probably a Traffic matter.’
‘In that case, all the abuse I’ve thrown at Traffic over the years, no chance.’
‘It’s my Wychehill road accidents. I just – this is stupid – just want to be sure they actually happened as they were described to me. Or indeed happened at all. Loste had a crash that wasn’t reported to the police, so I can’t do anything about that. But there was a lorry driver supposed to have gone into the church wall.’
‘Can’t give you an exact … Never mind, it was just a thought.’
‘Merrily, even a brilliant investigator like myself…’
‘The only one where I do have a name, although I gather there was no charge in the end, so it may not be instantly accessible either … Stella Cobham? And it was early this month. Could you possibly get anything from that … ?’
She heard the sound of grinding traffic and the gasp of air brakes.
‘The doughnuts are on you, Merrily,’ Bliss said. ‘Probably for the rest of your life.’
And she’d forgotten to ask him about the final name on the requiem list.
But then, why should she ask him? Or Spicer. Spicer had unequivocally opted out of the requiem, and she wasn’t a goddamn stoolie for the cops. Not officially, anyway.
Merrily switched on the computer to check the emails and, while it was booting up, stared at the phone. Should she?
Sod it. What was there to lose? She went into Yellow Pages for the number and then rang the Royal Oak at Wychehill and asked to speak to Mr Rajab Ali Khan.
Some guy said he wasn’t there, mostly he worked out of his offices in Worcester and Kidderminster, and what did she want and could he take a message?
Merrily said yes, he probably could. No hurry. She merely wanted to invite Mr Khan to a church service.
The emails came up. Piece of spam offering her guaranteed penis enlargement and – wow – one from Wychehill Rectory.
IN CONFIDENCE – you might find something here. Couldn’t scan it – too faded – so I’ve copied it, for speed. It’s in the parish records, a letter, dating back to 1926, apparently forwarded to Longworth, who seems to have preserved it as some kind of corroboration of his choice of site for Wychehill Church. I don’t know who it’s from or who he’s talking about – in fact, for all I know, it could be a forgery – but Winnie was certainly impressed, so I’m guessing one of them’s Elgar. Also note that Winnie changed the name of her house to Starlight Cottage.
Spicer hadn’t even signed the email. But then, what had she expected – love, Syd?
Merrily scrolled up the letter. It was something that he’d taken the trouble to send it.
My dear Sirius
How are you? We seem hardly to have spoken since the utterly devastating loss of poor Electra, and so I was delighted to receive your letter … and further delighted to confirm that your Hereford friend is absolutely right as regards the significance of the Wyche Hill site. My researches tell me this would be a most propitious place to build a church or temple. As we once discussed, there is a tradition of worship in the Malvern Hills long predating Christianity yet absorbed by the early Church, and also, as recorded in the Triads of Wales, a most inspiring, long-lost tradition of sacred music-making. It is my belief – and wonderful to think it could be so – that there may be no area of southern Britain more conducive to the creation and performance of music of the most exalted power than this. Your own work is surely ample testament to its extraordinary influence.
Please tell me if I can be of any further assistance to any of you, and I look forward to experiencing the church if ever it is built. But we must get together before that.
With every good wish,
PS Some of my old, as Electra would say, ‘out of the world’ associates are inclined to think your friend’s interpretations of his remarkable discovery tend toward the prosaic, but I suppose his provincial background is a bit of a constraint!
* * *
That night, Jane went out with Eirion and Merrily went over to Lol’s. They set off to walk to Coleman’s Meadow, and she showed him the email.
‘If one of them’s Elgar, it’s probably going to be Sirius.’
It was a warm night, the northern sky still a shimmering electric blue. Lol said that the weather forecast had suggested tomorrow would be the hottest day of the year so far.
‘So Electra … ?’
‘Would be Alice, who’d died some years earlier.’
‘Music of the most exalted power,’ Merrily said. ‘What does that say to you?’
‘I think it says, even with a Boswell guitar don’t get any ideas.’
Coleman’s Meadow was empty. Lol said there’d been Hereford cattle last time he was here, but now only a few rabbits bobbed around on the eastern fringe, by the thorn hedge.
The path through the middle of the meadow was strikingly evident, even among the shadows. Even when it disappeared through the gate and into the undergrowth, you could feel it burrowing like a live cable to light up the summit of Cole Hill, which, at nearly ten p.m., was ambered by an almost unearthly sunset afterglow.
‘What do you think?’ Lol said. ‘Worth saving?’
‘From chanting comes the word enchantment and it was largely by chanting that the Druids kept up the spell of enchantment which they spread across each of the Celtic kingdoms.’
On the Line
No point in worrying. It probably wouldn’t be in today’s paper, anyway. After Jane had asssured him that no other media had been in touch, Jerry Isles had said they might well hold it over for a day. Later, media-savvy Eirion had explained that it was a soft story, therefore expendable.
Every time she’d awoken in the night, Jane had been hoping, increasingly, that they’d just dump it. After all, it wasn’t much of a story in the great scheme of things, was it? And what, in the end, was it likely to achieve, apart from dropping her in some deep shit with Morrell?
Still, she was up before Mum and outside the Eight Till Late not long after it opened, this horrible queasy feeling at the bottom of her stomach. Despite the shop’s name, Big Jim Prosser opened around seven, with all these morning papers outside on the rack – Suns, Mirrors, Independents.
No Guardians, however, this morning. Maybe not many people took it in Ledwardine, or they’d all gone for delivery.
The air was already warm, in line with the forecast on Eirion’s car radio last night that this would be the first really hot day of the summer. Ledwardine looked impossibly beautiful, quiet and shaded and guarded by the church, with its glistening spire, and the enigmatic pyramid of Cole Hill. Everything serene and ancient and … vulnerable. Jane felt as though she was carrying the weight of all that late-medieval timber-framing on her shoulders, and was about to duck away when Big Jim appeared in the shop doorway.
‘Lovely morning, Jane. Looking for anything in particular, is it?’
‘Daily Telegraph? Times?’
‘Erm, it was just a Guardian, but if they’ve all gone it doesn’t matter.’
‘Just a Guardian, eh?’ Jim Prosser had his hands behind his back, looking kind of smug. ‘Oh, they’ve gone, all right. Every single one. Last one got snapped up five minutes before you come in. ’Fact, I just had to turn one feller away.’
‘Oh.’ Jane edged towards the door. ‘Right. Never mind, then.’
This didn’t necessarily mean anything.
‘Lyndon Pierce, it was,’ Jim said happily, the words coming down like the blade of a guillotine. ‘I think he’s driven over to Weobley to try and get one there. Didn’t look a happy man, somehow. Can’t imagine why.’
‘Oh God.’ Jane went hot and cold. ‘They used it, didn’t they?’
‘Don’t make me suffer even more, Jim. What did it say?’
‘Well, seeing it’s you, Jane…’ Jim brought a paper out from behind his back. ‘I’ll let you have a quick glance at my own copy, if you like.’
‘You take the Guardian?’
‘I do today,’ Jim said.
He led her inside and spread the paper on the counter, folded at an inside news page, and, Oh God, there it was: in Guardian terms, a big spread, although – Oh God, no – most of the space was taken up by the full-colour picture.
The photographer had been standing on the stile at the bottom of Cole Hill, focusing down on Jane, and now you could see why she’d done it from that angle: Jane’s face was in close-up, unsmiling, moody, with the path racing away over her shoulder, all the way to the church steeple. They’d done something to it with a computer, shading the edges so that the ley looked almost as if it was glowing.
Underneath, a second picture showed a section of Ordnance Survey map, with the ley points encircled, just like Alfred Watkins used to do it.
Altogether, not a story you could easily miss.
Village future on the line, schoolgirl warns
A schoolgirl is fighting county planners to defend the legacy of the man whose discovery of ley lines has been causing nationwide controversy for more than eighty years.
Planning officials in Herefordshire were ready to accept an application for new housing in the historic village of Ledwardine in the north of the county, when the vicar’s daughter Jane Watkins, 18, accused them of destroying the sacred heritage of the community.
Ms Watkins says a proposed estate of 24 ‘luxury homes’ would obliterate what she insists is a prehistoric straight track, or ley, linking several sacred sites including her mother’s church and the summit of what she claims is the village’s ‘holy hill’. Ley hunters all over Britain are now set to join the protest.
The theory of ley lines was floated in 1925 by Alfred Watkins (no relation), a Hereford brewer and pioneer photographer, in his book The Old Straight Track, which is still in print and something of a bible for New Agers and ‘earth mysteries’ enthusiasts. The latest theories suggest that Watkins’s leys are lines of earthenergy or possibly spirit paths along which the souls of the dead were believed to be able to travel.
However, Hereford councillors and officials charged with implementing new government demands for more rural housing are taking a hard line on the issue.
At the end of the story, a council spokesman was quoted as saying, ‘It’s a storm in a teacup. We have consulted our county archaeologist who assures us that ley lines are simply a quaint myth. We applaud Jane Watkins’s interest in local traditions, but consider this would be a very silly reason to forsake our commitment to allow quality new housing to be built on suitable sites.’
However, they also had a quote from J. M. Powys, described as ‘an author specializing in landscape phenomena’, who said, ‘Although the concept of leys has been widely dismissed almost since Watkins first came up with it, he was definitely on to something, and his ideas have been powerfully influential. There’s a lot about the ancient landscape we really don’t understand, and I’d be interested in taking a look at this alignment – which looks like one that Watkins missed, even though it was virtually on his own doorstep.’
Earlier in the piece Jane had been quoted as describing council officials as…
‘Philistine morons?’ Jim Prosser said. ‘You actually said that, did you, Jane?’
‘Oh God, Jim.’ Jane covered up her face. ‘I thought we were just having like a preliminary chat? He was really sympathetic, you know? I thought he’d come out with the photographer to interview me properly – I didn’t realize that was it, he was doing it over the phone.’
Jim stood there, slowly shaking his head and smiling the smile of a man who couldn’t quite believe this. He held out the paper.
‘You wanner take this copy, show your mother before somebody else does?’
‘Christ, no … I mean, it’s OK, she’s going out early.’ Jane felt clammy under her school shirt. ‘Look … what do you think, Jim? What have I done? Is this, like, going to cause trouble?’
‘Hard to say, really. Twenty-four houses, that’s another twenty-four bunches of papers and magazines for me. On the other hand, disturbing the spirits of the dead…’
‘You don’t believe a word, do you? You think it’s all total bollocks.’
‘Well, you know us primitive, superstitious rural types, Jane…’
‘Do you think anybody here is going to agree with me?’
‘Tough question,’ Jim said. ‘Go on, take the paper, you might need one.’
Jane went out and stood by the oak pillars of the medieval market hall. The brilliant sun was suspended over Cole Hill, as though it was either declaring its support or making some kind of ironic gesture. Jane screwed up her eyes and looked up, pleading.
It had been like a dream. Taking herself off to the end of the playing field yesterday lunchtime and sitting down and trying to see it from all sides. Mum’s position in the village – no conflict there, she was supposed to be responsible for the collective soul of the community. And Morrell, always on about liberal causes and free speech and Amnesty International and stuff like that.
Once the decision had been made, it had been like being on a speeded-up escalator. A call to the photographer and then to Eirion on his mobile, and he’d blagged some time off and been waiting, parked down the lane, just out of sight, when she’d slipped away from the school soon after one p.m. Eirion finally dropping her off at the church so that she could walk the ley from there on her own, just to be … sure. And she had been sure.
Yesterday, the high. Today, the cold turkey.
Jane was getting a mental image, now, of Morrell with the Guardian on his desk – it was his favourite paper, normally. Folding it neatly … and then instructing his secretary to have all copies removed from the school library and the sixth-form common room before any of the students arrived. Then maybe a smarmy, self-defensive call to the woman on the education authority before sitting back to devise a suitable form of retribution.
Bloody unfair, really. Another couple of weeks and the term would’ve been over and she’d have been immune until September.
A few villagers were wandering over to the shop. Jane slipped behind a pillar of the market hall and didn’t move. She felt disoriented and distanced from … from her usual self. Like she’d taken – beginning with that first small lie about her age to Jerry Isles – a decision to become a separate person, detached also from The School and The Sixth Form.
A slightly premature adult, in other words, and it felt lonely.
The sun was hot on her head and her arms. She felt as if she wanted to walk away and fade into the spirit path the way she almost had yesterday. Or was that … was she just going a little crazy, through stress and anxiety?
Across at the vicarage she could see Mum reversing the Volvo onto the side of the road. Looked like she was in a hurry. Well, good. But she wouldn’t leave before she’d seen her daughter.
Jane raised a hand and wandered over, hiding the Guardian in the hedge. Best not to burden her with this.
Or the migraine.
Oh yeah, there was definitely a migraine coming on today.
A Polka for the Loonies
There were no curtains at Lol’s bedroom window. When he’d awoken, not long after dawn, the sky was slashed with red, bringing up ugly thoughts of the dead man on the stone in the Malverns.
Something Lol had not seen, but Merrily had, and Lol was lying there under the reddening duvet, thinking about all the times he’d sat fingering the frets of the graceful Boswell guitar, conjuring ephemera, while Merrily waded in spiritual sewage.
Increasingly, he worried about her. She was living much of the time on cigarettes instead of proper meals and sooner or later all this chasing around after madness – the kind of madness she’d never be able to validate – would start to take its toll.
Not many nights, lately, had passed without him waking in the dark or the early dawn, cold with this formless fear of losing Merrily.
And walking back in the late evening from Coleman’s Meadow to the market square, splitting up to go to their separate beds … there’d been a disturbingly elegiac quality to that.
Recalling this, he’d felt a moment of anxiety that was close to panic and, turning it into determination, got up into the streaming red dawn and made some tea and a list of what he needed to find out.
Finding himself thinking about Winnie Sparke. The way she’d moved in on him: Pardon me … but I think I know who you are? The tumbling hair, the semi-see-through dress. Ready to come on to him that night, but now she wasn’t talking. Not to Merrily. Protecting the enigmatic Tim Loste. So what was there to protect?
At around eight-thirty, Lol sat at his writing desk in the window overlooking Church Street and rang Prof Levin at the Knight’s Frome studio.
‘Five weeks,’ Prof said. ‘In five weeks, I have a window for approximately ten days. If we can’t break its back in ten days we’re not trying.’
‘Sorry … ?’
‘Your … second … solo … album?’
‘Well, it’s coming.’ Lol could hear Prof pouring coffee from his cafetière. ‘I’m just … not there yet.’
‘Shit,’ Prof said. ‘You haven’t even started, have you, you useless bastard?’
‘No, I’ve started. I start every day. Except today. Today, I’m not starting.’
‘Tim Loste,’ Lol said. ‘What do you know about Tim Loste?’
The answer came back, sailing past on a breath like there’d been no need for thought.
‘Avoid,’ Prof said.
‘I see.’ Lol inched his chair further into the desk, picked up a pencil, gathered in his lyrics pad. ‘Why, exactly?’
Prof said, ‘Laurence, we’re all mad, in our way, aren’t we? Me, you, Loste, Elgar.’
‘Sorry, did I mention Elgar?’
‘You mentioned Loste, which means that sooner or later we’d get around to Elgar. And madness. Elgar grew up with it. Used to hang around the local lunatic asylum at Worcester.’
‘Yes, but that’s because he was Director of Music there.’
‘Yeah. Thirty quid a year, and five shillings every time he wrote a polka for the loonies to dance to. But even then he’s thinking, there but for the grace of God…’
‘You’re saying Elgar was mentally ill?’
‘But also, fortunately, touched with genius. Imagine what it’s like if you’re mental and only touched with mediocrity.’
‘Terrific conductor, arranger … facilitator. Pure creativy? Nah.’
‘You know him personally?’
‘Mmmf.’ Prof swallowing too-hot coffee. ‘Laurence, mate, everybody knows him. If you’re a halfway-proficient serious musician or a singer, the chances are he’s been in touch at one time or another, offering you the chance to make your name. No money in it, of course, just the honour and the glory of working with the young master. This is in his manic phases.’
‘In the clinical sense?’
‘Whether it’s been diagnosed I wouldn’t know. But in his depressive phases, it’s best to stay out of his way – and also in his manic phases, obviously. That’s why I say just avoid. Tell you about me and him, shall I?’
It seemed that Loste, having heard about this new recording studio at Knight’s Frome, had called Prof, introducing himself as a one-time soloist with the English Symphony Orchestra. Asking whether it was possible that Prof could put together a mobile unit to record his choir in Wychehill Church.
‘Complicated job, Laurence, if you’ve never recorded a choir before, having to mike up this huge church on your own. So what’s wrong with the studio? I’m asking him. Oh no, Loste insists it has to be the church. Not a church, this church. But … he had the money. I should argue.’
‘You went to Wychehill?’
‘Charming crowd, on the whole. The women worshipped Loste, this bumbling overgrown schoolboy … imprecise, incoherent.’
‘You mean drunk?’
‘Well … high, certainly. Or just, like I said, manic. And yet, in the end, unexpectedly, I was impressed. He’s a bloody good conductor. He channels inspiration. Shouldn’t’ve been any good at all, bunch of amateurs in a country church, but the atmosphere in there was … something else.’
‘This was Elgar?’
‘Ah, well, that’s the point, you see. For Loste, it all comes through Elgar. Elgar was always moaning that nobody understood him; Loste understands him. Totally. And the combination of Elgar and Loste somehow brings something extraordinary out of amateurs. I remember the Angelus, particularly. Shivers-up-the-spine stuff. Or so it seemed to me whose skills have, for too long, been squandered on three-chord wonders such as your good self.’
‘Congratulations. Loste, meanwhile, his ambition is to do the full Gerontius with a choir and orchestra. On the strength of what we recorded already, it wouldn’t be an embarrassment. Except he’ll need to get somebody else to twiddle the knobs on it because Gerontius scares me. Too big, too complicated. Also, an attempted orchestration of the afterlife with angels and demons … am I going there? With Loste? I think not, Laurence. Definitely not with Timothy Loste.’
Lol said, ‘Prof, was there a woman with Loste when you did the recording? A writer called Winnie Sparke?’
‘Cheesecloth and glittery bits?’
‘That would probably be her, yes.’
‘All right,’ Prof said, ‘you remember Yoko Ono in the film they made of the session for Let It Be? Sitting there, watchful? More than a bit like that, only less of the inscrutable. Not a promising relationship, was my feeling. She looks at him, sees toyboy; he looks at her … mummy.’
‘You know anything about her?’
‘Not much. She’s a writer. Does these Mystic Meg kind of books. What’s your angle?’
‘She’s told Merrily that she and Loste are on the edge of the solution to a great and beautiful mystery.’
‘Merrily?’ Prof said. ‘This is a Merrily situation? Oh, for fuck’s sake. A great and beautiful mystery? Avoid, avoid, avoid!’
‘Well, it’s not too hard to avoid him at the moment,’ Lol said. ‘He’s in custody. The cops are questioning him about a murder on Herefordshire Beacon.’
‘Loste? This is the man found in the old fort, his throat cut from ear to ear? You’re serious?’
‘The guy worked at this hip-hop palace at the Royal Oak, outside Wychehill. Which Loste apparently believes is…’
‘An evil presence sapping his creativity. I heard that. Only, he doesn’t have any creativity. He’s an interpreter. A facilitator. That’s as far as it goes. Bloody hell, Lol. I mean, bloody hell.’
Someone was knocking on Lol’s back door.
‘Do you see him as someone who could kill?’ Lol asked.
‘Loste?’ Prof swallowed some coffee. ‘Big bloke. Conducting, he snaps batons. But he— With a knife? Blood spurting everywhere?’
Lol heard the back door opening and shutting. The door of the living room opened, and Jane stood there in her school uniform. She wasn’t smiling. She was unusually pale. When Lol pointed her to the sofa, she sat down with her hands clasped between her legs, biting her lip.
‘Prof, can I ring you back?’
‘Listen,’ Prof said, ‘if you really want to know more about Loste’s games, I can put you in touch with one of the people in his choir. In fact, there’s one guy might be more than happy to talk to you in particular. I’ll call him, get him to ring you. OK?’
Lol saw that Jane had been crying.
‘“Great and beautiful mystery”,’ Prof said. ‘I’ll tell you one thing about that. Like Elgar, Loste is obsessed with himself and his ideas. People, he can take or leave most of the time. Music is all. Nothing outside music, to Loste, could be both great and beautiful. Tell Merrily that.’
‘Right,’ Lol said. ‘Thanks.’
‘But, yeah. If there was some threat to his music, I suppose, when you think about it, he could kill,’ Prof said.
A Result, Anyway
There was a new sign and it said Starlight Cottage.
Of course. Winnie Sparke had told them how she’d changed the name from Wyche Cottage. Almost the first thing she’d said that evening with the choir laying its serene spell over Wychehill. This was what Lol had remembered.
The cottage was built of rubble stone and was not much bigger than Hannah Bradley’s place, lower down the lane. Its back garden was formed around plates of rock and ended abruptly in a kind of cliff edge with an iron fence. Merrily looked down and saw the road.
Yours etc., Starlight. Winnie, according to Spicer, had certainly been impressed by the letter supposedly sent to Elgar and passed on to Longworth.
Which posed some interesting questions. But even at 9.30 a.m., with most of the cottage still pooled in shadow, the bloody woman wasn’t around to deflect them. Frustrating, after an early night and only one remembered dream, which had been a dream of Cole Hill seen from Coleman’s Meadow; the only detail that Merrily could recall was the sense of pain and the disembodied, breeze-blown voice of Winnie Sparke saying that the hill was hurting. Odd the way that view, once seen, nested in your mind.
Merrily peered through one of the small windows, but all she could make out was a dim wall of books. She’d left her car in the lane, right outside. She gave the wind chimes above the front door a final flick and went back to it and the copy of the weekly Malvern Gazette which lay on the passenger seat.
‘RITUAL’ MURDER –LOCAL MAN HELD
Tim Loste hadn’t been named, which was normal if there were no charges yet. However, this was a weekly paper, printed yesterday, so if Loste had been charged late last night it wouldn’t have made the edition. The front-page story said the brutal killing on the Beacon had shattered a community already reeling from last weekend’s double fatal road accident (see page three).
On page three the rigid features of Leonard Holliday were in close-up against the blur of the road, under the headline:
‘THIS CARNAGE WILL GO ON…’
The story said that WRAG, the Wychehill Residents’ Action Group, was calling for the immediate closure of the Royal Oak pub as a music venue. Late-night traffic had increased dramatically on roads ‘not much wider than bridleways’ and ‘inner city’ nightlife had left residents living in fear. Mrs Joyce Aird, a widow living alone, said, ‘It’s terrifying. I’m a prisoner in my own home from Friday night to Sunday morning.’
The owner of the Royal Oak, promoter and gallery owner Rajab Ali Khan, had said, ‘I have no intention of pre-empting the inquest verdict on these two unfortunate people, but I am anxious to cooperate fully, if Mr Holliday can provide me with any evidence at all of damage to the property or person of any of his neighbours.’ It sounded like a quote that Raji had run past his solicitor.
Folding the paper, Merrily looked up to see a hare sitting at the top of Winnie’s narrow, down-sloping driveway, its black-tipped ears seeming to quiver for a moment before it bounded away into the hedge. At the top of the lane, the Cobhams’ tarted-up barn shone from its elevated site with an alien glamour, like some Pyrenean villa. It would look spectacularly seductive in the estate agent’s window, where wealthy tourists would project upon it their doomed bucolic fantasies.
Meanwhile … Stella. When Merrily had stopped in Ledbury to buy the Gazette, she’d checked her mobile, and Frannie Bliss had called from home to say he had some information from Traffic about Stella. She’d called him back at once. What he had to tell her had made the air in the car seem stale.
Might as well get this over, then.
Leaving the Volvo outside Starlight Cottage, Merrily walked up to the barn. Ignoring the front door this time, going round the back. There was a low gate on a latch, and she lifted it and went through to where a paved area had been laid. There was a wooden table and a pink and yellow striped sunshade and a woman sitting there with a mug of pungent-smelling coffee and her back to Merrily, who coughed lightly.
‘Morning, Mrs Cobham.’
Stella spun out of her chair, her red hair flaring up like a bonfire, the aggression emphasized by the kimono she wore, with yellow dragons on black and a hot slap of coffee, now, down the front.
‘Sorry to startle you.’
‘You.’ Stella subsided, pulling off her sunglasses and mopping at her kimono with a tissue. ‘Didn’t recognize you in ordinary clothes. What do you want? We’ve never encouraged people to just turn up.’
‘Well … after the way you led me on and then did a neat U-turn on the phone, that really doesn’t bother me too much.’
‘And is this really a good time to be selling a house in Wychehill?’
Merrily placed the Malvern Gazette on the table.
‘Makes no difference.’ Stella barely glanced at it. ‘None of the potential purchasers ever come from this area. Look, Paul’s only gone into Ledbury, and he’ll be back soon and the things I’m guessing you want to talk about, if they get raised again it’s going to spoil his day, big time. And right now, our marriage, let me tell you, is hanging on … that.’
She held a thumb and forefinger about a millimetre apart.
‘So this move’s a new start, is it?’ Merrily said.
‘Darling, this—’ Stella slumped back into her canvas-backed chair. ‘This was supposed to be the new start. He “retired”.’ She did the quote marks in the air. ‘Should’ve realized what a horribly ominous word that is for a man. Strongly suggestive of impending impotence.’
‘What, these days, when everybody seems to be retiring at fifty?’
‘With Paul, it means something to prove. We originally bought this place as just a holiday home – he was in wood stoves, British end of a firm in New England, so a lot of transatlantic travel. He wanted to move out there but I wanted to do this up as a permanent home. Disastrous idea. Flung together in isolation – for ever! – with a man you realize you really never properly knew because he’d spent so much time away.’
‘Like on the night you crashed?’
Stella looked up at Merrily, squinting at the sun, fumbling her dark glasses back on.
‘What are you after? I rather thought you’d had your money’s worth the other night.’
‘Just the truth, this time. Why you lied to the police and everybody else.’
‘Well, actually, it’s fairly obvious why you lied. I’d just like to confirm it, and maybe ask a few supplementary questions. It won’t go any further. And you’re leaving anyway. You are actually leaving, or was that also—?’
Stella peered into her coffee. It looked like the coffee you made after a long and sleepless night, its hours counted out on fingers of alcohol. She sniffed and stood up.
‘I lie all the time, actually. Paul’s not in Ledbury, he’s in London and he won’t be back until tomorrow. But, yes, we are leaving. You want some of this, or would you like to give me an excuse to open a bottle of wine?’
Stella was away in the house for some time. Merrily gazed at the wounded rocks behind the trees and smoked a cigarette and checked the vicarage answering machine on her mobile.
There were five messages.
At barely ten a.m.?
First message: ‘Hello, Mrs Watkins, you might remember me – it’s Amanda Patel from BBC Midlands Today. Not about you this time, you’ll be glad to know, but we’ve seen the story about your daughter in the Guardian and we’d like to follow it up for tonight’s programme. I’ve been on to the school, but she’s apparently not shown up, so I wonder if…’
Not shown up at school? Guardian?
‘…So if you could call me ASAP. I’ll probably be on my way to Ledwardine, so I’ll leave my mobile number…’
Merrily switched off the phone and put out her cigarette, trying to clear her head as Stella Cobham came out. Wearing a green silk robe, she was carrying an opened bottle of Chardonnay, the level already conspicuously down, and two glasses.
‘What’s your driving licence look like, Merry?’
‘I can’t remember.’
Stella peered at her.
‘You all right?’
‘Well, mine’s got enough points on it that I’m just barely on the road. Can you imagine what it would be like living here if you didn’t have a car?’
‘I…’ Concentrate. ‘Yes, I can understand why you didn’t need a conviction for careless driving.’
‘I wasn’t drunk. I was just in a blind rage.’
Stella pulled her robe closer to her throat with one hand and reached out with the other for her wineglass, picking it up and then immediately putting it down again, as if this was some kind of testament to her sobriety on the night.
‘Then afterwards I was standing there in the road, with these whingeing bloody German tourists totting up the damage, and it was obviously my fault, and I’m thinking, Oh shit oh shit, what am I going to do? … when it came to me. I’d heard about the mad Loste claiming to’ve seen Elgar, and I thought, what’s to lose? And then … there was no going back.’
Stuck to the story in every detail, Bliss had said. Wouldn’t budge. Said there was this other bloke who’d seen it and she’d bring him into court. Report went to the CPS, and they don’t get many like this – at least, not where it’s an intelligent, eloquent, opinionated woman who’s going to be red-hot in the box and get it all over the papers. So the CPS made what was considered at the time to be a cautious and sensible decision. No charge.
‘And I suppose,’ Merrily said, ‘that you repeated the story in the church the other night…’
‘Because I was sick of the snide comments, and I suppose I felt a bit sorry for you. And I wanted to wipe the complacent smile off Devereaux’s face because, in a way, if it hadn’t been for him…’
‘The reason I was so mad … going like a bat out of hell … swerved too late … I … Paul had started going for long walks to “keep in condition”. I figured it was long walks down the hill and back up again, and in through a different gate.’
‘I thought he was shagging someone. That weird bitch with her cheap see-through frocks and her kittenish fawning and her Oh, don’t you look so cool today, Paul.’
‘Yeah, I accused him of having a fling with Sparke. I know he fancied her … and she was so blatantly available. You watch her. Any given situation, she’ll home in on the nearest man. Which is interesting for a woman who goes on about goddesses all the time.’
Merrily recalled Winnie on the hill that first night, going straight to Lol. Like, are you the exorcist?
‘And were they? Having a fling?’
‘He would’ve done, no question. I mean, that was the point. And I was convinced she … I mean, she was so knocked sideways when she got dumped by Devereaux, so—’
‘Sorry, I forgot you’re not … It was fairly widely known in Wychehill. Nothing wrong with that, both single. I remember thinking it was quite nice, actually. She seemed genuinely besotted with the guy: Mr Countryman – wellies, cap, Land Rover, gun over his shoulder. Most of those types, they’re a bit thick, no conversation, but Devereaux’s educated, been around. And rich. Rich enough to rescue a poor woman washed up – and I mean washed up – in a foreign country.’
‘But it didn’t work out?’
‘She came round here one night, she was gutted. Shocked and insulted. I was stupid enough to commiserate. Stayed half the night, couldn’t get rid of her. Most of the people here don’t want to know you, but she’s all over you. When it suits.’
‘So Devereaux dumped her?’
‘Winnie wanted too much. He’s been single for a long time, and that’s how he likes it. I mean, she isn’t normally clingy, far as I can see – too arrogant, had too many attractive men – but she was with him. Mr Darcy senior. The American dream. And she clearly needs a lot of money. She was married to some guy, brought her over to London and then pissed off. But does a man like Devereaux— I mean in the end, does he want crystal balls and Tarot cards?’
‘When was this?’
‘Few weeks ago. I mean, some people think she’s got a thing going with Tim Loste, but it’s clear to me it’s not that kind of thing. He thinks it’s for conducting his choir. She just dominates him and after Devereaux she’s devoting all her time … no wonder he finally went insane. Mind you, that was a bloody shock, wasn’t it?’
Stella nodded at the Gazette and took off her sunglasses. Her eyes were crimson-rimmed, almost the colour of her spiky hair. It looked like she’d been doing some crying.
‘Drink and drugs. This place is sick.’
‘Loste really was doing drugs?’
‘Not heroin. More like LSD or something. Magic mushrooms? You see him coming down from the hill sometimes, he’s all over the place, although that could be the drink. Once I came across him lying in the heather, mumbling stuff. You stop questioning it after a while. I can’t wait to leave, now. Not that I’m saying that to Paul; he thinks he’s dragging me away from my dream situation. There’s no honesty between us any more.’
‘Maybe it’ll be different in America.’
‘I don’t know.’ Stella shook her head in disgust. ‘I think Sparke’s doing the Rector now.’
‘Now that he’s on his own.’
‘That’s rumour, is it?’
‘Who knows?’ Stella flipped a hand. ‘She’s been seen going into the rectory more than once. People notice these things.’
‘Holliday, for one. He doesn’t like the rector … or anyone much. Well…’ Stella looked across at the hill, near-vertical here, because of the quarrying. ‘Sorry to spoil your day. I suppose, people in your job, it must make you feel quite worthwhile when you think you’ve found a real one. Especially if it’s somebody distinguished. Elgar. You’ve got to laugh, haven’t you?’
‘It’s a result, anyway,’ Merrily said tightly.
She stood up, and Stella Cobham swung round to face her.
‘Who told you about that? Somebody obviously did.’
‘I have a friend. At the CPS.’
What harm would another lie do, in a place like this?
Don’t Do Sorry
‘Awful,’ Jane said. ‘Barbaric.’
She said there were three double rows of barbed wire, more than chest high and with new stakes. And like a plastic screen over part of it, so you couldn’t even see through.
‘Like some high-security … like Guantanamo Bay or something. Like Guantanamo Bay’s just appeared in Coleman’s Meadow.’
Lol said, ‘You didn’t—?’
‘No. Well, I’d’ve had to go back to Gomer’s for the wire-cutters. And anyway, it was very thick wire. Heavyduty. A proper fence, like I say. Impossible. Plus there were these two blokes there, putting up a big sign.’
‘I’m guessing it doesn’t say Welcome to the Coleman’s Meadow Ley Line.’
‘It says Private Land. Keep Out. Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted. And the word Will is underlined in red. Like somebody’s splattered it on in a rage.’
‘Can they just fence it off like that, if it’s a public footpath?’
‘Is it a public footpath, though? I don’t know.’ Jane didn’t look at him. ‘I should’ve checked it out, and I didn’t. It’s not marked as any kind of footpath on the OS map. This is all so totally my fault, isn’t it? You get carried away with the romance and the excitement and you don’t check the basic nuts and bolts. Didn’t even check whether it was a right-of-way and I ignored the fact that it wasn’t in The Old Straight Track. I’m naive and immature. I’m an idiot, Lol.’
Jane punched her knee and winced and started to cry. The Guardian was crumpled up on the hearthrug. Lol thought it was actually a bit magnificent. Jane wouldn’t look at it.
‘Ever wish you hadn’t started something?’
The warmest day of the summer so far and she looked starved. Lol eyed her, curious. He’d never before heard her wishing she’d never started something.
‘When I first saw the fence I was shocked and then I was furious. And then I saw … when you’re right up to it, the worst thing is … you can’t even see Cole Hill. I felt just … sick. I just walked away and sat down in a quiet part of the orchard and howled.’
Lol sat next to her on the sofa. This was the time to put a comforting arm around her, but he never had. They were close, but she wasn’t his daughter and there was an old barbed-wire fence in his head that had never quite rusted away and probably never would.
‘And you know what?’ Jane said. ‘When I stopped howling, I realized I was sitting right on the ley, and there was … nothing. Nothing to feel. No ancient energy. No shades of Lucy.’
‘Because they’d … blocked the line, you think?’
‘Oh, Lol…’ Jane squeezed his hand. ‘There’s absolutely no need to be kind. I just wanted … just wanted there to be some magic left.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘It’s naive. People like me who listen to Nick Drake singing “I Was Born to Love Magic” and go all shivery. See, what I should’ve done – what a mature person would’ve done – I should’ve just objected to the housing, got some backing for that. Kept quiet about the ley. But no, I’m too smart for that. I go doorstepping a bunch of council guys at Pierce’s … in effect, tipping the bastards off. Now they know what it’s all about and they’ve turned it into some disgusting no-man’s-land. So nobody will ever see the magic again.’
‘Do you know who they are?’
Jane shrugged. ‘This guy Murray, the owner? Lol, look, if—’ She glanced towards the door. ‘If anyone comes, you haven’t seen me. Only, when I got back from the meadow just now, Jim Prosser’s like, Oh, Radio Hereford and Worcester are looking for you and some newspaper people, and they’ve all been ringing the vicarage and getting no answer. So now I can’t even go home in case anyone … I mean, I can’t talk to them now – I’m supposed to be at school. And I haven’t any evidence. They’d just walk all over me. I’m just totally dead, Lol.’
Lol stood up and went to the window. Saw two men and a woman walking up Church Street – people he didn’t know, and it was too early in the day for tourists. He stepped back and saw his own shadowy reflection in the dark side of the pane and knew that it wasn’t Jane who’d been stupid. She was a schoolgirl, below voting age, in no real position to object to a private housing plan or attempt to influence a local authority to veto it.
He, on the other hand…
… Had just stood and watched, perhaps only really concerned that Jane shouldn’t do anything to embarrass Merrily as parish priest.
‘You’re right. Best if you don’t talk to anybody at this stage. Best if you stay here while we work out how to handle this.’
‘If you have no objections.’ Lol turned his back on the street. ‘Interesting how fast this fence has gone up. They didn’t even wait for it to appear in the paper. The cattle had already gone last night.’
‘I noticed that. Jim said they belong to the guy who bought the Powell farm, rents the grazing from Murray.’
‘So if the cattle were removed yesterday – before the story appeared – that suggests that it was set up as soon as they heard the media were on to the story. OK … I’ll go and check it out. You stay here, don’t answer the door and be careful who you answer the phone to.’
‘You don’t have to—’
‘I do have to. Listen, while I’m gone, could you … My laptop’s under the desk. Could you put Wychehill Church into Google, see what you can find?’
‘Think of it as Brownie points with your mum. You might need them.’
Jane smiled. Bit watery, but it was there. He told her about Prof Levin and the recording of the choir that had to be made at Wychehill.
‘You’re looking for connections with music. Choirs. Singing. I don’t know. Any link with Elgar in particular would be good. Use your intuition.’
‘Don’t you think that’s caused enough damage?’ Jane folded up the Guardian, put it behind a cushion, out of sight. ‘I can’t bear it. Why couldn’t I have just smiled? The photographer was going, no, no, don’t smile, but I didn’t have to play along, did I? Now I totally look like some evil slapper. An ASBO waiting to be issued. Lol … ?’
‘I’m sorry for getting you involved.’
‘Pull yourself together, Jane,’ Lol said. ‘You don’t do sorry.’
* * *
The men who’d put up the fencing had gone but it looked, as Jane had said, like a not-so-open prison. Lol was furious. The way governments, national and local, were operating now. Even the council had its cabinet, where iffy issues could be sorted in secret. Any hint of opposition, doors closed, locks turned, walls went up.
And barbed wire.
OK, there was no proof that anyone from the council was involved in this. But it was likely, at least, that the landowner had the support of the Establishment.
And they’d fenced off something they didn’t believe existed. They’d blockaded an idea.
Standing on the edge of the old orchard, Lol began to sense some of Jane’s feelings about Alfred Watkins, who stood for independence of thought. Well into his sixties, a respected local figure, when The Old Straight Track was published, and the archaeological establishment had immediately turned on him. A barrier had gone up, and it was still up.
Independence of thought. Always a crime in the eyes of the Establishment. Lol was starting to feel suffocated, as if the air had been turned into shrink-wrap, when Gomer Parry came ambling out of the orchard, an inch of roll-up gummed to his lips.
Gomer extracted his ciggy, blew out a grey balloon of smoke. Lol wondered if a disused orchard was now classed as a public place where, although it might be entirely legal to light a massively carcinogenic bonfire, nobody was allowed to smoke.
Gomer nodded at the wire.
‘Janie seen this yet?’
‘What do you think?’
Gomer said, ‘What I think is, Lucy Devenish was still alive, she’d drag Lyndon Pierce yere by the scruff, make the bugger tear it down with his bare hands.’
Lol thought what a pity it was that this kind of organic, natural justice was purely the preserve of old ladies.
‘You think Pierce had something to do with this?’
Gomer’s shoulders twitched under his summer tweed jacket.
‘You know this guy Murray, who owns the land?’
‘By sight. Never worked for him. Big farm, and does his own drainage.’
Does his own drainage. Lowest of the low in the planthire world.
‘Knowed his auntie, though, Maggie Pole, her as left him the meadow. Nice lady. Always very fond o’ that meadow.’
‘I don’t think I knew her.’
‘Left before you was here, boy. Went to an old folks’ home, over towards Hay. Hardwicke.’
‘The Glades?’ Lol smiled. ‘I used to know somebody there. How do you mean, fond of the meadow?’
‘Used t’ be a bench near the gate, and her’d go and sit there sometimes on a nice day. Peaceful place, nobody disturbed her. That was all I remembered, but after Jane come over the other night, I went to see an ole boy name of Harold Wescott. Know him?’
Lol shook his head. Gomer pinched the ciggy from between his lips with his thumb and forefinger.
‘Gotter be over ninety, now, has Harold, but still got his own house. Can’t tell you what he had off the meals-on-wheels yesterday, but you wanner know about anything happened in Ledwardine fifty year ago, he’s your man. Anyway, Harold, he knowed Maggie Pole pretty well, and he remembers her was real careful who her let the meadow out to, for grass. Wouldn’t have no overgrazin’, no ploughin’ up. Said it was a piece o’ history.’
‘Don’t get too excited, boy, wasn’t nothin’ to do with ley lines, far as Harold knows. ’Fact, he didn’t know nothin’ about ley lines. Not many of the old folks does. That was harchaeology – not for the likes of we.’
‘So why was the meadow a piece of history?’
‘Dunno. Harold reckoned it was Maggie’s mother used to go on about it. Maggie’s dad, ole Cyril Pole, he was a bit of a rough bugger, but her ma was a lady – real cultured, read books, had her own wind-up gramophone. Point is, Harold Wescott says Maggie told him her ma always said Coleman’s Meadow wasn’t to be touched.’
‘And it … you’re saying it was left to Maggie Pole on that basis?’
‘Sure t’be. But things get forgot, ennit? No kids, see, Maggie, never married, so that’s why it all went to the nephew and the niece. Niece got the money, this Murray had the ground.’
‘Did anybody else know the meadow wasn’t to be touched? Could be important, don’t you think?’
Gomer put the last inch of ciggy into his mouth, took a puff.
‘Hard to say, boy. Been all overgrown, round there, see, for a good while, since the orchard started goin’ to rot. Hell, aye, I’m sure some folks knowed, over the years, but mabbe they thought it best kept quiet about, like all these things. I’ll keep askin’ around. Where’s Janie now?’
‘My place. Should be at school, really, but she’s hiding from the papers and the TV. Not so sure any more that she’s got it right, you know? What are people saying in the village?’
‘Hippie thing,’ Gomer said. ‘That’s what they’re sayin’, boy. Sorry.’
Figured. In this area, the antique term hippie applied to any incomer of relatively unconventional appearance who couldn’t afford a luxury executive home.
‘What about the housing scheme, the loss of the field, the view of Cole Hill?’
‘Don’t affect many folks, see. They’ll do bugger-all, ’less it affects them personal. You listens to ’em, spoutin’ off in the shop…’
‘What are they saying about Jane?’
‘Leave it, Lol. These is just folks as don’t know the girl. Not like what we does.’
‘No, come on … what are they saying?’
Gomer squeezed his ciggy out.
‘They’re just ignorant people with too much time.’
‘Gomer … ?’
‘Ah … sayin’ it’s no wonder her’s goin’ off the rails when her … when her ma en’t around half the time. And no wonder Janie’s livin’ in a bit of a fantasy world when the vicar spends her time chasin’ things as don’t exist.’
‘Instead of looking after the parish.’
‘Ar, more or less. Sorry, boy, but you assed.’
Walking down the lane towards the church, Merrily tried Lol’s number again. Still engaged. Tried his mobile and Jane’s. Both switched off. Left a message that just said, in a voice which she hoped did not sound over-hysterical, ‘The Guardian?’
She’d asked Stella Cobham if they happened to take the Guardian. They didn’t.
She replayed the message from Amanda Patel of BBC Midlands Today, watching Mrs Aird leaving the church with a shopping bag, crossing the road and becoming gradually shorter as if she was sinking into the green verge on the other side. Wychehill people disappearing into their homes like rabbits into burrows.
There were now six more messages on the machine about Jane: BBC Hereford and Worcester, Central News, Daily Mail, Hereford Times, Hereford Journal. And a clipped and icy Robert Morrell, school director, Moorfield.
‘Mrs Watkins, perhaps you can call me, ASAP.’
No wonder the bloody kid was out early. Merrily walked into the churchyard. Where, for heaven’s sake, was she going to get a Guardian in Wychehill? She was recognizing the onset of a cold sweat when a seventh message was delivered by a voice like suede and sounding close enough to lick her ear.
‘Mrs Watkins. Khan.’
Quite a long pause, as if Mr Khan was used to people dashing to disable their answering machines and pick up once they knew it was him. And then he said, ‘Call me back, would you?’ A patina of impatience. ‘I’m in my Kidderminster office.’
She plucked half a pencil and a cigarette packet from her shoulder bag and sat down on the steps of the Longworth tomb to write down the number. No hurry to call him back. It was probably going to be a courtesy call, apologizing for bothering him. Any requiem now was likely to be a cosmetic exercise.
She ought to call Morrell. At least he’d be able to tell her what was in the Guardian. On the other hand, if she revealed to Morrell that she didn’t know, what was that going to look like?
Leaning her head into the still-cool shadow of the stovelike tomb Merrily found herself staring up into the grotesque inverted rictus of the Angel of the Agony.
Purgatory. I think we can deal with purgatory right here, Winnie Sparke had said.
How true that was.
It’s as good as over. Directing this thought at the Angel of the Agony. I expect you know all about being burdened with crap.
She’d knocked on Hannah Bradley’s door. No answer. Probably one of her days at the Tourist Office in Ledbury. The mountain bike wasn’t around. If Stella had lied and Loste was delusional, how likely was it that Hannah had told her the truth?
But she’d been so convincing. It had been like a breath of pure air. Who could you trust?
Merrily stared at the writing on the tomb.
‘ALL HOLY ANGELS PRAY FOR HIM
CHOIRS OF THE RIGHTEOUS PRAY FOR HIM.’
So the quarry owner, Joseph Longworth, had seen an invented angel in a blaze of light and built a huge and costly church?
Wondering if Tim Loste’s choir was praying for him, she heard not prayer but laughter and, peering around the tomb, saw two people walking into the church drive.
One of them was Winnie Sparke in her long, pale, flimsy dress. Winnie was laughing, her good and abundant hair thrown back.
Merrily slid down behind the tomb.
The man with Sparke was a very big man. Overweight, but with the height, almost, to carry it. Wide-shouldered, wearing a flannely sort of shirt outside his trousers. His dark hair was long and brushed back, and he had a moustache – not Lord Lucan, not Freddie Mercury, but a wide, black, muscular kind of moustache, like the one on the face on the back of a twenty-pound note.
Jane had washed her face; her eyes were bright but a little wild.
‘I can’t find the printer.’
‘Haven’t got one.’
Lol shut the front door and, for some paranoid reason, barred it. Although Church Street was deserted, there would be eyes at windows. This was Ledwardine.
‘Lol … you’ve got a laptop but no printer?’
‘Just an oversight. I’ll get one sometime.’
‘Jeez.’ Jane stood up. ‘Did you see anybody?’
‘Gomer. The fence guys’ve gone now. Gomer’s not sure what’s happening there either, but he does know a lot of people.’
‘He’s still on our side, though?’
‘Jane, this is Gomer Parry. Anybody rung?’
‘Bloke called Dan. Friend of Prof Levin’s. I said you’d call him back. Then I had to go on-line. You ought to get broadband.’
‘Don’t use it enough. What did you find?’
‘I was going to print it out when you got back, but under the circs I’d better give you the basics.’
Lol sat down on the sofa. Jane had the laptop on the desk, with a curtain half-drawn.
‘Wychehill Church. Dedicated to St Dunstan, who’s one of the patron saints of music. He was Bishop of Glastonbury in the eleventh century, and he played the harp or something. But the church was only dedicated in the 1920s. Built in the Victorian Gothic style by Joseph Longworth, quarry owner, after his conversion which – get this – was said to have followed a visionary experience on the hill.’
‘What kind of visionary experience?’
‘Haven’t been able to find out. This was a boring ecclesiastical website, mainly dates and architectural features. All it says is that Longworth was stricken with remorse at the damage his quarrying had done to what he now realized was “holy ground”. And so he went to Little Malvern Priory and prayed for forgiveness and was subsequently directed to this spot.’
‘That’s all it says about that. But something must’ve directed him because when he got there he found the remains of what was described as “a single-cell rectangular building” which was thought to be a monk’s cell or a hermit’s sanctuary.’
‘Next to the road?’
‘There wasn’t a road there in those days, just a quarry track, and that was a few hundred yards away, so the road must’ve been put in later, probably after Longworth was dead. So he built his church on top of the foundations of the single-cell rectangular building – you could get away with that kind of thing in those days. It says he built a church big enough to take a full choir and orchestra.’
‘And then he built the rectory and houses for the church warden and the choirmaster. And then other people built houses there, as the Malverns had become fairly sought-after with the spa and everything. So Longworth is actually credited with establishing what is now considered to be Wychehill. Lol – is all this anything to do with that guy getting his throat cut on the Beacon?’
‘Anything’s possible,’ Lol said. ‘It’s a holistic world.’
‘You want me to keep searching?’
‘No, give it a rest. I’ll ring this bloke. Thanks, Jane.’
‘Took my mind off things a bit.’ Jane closed the laptop. ‘Feel like a … fugitive.’
‘We’ll deal with it.’
‘It’s not your problem.’
‘I suppose I’d like to think it was,’ Lol said.
‘Sorry.’ Jane smiled. A strained kind of smile. ‘I’d be honoured to be your problem. Especially if you can restrain Mum.’
Dan turned out to be the choir guy and he lived up near the Frome Valley, which was presumably how he came to know Prof Levin. He also knew…
‘Lol Robinson! I was at your concert at The Courtyard. Amazing. Shit hot. I mean it, man. A comeback in the truest sense.’
‘Well … thank you. That’s very kind.’
‘Best tenor in these parts, me,’ Dan said. ‘But I’d give it all away for a croak if I could write songs like you. Seriously, I’d rather be in a band – Robert Plant, or something, big-voice stuff – but if you’ve got the finest tenor in Much Cowarne you’re expected to use it. Cross to bear, man. On the plus side, you get to work with some unexpectedly wild people.’
‘Yeah.’ Dan’s voice came down like he’d been unplugged. ‘Prof told me. It’s crazy, man. You look at Tim Loste, you think, yeah, wouldn’t like to meet him on a dark night in a back alley. You talk to Tim Loste … no way. With a knife? Utterly out of the question. Problem is, the police talk to him … different wavelengths, you know?’
‘Can you tell me a bit about his … wavelength?’
‘Oh man, I could bend your ear for hours about Lostie. Only, I’m still in the choir, in a loose way, so none of this came from me, right?’
‘Count on it.’
‘Well, it’s a big choir. The Loste boys – and girls. Drawn from maybe a fifty-mile radius. And you don’t have to totally love Elgar, but it helps. Me, I like him better than I used to – when you’re born in this area, you get the guy shoved down your throat from an early age. You live in Elgar Country. It’s an honour. Yeah, thanks.’
‘So you sang at Wychehill Church?’
‘St Timothy’s. As we call it. Acoustics are amazing. The quarry tycoon who had it built … Longthorne? You know that story?’
‘That’s the man. Venerated Elgar, saw himself as like Gerontius, from the oratorio, an ordinary man who’d sinned a bit, and now he’s facing the final judgement and he’s shitting himself. So the guy builds a bloody church. Stairway to heaven or what?’
‘A very big church designed for sacred music.’
‘I think he wanted to buy into the Three Choirs.’
‘Right. That would be The Three Choirs Festival? Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire?’
‘Oldest fest of its kind in the country. Dates back to about 1700. But it’s a cathedral thing, mainly, so I don’t suppose Wychehill was much involved. The road wouldn’t’ve been much more than a quarry track in those days. But it obsesses Tim. I don’t get too close, to be honest, you get … roped into stuff, and for every one that works there’s a lot of time-wasters. He’s inclined to exploit people – fair enough, he is a bit inspirational, and the women fancy him, not that they can get too close with the Witch of Endor around.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Just is. She gets the ideas. There was one where we were divided into groups of twelve, and Tim fixed up for us to use three different churches – Wychehill, Little Malvern Priory and St Bart’s at Redmarley D’Abitot. We had to go to these separate churches and sing a set programme at the same time. I copped for Little Malvern – the parish church now, it is – and we had mobile phones connected with Tim and Winnie at Wychehill. And he’d give the word, and we’d all start singing simultaneously.’
‘Gregorian chant, to start off, the warm-up. Then Elgar’s Kyrie Eleison. These solid C of E establishments reverting to their Catholic roots. Strange at first but quite … moving. The other thing I remember is how weird it felt, but I don’t dwell on these things.’
‘I dunno … unexpectedly exciting, really. We did it by candlelight – that was Winnie’s idea, too. Dunno whether you know the Priory church, but it’s quite small and narrow. And it was, you know, quite a thrilling experience. I was a bit cynical about the whole idea at first, taking the piss, as you do, but … I’d do it again tomorrow, I mean it, I’d travel a long way to do it.’
Dan sounded like he’d surprised himself, saying that. Lol waited. He was fascinated. He sometimes thought about playing in a church, not in some dumb happy-clappy band, but … he didn’t know; he just wanted, sometimes, to put himself into a situation where his music might find a different level.
‘It was the things that were happening in my head,’ Dan said. ‘And my whole body, really. A vibration going through you, like wiring, and it’s like different parts of you are lighting up in sequence. Can’t explain it. I mean, all right, the chant usually gives you a bit of a lift. But this time the interconnectedness thing … it wasn’t just three churches coming together, it was like being inside a big … orb of sound. Like we’d broken through to another place. I mean it. More than that, really, I … bugger me, I sound like I’d taken something, don’t I?’
‘Why those particular churches?’
‘Well, Tim never explained, he never does. He’s an inarticulate bugger at the best of times; you think if he could talk in notes and chords, instead of words, he would, you know? They say he was a useless teacher. But we worked it out, kind of. Comes down to the three churches being in the Three Counties – Wychehill in Herefordshire, Little Malvern Priory in Worcestershire and Redmarley D’Abitot in Gloucestershire. So what he’d done, he’d assembled his own Three Counties choir … the Three Counties united in sacred chant. Weird.’
‘And he never tells you what’s behind all this?’
‘Not talked about, Lol. We’re all a bit funny about that kind of thing, en’t we? One woman – this is just one woman, mind, and I don’t know her very well, but she was white as a sheet when we come out. Said that when we were doing the Mass, she seen like a figure, up at the altar. Tall hat. Well, a bishop’s mitre. And he’s standing there with his arms raised. Like … like a bishop, I suppose. She was pretty shocked, but it might’ve been just the state we were all in.’
‘This happened when you were singing music from the Mass – Elgar’s music?’
‘Well, yeah, but I later found out there was a famous photo taken in there where you’re supposed to be able to see the ghostly shape of a bishop with his crozier. So she may’ve come back down with that in her head. You’re a bit high with the singing and you find you’re focused on the same spot that you’ve seen in the picture, and it’s all candlelit. When she told us, she wasn’t frightened exactly, it was more white with awe. And I remember thinking, Yeah, we woke him up, and he’s celebrating the Mass. And suddenly the idea of celebrating the Mass made sense to me for the first time.’
‘Well,’ Lol said. ‘Thanks.’
‘You should write a song about him,’ Dan said.
Stashing away the notebook and the phone and shouldering her bag, Merrily walked directly over. But Winnie was already blocking the porch, her hands out, long nails, and her eyes almost black in the full sunlight.
‘They let him go?’
‘I’m asking you, Merrily, with civility, to back off.’
‘That was him, wasn’t it?’ Merrily said.
‘Whaddaya think, it’s Elgar’s freaking ghost?’
Tim Loste had vanished into the church and the oak doors were shut. At the porch entrance, Winnie Sparke didn’t move. Her arms were slim but unexpectedly muscular, tanned and taut.
‘And this is just as close as you get today, lady. He’s in a delicate state. You need to show some respect.’
‘You were laughing.’
‘I’m laughing, he isn’t. I’m happy he’s out.’
‘I need to talk to him.’
‘Some other time. Jeez, he was accused of killing a guy … with a knife? They had him in some interrogation cell, threw the whole damn package at him, hour after hour, different cops, good cop/bad cop, all that shit. How they make you confess to what you didn’t do. Come at you and come at you till you don’t know whether it’s night or freaking day.’
‘Bad experience, Winnie, but I didn’t get him arrested. My business here’s road accidents. And that’s as good as over. I’m just drawing lines under things.’
‘Well, you go draw your lines someplace else.’
‘Why don’t you want me to talk to him?’
‘That’s how you choose to see it, you go right ahead. You put it all on me.’
Unbelievable. Was this really the same woman who, a couple of nights ago, in this very spot, had been all let’s-get-together and explaining how the rocks were in pain, telling Merrily how cute she was?
… And her kittenish fawning and her, Oh, don’t you look so cool today, Paul.
‘All right,’ Merrily said. ‘How about I just talk to you?’
‘Later.’ Winnie Sparke’s eyes were like smoked glass. ‘I have to take care of Tim.’
In the church, the organ started up, low and growling chords. Winnie smiled.
‘Giving himself a fix.’
‘He’ll be OK on his own for a while, then.’
‘Look, I’ll call you sometime. OK?’
‘It’s a public place, the church. I often go into other churches to pray. I think I feel the need—’
Winnie’s hands were out, clawed again.
‘You really going to scratch my eyes out? Winnie, I’ve been messed about for days, and my daughter’s got some problems and I need to go home. I’m asking for a few minutes of your time. Or if you’re determined to have an unseemly cat fight to prevent me entering a church…’ Merrily unslung her bag, dropped it at her feet. ‘Then let’s do it.’
The sun burned down and the church shimmered.
‘OK.’ Winnie Sparke’s hands fell, her shoulders slumping. ‘But give me three minutes to go talk to him.’
‘I expect there’s a back door, right?’
‘You have my word,’ Winnie said.
‘Save me some time, Frannie,’ Merrily said into the phone. ‘Just tell me why he’s out.’
Bliss left the line open while he went downstairs to the car park.
‘Yeh, it’s true.’
‘I know it’s true. I’ve just seen him. When did they let him go?’
‘Your friend Sparke collected him from Worcester about an hour ago. The DNA evidence was, to say the least, inconclusive. But, mainly, other developments have altered the focus of the case in a way more meaningful for me, as an observer.’
‘Can you tell me?’
‘With the usual proviso. The murder I told you about in Pershore – the drug dealer tortured and shot in his car, Christopher Smith? We may have his killer.’
‘In a manner of speaking, although he won’t be signing a confession. What happened, two mates of Smith’s, encouraged by a modest reward and considerably emboldened, no doubt, by news of Roman Wicklow’s death, have now come forward to say that they saw Mr Smith leaving a nightclub in Worcester on the night of the killing, in the company of Mr Wicklow. Mr Wicklow being, as we’ve learned, a man who inspired considerable fear in his community.’
‘Wicklow murdered Smith?’
‘It begins to look like it.’
‘Do you know why?’
‘Apparently we do not, at this stage. But it’s usually a simple territorial dispute.’
‘So if they were both dealers and Wicklow was working for Khan, who was Smith working for?’
‘Dunno. It was part-time with Smith, he had a day job in an abattoir. Maybe he was also working for Khan. These situations get complicated. Maybe Smith had been unreliable and Wicklow was assigned to take him out. We don’t know, Merrily, that’s the honest answer.’
‘But Loste is off the hook.’
‘’Course he isn’t. They just had to let him go for the moment. No DNA pointers, and the CPS advised that there was insufficient evidence to support a murder charge.’
‘So they could have him in again?’
‘He’s a big lad, Merrily, and clearly three sheets in the wind.’
‘But surely the idea of a former music teacher killing a man who’s now emerging as a cold and practised assassin…’
‘Look,’ Bliss said, ‘I agree with you. Like I said, I think it’s drug-related and even though there’s evidence of Loste trading with Wicklow on the Beacon, if it was me I’d be looking to talk to the friends of Mr Smith – the ones we don’t know about yet. And Raji, naturally. But it’s not me, it’s Annie Howe, and Howe’s still keen on Mr Loste. On the points scale, one nice, educated, upper-middle-class killer is worth at least five street urchins.’
Surprisingly, Winnie Sparke came out of the church. Alone, but it was a start.
Merrily guided her to Longworth’s tomb under the Angel of the Agony. Winnie seemed uneasy about this, glancing up a couple of times before perching on the edge of a step. The Angel’s half-spread wings were shielding them against the sun, but in a predatory way.
The hell with him. Merrily sat down and leaned a shoulder into the lower folds of his marble robe.
‘Sometimes this job can be quite damaging to your faith, Winnie.’
‘I don’t care for faith. Faith is intellectually lazy.’
‘OK, skip the theological debate.’
‘It’s your show.’
‘Until I ask you something you don’t want to answer.’
Winnie shrugged. The organ started up again, something that Merrily half recognized. Not Elgar, too clipped, like fine topiary. Bach?
‘Bottom line, here?’ Winnie said.
‘Bottom line is the ghost of Edward Elgar. It’s the only reason I’m here, and I’ve wasted enough time on it. And I’m fed up with being circuitous. Did Tim make it up, or did he, in some way, conjure it up? Is he disturbed, sick or just a drunk?’
‘You want me to place a tick against one of the above?’
‘Or if a fourth possibility got missed out along the way…’
‘And what if I was to tell you…’ Winnie looked down into her lap ‘… that I didn’t know?’
‘I thought you’d at least have an opinion, all the esoteric subjects I assume you’ve studied.’
‘In order to write books, it helps to study.’
‘Is that still what you do?’
‘It’s an income. Not a good one. Better in the States. Life is more expensive here, and Mind, Body, Spirit books don’t sell so many.’
‘Are you doing a book on this?’
‘Is that why you’re playing it close to the chest?’
Winnie didn’t answer.
Merrily said, ‘I don’t write books. Sometimes I have to make reports, but they’re internal. Say, for the Bishop, or as a safeguard against comebacks, or background notes for my successor in the job.’
‘This may be the book I get remembered for,’ Winnie said.
‘Not just another New Age paperback.’
‘No. I came over ten years ago on account of an English guy who was … who proved to be not Mr Right. Not even Mr Halfway Right. Couple years ago, I realized that if I was to stay – and I kind of like it here – I needed a project that would turn over some bigger money. I conceived the idea of a book that would explore the spiritual roots of musical creativity, through Elgar and the Malverns. I have a degree in ancient history and anthropology, although I knew I was gonna need some help with the music.’
‘You had a new angle on this?’
‘I visited here, found Longworth’s church and also this cottage that was proving hard to shift off the agent’s books on account it was too small and the quarrying had left no place to extend and it was dangerous for kids and stuff like that. I could afford to buy, if I sold my apartment in London, which was what I did. And then, at a conference on Elgar at the Abbey Hotel in Malvern, I met Tim.’
‘Someone who could help you with the music.’
‘More than that. A whole lot more. Tim grew up in Sussex, near Elgar’s home there, Brinkwells. He’d always felt there was something between him and Elgar that was … going someplace.’
‘Creatively, yes. Which basically was how he wound up in Malvern. In most other areas, around this time, I should tell you, his life was a mess. He’d split with his girlfriend, he was starting to drink too much and he was pretty close to getting fired from his job at the college.’
‘When was this?’
‘This would be just over a year ago.’
‘So you and Tim…’
‘Began to work together. To get this out of the way, I need to tell you that there’s no physical relationship. Situation was, there was someone else in my life at the time.’
‘Stop.’ Winnie’s expression didn’t alter.
‘Don’t go there?’
‘On no account.’
‘Tim’s parents live in France, and he was closest to his grandmother. When she died, he inherited a substantial sum of money. By this time, I’d researched the situation here, pertaining to this gentleman.’ Winnie gently tapped the tomb. ‘I drew Tim’s attention to a house that’d come on the market in Wychehill.’
‘It seemed too perfect. It’s an ugly house, but it’s in the right place, and I … I should’ve explained that Tim’s primary problem was an inability to reach the heights as a composer. He’d always written music, his knowledge and his technique were never in doubt. He taught with flair and sympathy. His original work was … of a standard. There was a barrier between him and … what I call the sublime. The fact that he could never get beyond that caused him intense emotional pain.’
‘But he bought the house…’
‘He didn’t want to know about the house. He didn’t want to see me. I gave up on him. A week later, he swallowed a bottle of pills with most of a bottle of whisky, walked out in the street and collapsed. I didn’t know about this, I’d been down in London, tying up the ends of my divorce and seeing friends. I didn’t know how close he came to death. I didn’t know anything about it until he showed up at my door, couple of weeks later, and said he’d had a dream, while they were fighting to save him in the hospital. Like The Dream of Gerontius. You listened to all of that yet?’
‘Twice. In my uneducated way.’
‘Gerontius dies. He’s an old man, not a young man like Tim, but no matter. Gerontius either dies or he’s in a deep coma. Whatever, he sheds the body load and loses the weight of his pain. And he meets with his guardian angel.’
‘A woman, in my version.’
‘It’s always a woman. So Tim arrives at my door – a moment I relive quite frequently – and he tells me that he now understands that I am his guardian angel.’
‘And how does he know that?’
‘From his dream. He says he awoke in hospital knowing it. And now he goes along with me. He buys the house and we meet with the Rector and Tim starts to play the organ in church – there was an old guy who fumbled his way around the keys, he was happy to let it go. And then, quite quickly, the choir was formed. People love to sing. They love to have the music drawn through them, like silk. The choir comes out of the three counties, building its reputation, refining its membership. It’s a fine choir, growing toward the sublime.’
‘So Tim has died and come through to a new level? His old life has dropped away, he’s in a new place, with a new—’
‘This was what you meant when you said you believed that purgatory could be dealt with in this life. Tim is physically purged, with a stomach pump, and then—’
‘Gradually, I became aware of a pattern. A grand design of cosmic proportions. And I can see from your eyes, Merrily, that you’re sorry we got here.’
‘No, I— He hasn’t exactly stopped drinking, has he?’
Winnie Sparke stood up. Her face and neck shone with sweat.
‘Go deal with your kid, huh? You’re Episcopalian, and this is Catholic theology. You have an inbuilt antipathy.’
‘That’s not fair.’
‘Women priests … that’s a political thing. I’m not being … I mean, there’s no spiritual basis to it, right?’
Like she was the very first person to say that.
‘Is it part of your image, to come over as mercurial, Winnie?’ The heat was getting to Merrily’s patience. ‘Or are we simply approaching another area that you feel it would not be advantageous to get into?’
‘You’re not ready. You need to go away and consider this. I don’t believe you’re ready, spiritually, emotionally or intellectually, to feel the heat of the sublime.’
‘Whereas … you are?’
‘You have to excuse me,’ Winnie said. ‘I have things to do.’
A tractor and trailer were rattling past, down the lane from the track which led into the hills. Merrily climbed into her boiling car in front of Starlight Cottage and slammed the door, the mobile clamped tight to her ear.
‘Sorry, couldn’t hear for the traffic.’
‘I just said, she’s here,’ Lol said.
She closed her eyes and tipped her head back, the direct sun making a pulsing orange light show on her eyelids.
‘Thank God for something.’
‘And the piece in the Guardian…’ Lol said. ‘I’ll read it out to you.’
When he’d finished, she asked him if he’d mind reading it again. He read it again, slowly, while Merrily was opening all the car windows.
‘It could be worse, couldn’t it? She lied about her age.’
‘To make her an adult,’ Lol said.
‘And obviously her terminology –Philistine morons, for heaven’s sake. But the worst thing—’
‘She should have told you.’
‘That’s the worst thing, yes.’
‘It all happened so quickly, and you weren’t around. But she should have told you, and she knows that.’
‘I’m a lousy mother.’ Merrily leaned out of the window for more air. ‘I’ll come home. I’ll be home in an hour.’
‘No,’ Lol said. ‘Don’t.’
‘Don’t— Ow!’ Merrily pulled her bare forearm away from the Volvo’s scorching bodywork. ‘Sorry. Don’t come home?’
‘I mean not yet. There’s a TV crew around, and they’ll doorstep you, and you won’t know what to say.’
‘You’re right, I suppose.’ Merrily ran fingers through her hair; her head felt full of swirling fragments. ‘It’s just—’
‘Better to wait until late afternoon, when they’ve all filed their pieces – and without Jane they won’t be able to do much. Most of them might even drop it. It’s not a huge story, after all. And it’s Friday, and … How are things over there?’
‘Well, since you ask, it’s starting to seriously piss me off.’
It was good to unload it all on someone entirely non-judgemental. She told him everything, from Stella Cobham to Winnie Sparke who was all over the place.
‘First she’s doing the New Age paganism bit – springs and water goddesses – and then it’s High Catholic theology and getting lofty about women priests! It gets very hard to listen politely to this crap.’
‘I talked to an interesting guy.’
Lol told her about Prof Levin and a chorister called Dan who, working with Loste, thought he’d broken through to a higher place.
‘That must have been nice for him. What a dismal life of spiritual malnutrition we lead in the Anglican Church.’
‘But at least you never become bitter and cynical.’
‘Sparke…’ Merrily wiped sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. ‘Winnie Sparke virtually accused me of not being equipped to grasp the profundity of it. Not equipped to feel the heat of the sublime!’
‘The bitch,’ Lol said.
‘Time to talk to Syd Spicer. And I mean talk. You’ll look after Jane?’
‘Merrily, you sound like—’
‘And I also need to ring Morrell.’
Morrell. What was it about Morrell? You tried to like these people – as a priest, you tried to like virtually everybody, but…
‘Before you say anything else, Mr Morrell, it’s my fault entirely. I kept her off school. I decided it wasn’t fair to inflict this situation on you, and as it was near the end of term…’
‘But surely,’ Morrell said, ‘you must realize the normal procedure would have been to consult me first. I might well have agreed.’
‘Well, yes, but there wasn’t really time. I mean, there it was, in the paper … and I had an appointment.’
‘You didn’t know it was going to be in the paper?’
‘Well … not this particular day…’
‘But you evidently knew, Mrs Watkins, that she was embarking on this madness—’
‘Madness? What’s so mad about—?’
‘—Under the pretext of an A-level project, and didn’t think to inform me.’
‘According to Jane you already knew.’
‘One thing I most certainly did not know was that she’d taken this unscientific nonsense to the media. But I had warned her that repeatedly playing truant in order to pursue some misguided campaign against the local authority was going to get her into seriously hot—’
He must have heard Merrily catch her breath.
‘Did I surprise you there, Mrs Watkins?’
‘Could it be that you didn’t know about Jane’s recurrent migraine?’
She shut her eyes against the sun. Even with all the windows down it was getting unbearable in here. Migraine?
‘I gather your curious job keeps you away from home quite a lot these days.’ Morrell’s voice was plumped out with satisfaction. ‘But you must know this is not something I can be seen to overlook. Yes, I value my reputation as a liberal, even radical school director, but if I allow students to come and go to pursue their whims I’m undermining my own authority. So I have to tell you that what I’m looking for now is Jane Watkins outside my room on Monday morning, with a full explanation, an abject apology and a readiness to accept whatever retribution I consider necessary.’
‘And if that isn’t forthcoming, I also have to tell you I don’t expect to see her at all.’
‘You’re talking about suspension?’
‘Oh, I’m talking about a bigger word than that, Mrs Watkins. And also, in line with the usual procedure, I’m talking to the governors about it. I’m sorry, you’ll have to excuse me, I have another call waiting.’
‘No,’ Merrily said. ‘If you hang up on me now, I’m—’
Jesus, what? She was sweating. He’d have the governors in his pocket.
Dead noise. He might have gone; you could never tell with a mobile. Or he might just want her to think he’d gone.
‘If you hang up on me, Mr Morrell … or take any extreme action against my daughter until I’ve had a chance to sort this out … Heaven’s sake, you’ve got kids dealing drugs, assaulting teachers, here’s one, all she’s doing is making a stand against something in her own village – not even in the school – that she feels is wrong? OK, something that you, as an atheist and an arch-sceptic, probably wouldn’t understand. And, yes, she’s never exactly tactful, and she gets up people’s noses. But if you go to the governors with this – some of whom are bound to be on the bloody council – I’m going straight to the national press, and I’ll make it my business to ensure that everybody knows what a pompous, smug, self-seeking, hypocritical prick you’ve become.’
Merrily cut the line, dropped the mobile on the passenger seat.
She was shaking. Her sweat was turning cold. She fastened her seat belt, fumbling with it, started the car and drove down to the church parking bay. Stared for a moment through the windscreen, past the church entrance to the gables of the Rectory, its windows smoky-black against the sun.
Not many people left to antagonize.
Spicer wasn’t answering the bell and she couldn’t hear it ringing inside the Rectory. Merrily banged on the front door, stepped back, scanned all the windows for movement.
Nothing. She went round the side of the house – like her own rectory, too damned big – and hammered on the back door, then walked away onto the lawn that rose into the forestry, a screen concealing quarrying scars and who knew what else.
So many screens in Wychehill, but the afternoon sun was high and hot and relentless and drove her back into the shade of the open back porch, where she stood beating one last time on the back door. Leaning on the lever-handle in frustration – and the door opened.
It swung back with no creak, and she was looking into a utility room with a Belfast sink, a pair of Wellingtons standing underneath it, a balding Barbour on a peg.
Merrily said, ‘Syd?’
‘Syd, are you in?’
She was experiencing an unseemly urge to search the house, find the secret photos in the drawers, uncover Syd Spicer’s hidden history. The door at the end might not be locked, but she was reluctant to approach it. Afraid to? Maybe.
For reasons that she was reluctant to examine, she backed away, closed the porch door and went down the drive to the roadside.
Back in the car she rang Rajab Ali Khan’s office in Kidderminster, returning his call to her answering machine.
‘If that’s Mrs Watkins,’ a woman said, ‘Mr Khan said to tell you he’ll be at the Royal Oak for the rest of the day. He says if you can spare the time he’d like to see you.’
Jane had found Redmarley D’Abitot church on the OS map, ringing it in pencil.
‘This is interesting. Look…’
Lol peered around the curtain. Mid-afternoon, and the tourists were out on Church Street, the camera-hung carousel with its tape-loop of soundbite conversations. Only today, some of the visitors would be media and they knew, from the Guardian, what Jane Watkins looked like.
He polished his glasses on his T-shirt, put them back on to examine the map folded on the desk. Redmarley, on the other side of the M50 motorway, just over the Gloucestershire border, was almost due south of the Malvern range.
‘I know I’m obsessed with leys at the moment,’ Jane said. ‘But it’s almost like there is one, going up from Redmarley, interlinking the three counties, the full length of the Malverns. See?’
Jane had drawn in the line. It wasn’t connecting ancient sites as much as hilltops. Lol counted five: Midsummer Hill, Hangman’s Hill, Pinnacle Hill, Perseverance Hill, North Hill.
‘And look at this…’
She’d also marked the two major Iron Age hill forts, Herefordshire Beacon and Worcestershire Beacon. But the line didn’t go through the middle of either – it skirted the first to the right and the second to the left.
‘That’s not a problem, it’s how it seems to work,’ Jane said. ‘Alfred Watkins noticed that leys almost always cut along the edge of a hill fort rather than through the middle. If you look on the map, it’s the same with Cole Hill – although when you’re actually on the line it looks as if you’re looking directly towards the summit.’
‘What does that mean?’ Lol said. ‘Cutting to the sides.’
‘Simple. Iron Age people lived in the middle of those hill forts. There were huts and things. You don’t want powerful spiritual energy in your actual home, do you? You’d go slowly insane with the intensity of it. So you live to the side of the ley. Churches built on sites of ritual worship are something else, obviously.’
‘Being places you actually go to for a spiritual buzz?’
‘Uh-huh. So Redmarley Church is right on the line. Now, the other church where they had a choir going, Little Malvern Priory, that’s not on the great north–south ley. It is on a ley, though, another one that’s cutting left to right, across the north–south line. Now here’s Wychehill…’
‘Where the two lines cross.’
‘You may be on to something here,’ Lol said. ‘I just wish I knew what.’
‘We’re looking at a whole range of holy hills. That would make this a massively important area, geopsychically.’
She looked up at Lol and sighed softly.
‘You know, I love this. It reinforces your sense of … I dunno … Like, you just put your pencil on the map, and it’s like the choir guy said, you’re suddenly at the centre of something immense. Almost like you’re making a personal connection with…’ Jane shook her head rapidly ‘… bollocks.’
‘Maybe all great ideas start off as bollocks,’ Lol said. ‘It’s the way—’
‘Oh hell, who’s this?’
Jane snatched a quick glance around the curtain and then moved away from the window, her head down. Someone was knocking on the front door.
‘Go upstairs,’ Lol said.
‘Mr Robinson, is it? Sorry to bother you, but I understood you might know where the vicar is.’
He was wearing a suit and a wine-coloured tie which – first thing Lol noticed – matched his plump lips. Swaying a little, rattling small change and keys in his pockets. It seemed so not his generation, rattling your keys. He couldn’t be more than thirty.
‘Sorry,’ Lol said. ‘I’m not really sure where she is. Her work takes her all over the diocese.’
‘Daughter with her, do you know?’
‘Wouldn’t imagine so. It’s, um, Mr Pierce, isn’t it?’
‘Lyndon Pierce, that’s right.’ Gelled hair glinting in the sunlight like the roof of a black cab. ‘Sure we must’ve met sometime or other. Been trying to get around to see all the newcomers to the village, one by one.’
‘I’ve been here a few years now, actually,’ Lol said. ‘You probably didn’t notice me. Is there … anything I can do? Any message I can pass on?’
‘That’s very possible, Mr Robinson, yes.’
Lyndon Pierce’s local accent seemed to have acquired a transatlantic roll. He glanced meaningfully over his shoulder at a Japanese dad photographing his family on the edge of the square.
‘You want to come in?’ Lol said.
‘Thank you.’ Pierce rubbed his hands. ‘Won’t keep you a minute, Mr Robinson, but there are some things that I think Mrs Watkins should know about, if you happen to be in … contact with her.’
Letting him into the living room, Lol felt unexpectedly nervous. The guy represented aspects of life he’d avoided: never needed to consult a local councillor, never earned enough to need an accountant.
Pierce was standing on the hearthrug, taking in the orange ceiling that Jane had recommended, the crystals that Jane had positioned in the window, the Boswell guitar. No doubt thinking, neo-hippie.
‘Lot of people’re looking for Mrs Watkins today, Mr Robinson. And … Jane, of course. Girl seems to have started something she’ll likely live to regret. Her mother, too, mabbe.’
He must have figured, from the contents of the room, that the chances of ever getting the occupant’s vote were remote enough for him to skip the niceties.
‘Unfortunate, but people do tend to blame the parents for the behaviour of the child, don’t they, Mr Robinson?’
‘You’d call Jane a child?’
The door to the hall and the stairs was not quite closed. Please don’t let her be behind it.
‘Likely not to her face.’ Lyndon Pierce laughed. ‘Look, all right, Mr Robinson, I’ll come directly to the point. We got quite a serious problem yere. I was phoned up a few hours ago by Gerry Murray – owner of Coleman’s Meadow? Not a happy man, as you can imagine. I went to check out the situation for myself and then I gave him my suggestion, which was to get the police in.’
Lol blinked. ‘To arrest Jane?’
‘I’m sure a lot of folk would think that wasn’t a bad idea, actually, Laurence.’
Using Laurence now, in the power-trip way of young policemen when they pulled you over for speeding.
‘I’m sorry, Lyndon,’ Lol said. ‘I don’t get out much. Something’s happening in Coleman’s Meadow?’
Pierce sniffed. ‘All look the same to me – green activists, animal liberationists, ragbag of scruffs from God knows where. They say it’s a demonstration … we might consider it threatening behaviour.’
‘You mean … there’s a protest?’ Lol was fighting a smile. ‘About the ley line?’
‘You’re telling me you didn’t know? Very, very stupid people, Laurence. ’Bout a dozen of ’em. Posters, placards. Trying to protect something we all know don’t exist.’
Lol saw Pierce taking in the OS maps on the desk with the ancient sites ringed and the pencil lines connecting them. He began to fold them up as Pierce smirked.
‘Yes, I can see you didn’t know a thing about it.’
‘It was in the Guardian.’
‘And who put it there, Laurence? I’ll admit I’m having difficulty with this, see. Why you and that girl and those cranky sods out there wanner put the mockers on a much-needed development in an otherwise useless, derelict area.’
‘But … isn’t there a statutory notice posted at the site for the actual purpose of inviting objections?’
‘Aimed at local council-tax payers with a legitimate viewpoint, not sad buggers with nose rings who come from miles away ’cause they feel lost if they en’t got a protest to go to. And not adolescents getting above themselves and trying to cause trouble. In fact…’ Pierce looked down at his shoes and then back at Lol. ‘I think I should tell you that people are beginning to feel it’s time that girl’s mother did something to curb her behaviour before—’
‘Before the community does? A curfew? Court order banning her from going within half a mile of Cole Hill?’
‘Don’t get silly, now.’
Lol raised both eyebrows. ‘All because she feels strongly about preserving the village heritage?’
‘Laurence, that’s balls. One of our experts says it en’t even in that feller’s book. She made it up. It don’t exist. It never existed. It’s a bloody joke. It’s … flying-saucer stuff. Me, I’m simply trying to be reasonable, here, see both sides of it. When she’s a bit more mature, she’ll likely realize that, like all these villages, Ledwardine has to grow or die.’
‘Grow into what?’
‘All I’m saying … if people consider we’re now within commuting distance of London, then we got to run with that. Home Counties overrun with asylum seekers, decent hard-working folk gotter move somewhere. If they wanner sell up and bring their money here, who’re we to—?’
‘Grow into an extension of London suburbia? Three hours is now commuting distance?’
‘Or quicker, with a fast car.’
‘Jesus,’ Lol said.
‘You people…’ Lyndon went back on his heels. ‘You really make me laugh. You’re living in the bloody past. I’m an accountant, boy, we’re the first to see the signs. I see the farmers’ profits going on the slide, year after year. It’s patently clear that agriculture can’t sustain the county any longer and the county can’t sustain agriculture. If cheap imports are killing farms and the government don’t want ’em growing food n’ more, there en’t nothing we can do about that. Farmer wants to survive, he sells what ground he can for quality housing at the best price he can get. Our job’s to support the farmers.’
‘That’s a very twisted kind of logic, Lyndon.’
‘And I’ll give you some more. City people, weekend folk, are used to more sophisticated facilities than we’ve been able to provide, and if they wants ’em on the doorstep we gotter give them that in Ledwardine itself – more shops, proper supermarkets, and at the same time—’
‘Jim Prosser know about that?’
‘Jim Prosser’ll be retired soon. And we can catch up on what the rural areas’ve been missing all these years. You don’t think local people should have sophisticated facilities, Laurence? Decent leisure centre?’
‘Has anybody asked them?’
‘Laurence…’ Lyndon Pierce blew air slowly down his nostrils. ‘That’s why you elect councillors. It’s called local democracy.’ He beamed, case proven. ‘Anyway, if you do hear from Mrs Watkins, put her in the picture, would you? If she wants to speak with me about this matter I’ll be available.’
‘Are these … ?’ Lol heard the stairs creak. ‘Are these protesters still there?’
‘Not for long. New legislation’s made it easier to deal with time-wasting scum. Likely we’ll have it sorted before teatime without any arrests.’
‘What with, water cannon? Rubber bullets?’
‘People like you worry me,’ Pierce said. ‘Vicar be back home tonight, will she?’
‘Far as I know.’
‘Only, folks keep saying to me as how she spends so much time out of the parish these days we might as well not have a vicar at all.’
‘Who would that be, specifically, Lyndon?’
‘Pretty hard, seems to me, for a parish vicar to win back support once it starts to slip, Laurence. Specially if her daughter’s setting a bad example to other kids, skipping school, making trouble. I’ll leave you to think about the implications of that.’
Pierce placed a hand on the living-room doorknob, then turned back to Lol with a minimal smile.
‘Oh … and if certain people who en’t local don’t like the way we do things around yere, seems to me they might think about moving on? Knowing they can always get a good price for their period cott—’
The door opened, pushing Lyndon Pierce back into the room. Jane was standing there, face as white as her school shirt, gazing at Pierce with all the warmth of a November twilight.
‘You mean if people don’t like things being run by bent councillors?’
Pierce’s smile was history. Lol watched, with a horrified kind of fascination, as the man tongued his full lips as though he was trying to tease it back.
‘Or maybe,’ Jane said, ‘maybe if they don’t like bastards who used to shoot blue tits off the nut-containers with their airguns?’
‘You…’ Pierce’s forefinger came up ‘… had better watch your mouth.’
‘Lyndon,’ Lol said softly. ‘She’s just a child.’
Pierce spun round at him.
‘As for you … vicar know you’ve had her daughter upstairs? ’Cause it looks like she’s gonner find out, ennit? But don’t you worry, Laurence, it won’t be from me. Not directly, boy, not directly.’
Lol had to grab Jane and hold on to her to stop her going for Pierce. Or maybe it was the other way round.
Whichever, them holding one another like this, he knew as soon as Pierce stepped briskly outside and all the heads began to turn that it wasn’t going to look good from the crowded street.
Temple of Sound
In the copy of the Malvern Gazette open on Raji Khan’s ebony desk, there was a hole where the face of Leonard Holliday used to be.
Mr Khan stabbed it again with his gold Cross pen.
‘Why are they doing this to me, Mrs Watkins? Can you tell me that?’
He was wearing a cricket shirt and cream slacks and white shoes. His black hair hung beyond his shoulders, cavalier style. In his left ear he wore what might have been an emerald. Merrily sat on the other side of the desk in a dark wood chair which was meaningfully lower than his.
‘Probably just that … this is not what they expect to find,’ she said carefully, ‘in a place like this? Have you tried inviting the Wychehill Residents’ Action Group up here to discuss it?’
Mr Khan’s office, upstairs at the Royal Oak, was like something out of Sherlock Holmes: drapery and brass standard lamps, deep maroon walls and a grey picture-rail. Didn’t really work in summer, but with a coal fire on a December day it would be awfully cosy. A middle-aged Asian woman who dressed like Sophie had shown Merrily up. No doormen apparent on the premises, no DJ Xex.
‘You know, I once did invite them,’ Mr Khan said. ‘They wouldn’t meet me. I am, it would appear, the very spawn of Satan.’
‘And I left the holy water in the car.’
Mr Khan beamed. At first, she’d been thinking how surreal all this was, how unlike anyone’s idea of a drug baron’s lair. But it was, in effect, like a traditional drug baron’s lair, and Mr Khan was behaving curiously like the kind of urbane, educated executive criminal you saw in old films. While she didn’t feel uncomfortable here, it might have made sense to tell Bliss she was coming.
‘Now.’ Mr Khan was leaning back in his leather swivel chair, hands behind his head. ‘Tell me again. You are planning to hold … ?’
Repeating it in the manner of Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, disarming young fogey that he was. An expensive education hadn’t quite ironed Wolverhampton out of his accent.
‘Requiem Eucharist, Mr Khan. A Holy Communion for the dead. I wasn’t sure whether your own faith might present some—’
‘Oh, not a problem at all, Mrs Watkins. In my capacity as a patron of the arts and popular culture, I’ve attended no small number of Christian funerals. My initial problem, however … is the fact that I simply didn’t know these poor people as individuals. Many hundreds, thousands, now frequent Inn Ya Face and travel many miles to do so. Did you know the late Mr Cookman?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘And yet you’re proposing to conduct a service in his memory and that of his girlfriend.’
‘Not exactly that. Or rather, not entirely that. It also relates to the circumstances of their deaths and the effects all of that has had on the community.’
‘All of that?’
‘There have been a number of other accidents. Very minor, in comparison, but there’s a general atmosphere of … discomfort.’
‘I’d like this to be a service of closure. Of healing. Which, in my experience, can be quite … all-embracing. Which is why I thought it would be appropriate for you to be there.’
‘And why is it being conducted by you, rather than by Mr Spicer?’
‘Because…’ Aware of painting herself into a corner. ‘Because I specialize in this kind of healing.’
‘You’re a spiritual healer. A faith healer.’
‘That would not be a description I’d welcome.’
‘And what would be?’
Mr Khan waited, his prominent chin uptilted.
‘I’m the Deliverance Consultant for Hereford Diocese,’ Merrily said. ‘I suppose I should explain what that—’
‘You think I don’t know? It certainly suggests that your earlier reference to holy water was not entirely in jest.’
‘It was entirely in jest, but I can understand your … misgivings.’
‘We hear so much nowadays about so-called deliverance.’ Mr Khan frowned. ‘Children and babies being exorcized to the point of abuse and beyond, because they are believed to be harbouring evil spirits.’
‘Not us. If we’re ever invited to exorcize a young child, the social and psychiatric reports come first. And the situation in Wychehill, fortunately, is nothing to do with kids. We’re looking at the relatively high incidence of problems on the road and other … problems. Which have been linked to experiences of a possibly paranormal nature.’
‘I can’t wait to hear this, Mrs Watkins.’
‘People say they’ve become aware of a figure on a bicycle. In the road. Before an accident. That’s it, basically.’
Coming out with this kind of stuff cold was, Merrily often thought, the hardest part of the job. Sometimes you could almost feel the derision on your skin.
‘How extraordinary, Mrs Watkins. And did the civilized Mr Devereaux witness this apparition?’
‘We haven’t yet discussed it in any depth. But it seemed to me that a Requiem Eucharist for two people who’d recently died on the road would be a calming influence, as well as bringing together the local community in a spiritual way. I think I’m right in saying that Islamic theology accepts that social and atmospheric disturbances can be caused by various discarnate … presences.’
‘Oh, very much so. Very much so.’ Mr Khan stood up and moved to the window. ‘So this has absolutely nothing to do with the murder of my employee Mr Wicklow.’
‘Not directly,’ Merrily said. ‘But I’m sure he’ll be very much in our minds.’
He smiled. ‘What diplomacy.’
‘It seems he was a violent man, Mr Khan.’
‘Yes, apparently he was. But still a man. And still, in the end, a victim. Who is mourned. Look…’
Mr Khan beckoned her and she walked over to the window. Down in the courtyard, a man was adjusting the driving seat of a bright orange sports car with an ENGLAND sticker in the rear window. Two women looking on, the older one clutching a tissue.
‘They’ve been here most of the day, to attend the opening of the inquest and collect his personal possessions – his car, his clothing, his jewellery. His mother’s taken it very badly. He was her only son.’
Merrily said nothing, wondering about the mothers of dead junkies whose habits had been fed by Roman.
‘Perhaps I was naive,’ Mr Khan said, ‘in watching my head doorman walk out onto the hills with his knapsack and his binoculars and being gratified by his seeming appreciation of the natural world. It’s been a sobering experience for all of us.’
He turned away from the window.
‘And you don’t really believe me, do you, Mrs Watkins? You don’t believe I knew nothing about Roman’s enterprise. Perhaps you even think I’m involved in it myself.’
Hadn’t been expecting that.
‘Well…’ She went back slowly to her chair. ‘I don’t think you’re naive. Not all your regulars like to keep going all night unassisted. It’s a chemical culture. If you were widely known for taking a hard line against drugs, this wouldn’t be considered a very cool venue, would it?’
Khan gave Merrily a sharp look which, she thought, was close to conveying respect.
‘I’ll tell you one thing.’ He sat down again and prodded the newspaper on his desk, opened at ‘THIS CARNAGE WILL GO ON…’ ‘This is a quite ludicrous exaggeration. A couple of weeks ago, I made a point of parking my own car in Wychehill early on a Sunday morning to see for myself the alleged havoc we were wreaking. No one, in the course of an hour and a half, seemed to stop there, and there was no noise. And although we sell alcohol, like any other country pub, I’m aware of no drink- or drug-related convictions, so far this year, that are connected with Inn Ya Face. And the traffic police do target us – they’d be foolish not to.’
Merrily chanced her arm. ‘But not the drug squad?’
‘Why are you—?’ He spread his arms. ‘Mrs Watkins, why are you pursuing this? The police aren’t. The media are still calling Roman’s death some sort of ritual murder. The police have been inclined to view it as an extreme reaction to something considered … culturally alien to the area. While you … is this a holy war?’
‘Do you know DCI Howe well?’
Khan’s eyes narrowed, for just an instant, and then he smiled.
‘She’s a fine officer. Her record on community relations is impeccable.’
‘Clearly going right to the top,’ Merrily said.
And wondered what their relationship was, Annie Howe and Raji Khan. He’d surely be an informer to die for.
‘I do hope so,’ he said. ‘The police service needs more people like Annie.’
‘And I hope you’ll be able to attend the service.’ She stood up. ‘Erm … if you don’t mind me asking, how did you get into this business?’
‘This murky business?’ He laughed, a yelp of delight. ‘This world of gangland rivalry and territorial wars? Mrs Watkins, you have such a … a darkly romanticized view of the nightclub scene.’
‘I tend to watch a lot of trash TV. To unwind from the pressures of the job.’
Raji Khan came around the desk.
‘I shall tell you why, rather than how – despite coming down from Cambridge with a moderately acceptable second – I got into this business. I came into it, Mrs Watkins, because I absolutely love it. I love it to death … the music, the atmosphere, the milieu … have loved it since escaping from my dormitory at fourteen, with a friend, to attend my very first rave on a hillside in Wiltshire. Electrifying. Pure, ecstatic, naked vibration. You leave everything behind … your mind, your body, your— I’m sorry, was that your generation – acid house, drum-’n’-bass – or did you miss out? Do you know what I’m talking about? Or are you persuaded, like Mr Holliday and his cohorts, that we are demonic?’
‘I am a Sufi,’ Raji Khan said. ‘Music is a sacred form to me. I tell people that Inn Ya Face has been transformed from a common drinking den into a temple of sound.’
Two wires connecting in Merrily’s head with an almost audible fizz.
‘Have I said something, Mrs Watkins?’
‘Mmm, I think you have. Have you got something on tonight?’
‘Of course. It’s Friday. We have an old friend of mine, the good Dr Samedi.’
‘From Kidderminster? Jeff?’
Khan looked startled.
‘He was hired for a party in our village, a couple of years ago. With his voodoo hip-hop show. He still doing that? Not so famous then, of course.’
‘My, my,’ Raji Khan said.
He escorted her to the car park. Roman Wicklow’s family had gone. Two white vans were arriving.
‘Well,’ Khan said, ‘I’m not sure whether I shall be able to attend your requiem. But I do hope that you can help to stop the carnage.’
All Jane wanted was to leave, go running back to the vicarage, bar the doors and spend the night slapping tin after tin of white paint on the Mondrian walls. But Lol said that leaving now would only make it worse, like they actually did have something to hide, so she just kept walking round and round the little front parlour like a caged tiger – hamster, more like – ending up face-down on the sofa, beating the cushions in blind despair at a world where the scum always came out on top.
And at the bottom of it all, like a cold stone in her gut, was the knowledge that this was all so totally her fault. This half-arsed venture had been cursed from the start, and the curse was spreading and, of all the people she never in her life wanted to harm, of all the people who didn’t deserve it…
Lol was always tethered to his past, that was the problem. He’d stretch it just so far and then something would send it snapping back, old rope twisting itself into a new noose.
After the disgusting Pierce had gone, Lol had sat at the desk assuring her that this was really not a problem, and the kind of people who’d believe someone like Lyndon were the kind who were not worth worrying about.
But he must be worried, terribly worried about the damage Pierce could do, with a word here and a word there, scattered like rat poison over all the places he went in his capacity as a democratically elected member of the Herefordshire Council. Democratically elected, Lol said, because nobody could be bothered to stand against him.
Lol’s personal history, however, would always stand against him.
She’d been called Tracy … Cooke? Jane had known all about this for a couple of years now. Anyway, her name was Tracy and she’d been aged about fifteen at the time.
Lol would have been only eighteen or so himself when he was set up by the bass player in his band who’d wanted Tracy’s mate and had got them all, Lol included, hopelessly drunk … and then had decided he was having both girls and had crept into Lol’s hotel room and virtually raped Tracy while Lol was sleeping it off. Slipping away and leaving Lol – who knew nothing about it, hadn’t even had sex with the girl – to face the police investigation that would crush his career, turn his loopy, born-again Christian parents against him and tip him down the chute into what he’d called in a song the medicated netherworld of psychiatric so-called care.
Taken years to drag himself out of the System and, while he wasn’t exactly on that register, he must still have a record for a distant sex offence. An offence that never was, but which explained everything about Lol: all the caution, the timidity, the fear of facing an audience which he’d seemed finally to be leaving behind.
Did Lyndon Pierce know about this, or was it just a lucky stab? Villages were such evil places.
At least she wasn’t under-age, just the bloody vicar’s bloody daughter, so, even if anyone believed it, the worst they could say…
Oh God, God, God…
Harsh colours collided behind Jane’s eyelids, a small universe exploding.
When she eventually opened her eyes, she saw that Lol was looking surprisingly calm – a danger sign, surely? Sitting there at the desk in his black T-shirt with the alien motif, his little round glasses on his nose, fine slivers of grey in his hair, and the phone at his ear, and he was going, ‘Yes, thank you … Look, I wonder if it’s possible to speak to Mrs Pole.’
Jane scrambled to her feet. ‘Lol?’
Lol was saying, ‘Margaret Pole, yes … Oh … Oh no. I didn’t know. I’m so … I’m really very sorry…’
Jane didn’t know what was happening. She wanted to snatch the phone out of his hand and start shaking him.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Just a friend of the family. I came to visit her once, a few years ago. I’ve, um, been abroad. It’s just that I’m not far from Hardwicke, and I was thinking … I had some flowers and chocolates and … Well, never mind. Sorry you’ve been…’
Lol’s face tightening in concentration. Jane felt almost panicked now. Why was he trying to reach a woman who was evidently dead? What if something had gone wrong in his head? Or hers.
‘Unless…’ Lol said. ‘Look, she had a friend there, I remember, we got on very well. Miss White. Athena White. I expect she’s dead, too, by