/ Language: English / Genre:thriller, / Series: Merrily Watkins

The Wine of Angels

Phil Rickman

The Rev. Merrily Watkins had never wanted a picture-perfect parish—or a huge and haunted vicarage. Nor had she wanted to walk straight into a local dispute over a controversial play about a strange 17th-century clergyman accused of witchcraft. But this is Ledwardine, steeped in cider and secrets. And, as Merrily and her daughter Jane discover, a it is village where horrific murder is an age-old tradition.

The Wine of Angels

(The first book in the Merrily Watkins series)

A novel by Phil Rickman

Tears are the Wine of Angels ...

the best ... to quench the devil’s fires.

from a seventeenth-century meditation attributed to Thomas Traherne

Prologue

Twelfth Night

Old Winter’s frost and hoary hair

With garland’s crowned ...

Thomas Traherne, Poems of Felicity

TWISTY OLD DEVIL.

Looked as if it held a grudge in every scabby branch, and if you touched it there’d be sharp, pointy bits, like thorns. And it wouldn’t give you any fruit, on principle, wassail or no wassail, because, left to rot, apple trees ...

... they grows resentful.

Merrily’s grandad had told her that once, when she was a little girl. Frightening her, because you always thought of apples as cheerful and wholesome. Oaks could be gnarled and forbidding, pines scraggy and cruel. But apple trees were essentially good-natured, weren’t they? All the same, every evening for weeks afterwards, Merrily would go down to the orchard and wish the trees a wary goodnight, assuring them they could always count on being looked after as long as she was around.

This was Merrily’s problem. Always felt responsible.

Perhaps, to get Grandad Watkins’s point, you had to see a tree as old as this one on a night this cold, the orchard glittering grimly in bilious lamplight.

Merrily shivered like a little rabbit inside her tired, old, fake Barbour, stamping her boots on the stone-hard earth in the clearing.

There’d be about thirty of them, strangers now, but people she’d have to get to know very well if she decided to go for it. They didn’t look over-friendly at the moment, all hunched up in a hand-rubbing, steam-breathing circle, like tramps around a brazier.

Except there wasn’t a brazier. Just this frosted, naked apple tree, the biggest one remaining in an orchard left to rot for years. But no ordinary apple tree – according to Mrs Caroline Cassidy, of the famous Cassidy’s Country Kitchen, this was the Apple Tree Man.

The very spirit of the orchard.

So now we all know. Merrily turned away and sighed, and the sigh recorded itself on the frigid air as a tiny white cloud. Uncle Ted, who’d excused himself because of a cold, thought it might be an interesting experience for her. To observe a cross-section of the parish. Go undercover, armed with Ted’s word-portraits of the major players. All of them at least occasional churchgoers. But wasn’t this ritual just a bit ...?

‘Barbaric,’ Miss Lucy Devenish muttered, more loudly than she needed to. ‘Utterly barbaric. Isn’t seemly. Isn’t local. Isn’t right.

Actually pagan had been the word Merrily had in mind, but barbaric would do. According to Uncle Ted, Miss Devenish had been muttering about this for most of the past week. Been along to a meeting of the parish council to demand they get it stopped. Which, of course, was beyond the powers of the parish council to do even if they’d wanted to offend Councillor Powell, who owned the orchard. She’d also have known better than to petition the vicar. Lesson one, Uncle Ted said: keep your nose out where you can.

‘Isn’t traditional to the area,’ Miss Devenish said. ‘And so it can’t be right. Do you see my point?’

She wore a big, wide-brimmed hat and a camel-hair poncho. Looked like an old Red Indian scout, talked like a headmistress. Delightful old girl, Uncle Ted had said. May, however, be some sort of witch. Don’t be tempted to get too close. But Miss Devenish was talking to her.

‘Well ... picturesque though,’ Merrily said feebly. ‘In a Christmas card sort of way.’

Some folk were holding up hurricane lamps, throwing oily light on frosty bark, bringing up a dull lustre on the barrels of the shotguns.

Which were not very Christmas card.

Seven of them. Carried by local farmers and landowners and patrons of the Cassidy restaurant who happened to be country-sports enthusiasts or clay-shooters. Lesson seventeen: where bloodsports are concerned, sit on the fence and hope for the best.

‘Oh hell,’ said Lucy Devenish. ‘Here it comes.’

Smiling a troublemaker’s smile at the arrival of the organizer, Mr Terrence – Not Terry, If You Don’t Mind – Cassidy. Long, herringbone-tweed overcoat, Russian-style furry hat. Learned-looking, in half-glasses.

‘Right. Are we all here? Good, good.’ Mr Cassidy positioned himself under a lamp on a stick. ‘But do we all know why we’re here?’

Like a teacher addressing an infants’ class. According to Uncle Ted, who’d lived here most of his adult life, the secret of being accepted in the village was to keep your head well down for two years’ minimum. But the Cassidys clearly weren’t keeping-your-head-down people. While her husband was lecturing the poor primitive yokels about the importance of their traditions, Mrs Caroline Cassidy, all kitted-out for skiing in the Alps, was arranging plastic beermugs on a wooden picnic table beside the frost-rimed cask of cider. Occasionally flicking a glance towards Miss Devenish, who was Trouble.

Through the hoary trees behind her, Merrily could see the village lights: yellow, amber and red behind drawn curtains: very cosy, but strangely far away. By day, you would have seen the church through the naked trees. At night, the orchard was a separate place.

‘... and so, people, we revive a very ancient custom.’

Mr Cassidy had a high, nasal voice, like the wind down a drainpipe. He reminded them that next May would see the start of the first Ledwardine Festival: a summer-long smorgasbord of music, poetry, drama, houses and gardens open to the public, guided tours. A major exhibition of Our Heritage.

Lucy Devenish snorted.

Mr Cassidy raised his voice. ‘And as fine local cider was that heritage, we intend ... that it should be revived.’

Pause for gasps that didn’t come. Nice enough idea, Merrily thought, but it was never going to be any more than a gimmick. The cider trade in Herefordshire was pretty well sewn up, most growers in these parts selling their apples in bulk to Bulmers or Dunkertons. Anyway, most of the orchards hereabouts had been grubbed up during the great Victorian cider-slump.

‘We shall be recommending local cider at our own restaurant. The Black Swan, will also, I trust, promote it. But, of course, the creation of this venerable beverage depends upon obtaining a significant crop of the famous Pharisees Red. As grown for centuries, in this very orchard, by ...’

Cassidy extended an arm, like a variety-show compere.

‘... the Powell family.’

Everybody stared across at Garrod, farmer and county councillor, and his son Lloyd. And Grandad – Edgar, was it? – gripping the stock of the family shotgun with fingers like knotty little roots and staring directly at Merrily. But not seeing her, she was sure. He wasn’t here at all, wasn’t old Edgar.

Everybody else merely didn’t want to be here. Because, of course, it was pointless, it was artificial, it had been put on mainly for the Press who hadn’t bothered to turn up. And it was so ... bloody ... cold.

Merrily pulled up the hood of her fake Barbour. This wasn’t the right attitude, was it? She should be cheerful, hearty. Joining in. But this ... this facsimile of rural life as it was thought to have been lived, this ‘traditional’ gathering involving, for the most part, incomers, while the members of the old, yeoman families sat at home watching the late movies with cans of lager and the remains of a tandoori ... well, this also left her cold.

Lucy Devenish was breathing like a bull over a gate as Mr Cassidy explained how the Powells had graciously agreed to let them have last year’s crop for the festival cider.

‘However, as the apple harvest in recent years has been somewhat limited, my ever-resourceful wife proposed that we might resort to the time-honoured method of arousing the, ah, temporarily dormant fecundity of the orchard.’

‘Pompous arsehole,’ Miss Devenish growled.

‘The happy tradition of wassailing’ – Mr Cassidy, looking as happy as the night and his thin, pale face would allow – ‘dates back, presumably, to pagan times, it being necessary to petition the gods in good time for spring. I am not myself particularly moved to call upon the services of those ancient deities, but I do believe that the good wishes of neighbours – symbolically expressed here tonight – will have a strongly beneficial effect on this once-supreme orchard, and on the festival ... and, indeed, on the fortunes of our village.’

‘Do you know how long they’ve lived here?’ Miss Devenish muttered. ‘One and a half years. Our village.’

‘Gerronwithit.’ A small, wiry man in a flat cap and a muffler bit down on his cigarette. Gomer Parry, Merrily remembered. Former digger-driver and contractor. Frost had turned his little round glasses into communion wafers. ‘All bloody hot air,’ Gomer mumbled. His plump wife – pink earmuffs – nudged him in the ribs.

Merrily glimpsed a smirk on the taut, patrician face of James Bull-Davies, of Upper Hall. He was passing a chromium flask to a blonde woman next to him. Very much next to him. She had a swig and giggled as she helped him stow the flask inside his sheepskin bomber-jacket, hungrily kneading his chest through his sweater.

Hence the smirk. Merrily pretended not to notice. Lesson five: Don’t offend anyone called Bull-Davies; the church would be rubble but for them.

‘With all this talk of paganism,’ Cassidy was saying, ‘it’s a pity we don’t at present have a parish priest to balance things up, but I’m assured a number of candidates for the living are being interviewed. And, indeed, the word is that one of them may even be in the village tonight.’

Oh no. Merrily shrank behind a lesser apple tree.

‘I don’t think I should say any more than that.’

Good.

‘And so, without further ado, I call upon James and his colleagues to check their cartridges or whatever they need to do. And let the wassailing—’

One moment!

Miss Lucy Devenish had swept back her poncho like a veteran warrior from the Dark Ages and marched into the centre of the clearing.

‘You really don’t know what the hell you’re doing, do you? This has always been a peaceful place, a place of seclusion. It is also virtually adjacent to the churchyard and is itself a burial place ...’

‘Miss Devenish—’

‘And there is absolutely no way at all that you can justify these frightful guns.’

‘Miss Devenish, we’ve been into all this before—’

‘And I’ll prove that. I’ll prove it to you. Because, you see, I have with me’ – Miss Devenish paused dramatically and held up the large book she’d been concealing under her poncho – ‘Mrs Leather!

Ella Leather. The Folklore of Herefordshire, published 1912.

‘This ...’ Mr Cassidy rose up in the lamplight, ‘is inexcusable.’

‘Now. According to Mrs Leather, the custom of wassailing on Twelfth Night involved lighting fires in the fields – usually wheatfields, not apple orchards, for obvious reasons, but I shall let that pass – and there is no mention at all ... of the use of firearms.’

A few people started murmuring. Miss Devenish glared defiantly at Cassidy in the lamplight, clasping the old book to her chest.

‘Now just a minute!’ Mrs Caroline Cassidy had appeared behind an impatient frown. ‘Terrence ... torch!’ She had a large book as well.

Mr Cassidy directed the flashlight beam as his wife riffled through the pages.

‘OK, right,’ Caroline trilled. ‘Collected Folk Customs of the British Isles, page one hundred and five. I quote: “It was customary for such members of the local yeomanry as possessed guns to assemble around the largest tree in the orchard, referred to as the Apple Tree Man, and to discharge their weapons into its topmost branches in the belief that this would drive away evil spirits and stimulate fertility.” There.

‘Where?’ demanded Miss Devenish.

‘I’ve just told you, Collected Folk Customs of the British Isles, by C. Alfred Churchman—’

‘I mean where abouts in the British Isles is this nonsense supposed to have been enacted?’

‘In the West of England, of course. Are we not—?’

Precisely?’ Miss Devenish tilted her head under its enormous cowboy hat. ‘May one ask?’

‘Oh, this is utterly nonsensical.’ Mrs Cassidy getting increasingly shrill. ‘Everyone knew what we’d agreed.’

‘What we’d agreed? My dear Mrs Cassidy, if we had to do this, some of us might have preferred an innocent singalong over the wassail cup. As distinct from a remake of the Gunfight at the OK Corral.’

‘Oh, a singalong.’ Mrs Cassidy threw up her hands, appealing to the crowd. ‘How very spectacular.’

‘Certainly less insulting to the poor trees. Now, are you going to tell us where this dubious business with guns was last recorded, or not?’

Mrs Cassidy looked sulky and brushed at her designer ski-jacket. ‘Devonshire. But I don’t see that it matters.’

‘Well, you wouldn’t, would you?’

‘Now, look here—’

‘Ladies!’ James Bull-Davies had stepped forward now, shotgun casually broken over an arm. ‘Look. Mindful as one must be of old customs, it really is awfully cold. Why don’t we proceed with the aspect we’re all agreed on and pour out this excellent cider ‘fore the damn stuff freezes over? Discuss it over a drink is what I’m suggesting.’

Recognizing the semi-military tone of the Old Squirearchy, even the Cassidys shut up. Bull-Davies bent over the cask and started filling the plastic tumblers himself. Merrily smelled the cider, sour and musty. She wondered where they’d got it from.

She found herself glancing at old Edgar Powell. His face like an old tobacco pouch and his eyes wide open, still looking her way. He wasn’t here tonight, old Edgar, wasn’t here at all.

Perhaps, wherever he was, that was a better place to be tonight.

‘Of course, we all know what all this is about,’ Miss Devenish told her in a very loud whisper. ‘These awful people – these Cassidys – they think the Powells could be terribly quaint and old-fashioned, with their ancient cider press and their old recipe, and they just want to turn them into a tourist sideshow. And Garrod Powell’s going along with it to keep the peace and just in case there’s a few quid to be made without too much work, and—’

‘Is that so bad for the village?’

‘Bad?’ Miss Devenish snorted. ‘The Cassidys’ll just turn honest cider into some horrible fizz in champagne bottles and sell it for a quite ridiculous price in their ghastly restaurant to awful people like themselves. When I was a gel, the farm labourers still used to receive gallons of Pharisee Red as part of their wages. It was the People’s drink. Do you see?’

‘My grandad used to say it was just a way of keeping them grossly underpaid and too drunk to notice,’ said Merrily.

‘Your grandad?’ Miss Devenish observing her shrewdly from under that hat, possibly putting two and two together. ‘Are you local, my dear?’

‘Sort of. My grandfather had a farm about six miles away. Mansell Lacy.’

‘Jolly good. Who was your grandfather?’

‘Charlie Watkins?’

‘Didn’t know him personally, but there are many Watkinses in the area. My God ...’ Miss Devenish was gazing over Merrily’s left shoulder. ‘Just look at that little whore with Bull-Davies. She’ll have his cock out in a minute.’

‘Huh?’

‘Alison Kinnersley. A destroyer, I suspect.’

Merrily risked a glance. Bull-Davies was talking to some of the other guys with guns. Alison Kinnersley was standing behind him, keeping her hands warm in his trouser pockets.

‘That poor boy.’

‘James Bull-Davies?’

‘Good heavens, no. Kinnersley’s boyfriend. Former boyfriend. Not the Bull. The Bulls can look after themselves. Trouble is, they want to look after everyone else. But it goes wrong. Never trust the Bulls, my dear. Remember that. Remember poor Will.’

‘Sorry?’

‘OK! Listen, everybody!’

James Bull-Davies had disentangled himself from Alison. He reached up, snapped a lump of brittle, dead branch from the Apple Tree Man and banged it on the cider cask, like a chairman’s gavel.

‘We’re going to do it. Had a brief chat with the chaps here. Seven of us brought shotguns along, and if we’re talking about old traditions, well, I rather suspect there must be one about it being bad luck to take one’s weapon home without loosing orf a single shot. Miss Devenish – apologies, but we’re going to do it.’

Miss Devenish stiffened as the shotgun men gathered in a semicircle around the tree, shuffling cartridges from their pockets.

‘Something we have to sing or something, is there, Terrence?’ boomed Bull-Davies.

‘I have it here, James. It’s a sort of chant. If you say it after me ...’

‘OK. Orf you go then. Stand back, everybody. Well back.’

There was silence, everyone waiting.

Miss Devenish said loudly, ‘Well, I’ve done all I can. If you wish to disturb the dead, go ahead.’

Her voice still rang in the hard air as she turned away. Bull-Davies shrugged as he accepted the folklore book, cleared his throat and began to read.

‘Hail to thee, old apple tree!’

Hail to thee, old apple tree,’ the shooters chanted, gruffly self-conscious.

‘And let thy branches fruitful be ...’

And let thy branches ...

‘Going to cause offence.’ Miss Devenish had a prominent hooked nose; it twitched. ‘Can’t anyone see that? Deep offence.’

Merrily shook her head, tired of all this. It wasn’t as if they were going to shoot any animals; just blast a few pounds of shot into the air through branches that were probably mostly already dead.

‘Why did he have to break off that branch? Showing his contempt, you see. For the tree and all that dwells there.’

‘Well,’ said Merrily, ‘there’s nothing dwelling in there now, is there?’

Miss Devenish pulled the wide brim of her hat down over her ears as the gunmen chanted.

‘... armsful, hatsful, cartsful of apples ...

Huzzah!

Huzzah!

Huzzah!

And shouldered their shotguns. Merrily thought, unnerved for a second, of a firing squad, as Miss Devenish turned away and the night went whump, whump, whump, whump-ump-ump, and the air was full of cordite farts.

Merrily was aware of a fine spray on her face. Probably particles of ice from the shocked branches, but it felt warm, like the poor old Apple Tree Man was weeping.

When the shooting stopped, there was a touch of anticlimax. Obviously the book didn’t say what you did afterwards.

‘Er ... well done, chaps,’ James Bull-Davies said halfheartedly.

A few villagers clapped in a desultory sort of way. Caroline Cassidy came out from behind a tree and sniffed.

‘We haven’t got a single picture of this, have we? As for the BBC ... I shall write and complain.’

Merrily was aware of a silence growing in the clearing, the sort of silence that was like a balloon being blown up, and up and up, until ...

The half-scream, half-retch from only yards away was more penetrating than any bang, and it came as Caroline Cassidy’s features went as flaccid as a rubber clown-mask, lips sagging, eyes staring, and she cried, ‘What’s that on your face?’

In the middle of the scream – it had come from Alison Kinnersley – Merrily had put a hand to her face and felt wetness, and now she held up her hand to the light and it was smeared dark red.

‘I say, look, get ... get back ...’ The voice of James Bull-Davies pitched schoolboy-high.

‘Bloody Nora,’ Gomer Parry said hoarsely.

Merrily saw black drips on Garrod Powell’s cap-shaded cheeks. A smear around Lloyd’s mouth like badly applied lipstick. Spots on Gomer’s glasses. Blotches on his wife’s earmuffs, hanging around her neck like headphones.

Caroline Cassidy teetered back in her thigh-boots, making an ugly snuffling noise, and Merrily saw the worst and went stiff with the shock.

Between the Powells, at the foot of the stricken old tree, what looked like a milk churn in an overcoat was pumping out dark fluid, black milk.

A scarf of cold tightened around Merrily’s throat.

‘What’s the matter?’ Terrence Cassidy’s cultured tones rising ludicrously out of the clearing, like something out of Noel Coward. ‘What’s happened? I don’t understand. For heaven’s sake, all we wanted to ...’

Gomer Parry looked up at Cassidy through his red glasses and spat out his cigarette. ‘Somebody better call the police, I reckon.’

Merrily had found a handkerchief and was numbly wiping the blood from her face. Unable to pull her gaze away from the horror inside the collar of Edgar’s overcoat, knowing that most of his head would be in the tree, hanging like some garish leftover Christmas bauble amid tinselly, frosted twigs.

She crumpled the handkerchief. Her face was still wet. It felt like some horrific baptism.

And, hearing Miss Devenish whispering, ‘I knew it, I knew it,’ she knew she would have to look up into the tree.

Part One

Can closed eyes even in the darkest night

See through their lids and be inform’d

with sight?

Thomas Traherne, Poems of Felicity

1

Third Floor

MERRILY HAD A recurring dream. She’d read somewhere that it was really quite a common dream, with obvious symbolism.

By recurring ... well, she’d have it maybe once every few months, or the gaps might be even longer nowadays.

There was a period, not long before Sean died, when it came almost nightly. Or even, in that intense and suffocating period, twice or three times the same night – she’d close her eyes and the dream would be waiting there like an empty train by a deserted platform. Sometimes it was merely puzzling, sometimes it seemed to open up exciting possibilities. Occasionally, it was very frightening and she awoke shredded with dread.

What happened ... she was in a house. Not always the same house, but it was her own house, and she’d lived there quite some time without realizing. Or sometimes she’d just forgotten, she’d gone on living there, possibly for years, without registering that the house had ... a third floor.

It was clear that she’d lived quite comfortably in this house, which was often bright and pleasant, and that she must have passed the extra staircase thousands of times, either unaware of it or because there was simply no reason to go up there.

In the dream, however, she had to go up. With varying amounts of anticipation or cold dread. Because something up there had made its presence known to her.

She’d nearly always awaken before she made it to the top of the stairs. Either disappointed or trembling with relief. Just occasionally, before her eyes opened, she would glimpse a gloomy, airless landing with a row of grey doors.

In reality, if you excluded flats, she had never lived in a three-storey house.

Now, however ...

‘Jesus,’ Merrily said. ‘We can’t live in this.

‘Yes, I suppose it is big,’ Uncle Ted conceded. ‘Didn’t think about that. Never a problem for Alf Hayden. Six kids, endless grandchildren ...’

It was big, all right. Seventeenth century, timber-framed, black and white. Seven bedrooms. Absolutely bloody huge if there was just the two of you. Very quaint, but also unexpectedly, depressingly grotty; nothing seemed to have altered since about the 1950s.

‘Of course, it’s church policy these days to flog off these draughty old vicarages,’ Uncle Ted said. ‘Replace them with nice, modern boxes. Worth a lot of money, your old black and whites. Well ... not this one, at present, not in the state it’s in after thirty-odd years of Alf and Betty.’

There was quaint, Merrily thought, and there was horribly old-fashioned. Like the steel-grey four-bar electric fire blocking up the inglenook. Like a kitchen the size of a small abattoir with no real cupboards but endless open shelves and all the pipes coiled under the sink like a nest of cobras.

‘Besides,’ Ted said, ‘we haven’t got any nice, modern boxes to spare. Three applications for housing estates’ve been turned down in as many years. Not in keeping.’ He frowned. ‘Conservation’s a fine idea, but not when it turns a nice, old village into an enclave of the elite.’

In his habitual cardigan and slippers, Ted Clowes, two years retired, didn’t look at all like a lawyer any more. His face had gone ruddy, like a farmer’s, and his body had thickened. He looked as seasoned and solid as one of the oak pillars holding up the vicarage walls.

As senior church warden, Ted had made himself responsible for getting the vicarage into some kind of shape. Negotiating with builders and plumbers and decorators. But, well into April, the work had hardly begun; it looked as though Merrily was going to have to spend the first month of her ministry in a bed-and-breakfast.

She was relieved, in a way. A place this size – it was ridiculous. And an unoccupied third floor, full of dust and echoes.

She stood on the first-floor landing, miserably looking up. ‘All these staircases.’

‘Yeah,’ Jane said thoughtfully. ‘This puts a whole new perspective on the entire scenario.’

‘It does?’

Merrily watched warily as the kid took off up the stairs to the third storey. She’d been sulking, on and off, for three days. She’d quite enjoyed the two years in Birmingham while Merrily was at college, loved the time in Liverpool when Merrily was a curate. Big-city woman now. On the way here, she’d said that if Cheltenham was an old people’s home, rural Herefordshire looked like premature burial.

Yes.’ Jane paused halfway up, looking around.

‘You like this?’

‘At least we’ve cleared all those rooms now,’ Ted said. ‘Alf and Betty were generous enough to leave us a quarter of a century’s worth of junk. Yellowing newspapers with pictures of the first moon-landing.’

Jane had a forefinger placed pensively on her chin. ‘Far more rooms than you’d need, Mum, right?’

‘Mmm ... yes.’

‘Even for all your Bible classes and parish meetings and visiting evangelists from Nigeria.’

‘Ye ... es. Unless, of course, they’re travelling with their extended families.’

‘So this whole storey is, in effect, going spare.’

‘Conceivably.’

Her daughter was starting to operate like a slick barrister. (The barrister Merrily might have become had it not been for God’s unexpected little blessing. Would she still eventually have wound up in the Church if Jane hadn’t come along?)

‘Don’t look at me like that, Mum. All I’m saying is I could have a kind of group of rooms up here. Like a suite. Because ... because ... if you think about it, those back stairs come off a separate entrance ... a third door, right?’

Ted chuckled. He knew all about daughters.

‘Right,’ Merrily said. ‘And?’

‘So it would be kind of my own entrance. It would be ... in fact ... like my own flat.

‘Oh. I see.’

The third door with its own illuminated bell and a card under perspex: Flat One. Ms Jane Watkins. She was fifteen.

‘And you’d pay the heating bills for this, er, suite, would you?’

‘Oh God.’ Jane glared down over the oak banister. ‘Here we go. Mrs bloody Negative.’

‘Or maybe you could sub-let a couple of rooms.’

Jane scowled and flounced off along the short passage. Oak floorboards creaked, a door rattled open. That empty sound.

‘Could be a double-bluff,’ Merrily said, her daughter pacing bare boards overhead, probably working out where to put her stereo speakers for optimum sound. ‘The picture she’s feeding me is that she’s going to be so bored here she’ll have to invite half the young farmers’ club over for wild parties. All these rural Romeos popping pills on the back stairs.’

Ted laughed. ‘Young farmers aren’t pill-popping yet. Well ... none that I know of. Pressure job, now, though. Diminishing returns, EC on your back, quotas for this, quotas for that, a hundred forms to fill in, mad cow disease. Suicide figures are already ... Sorry. Bad memories.’

‘What? Oh.’

‘I seem to remember saying, “If you want an informal picture of village life, why not pop along to this wassailing thing?” Not quite what I had in mind. Awfully sorry, Merrily.’

She looked through the landing window, down into a small, square rose garden, where the pink and orange of the soil seemed more exotic than the flowers. Over a hedge lay the churchyard with its cosy, sandstone graves.

Oddly, that awful, public death hadn’t given her a single nightmare. In her memory it was all too surreal. As though violent death had been an optional climax to the wassailing and, as the oldest shooter in the pack, Edgar Powell had felt obliged to take it.

‘You know, standing in that orchard, covered with that poor old bloke’s blood, that was when I decided to go for it. I clearly remember thinking that nothing so immediate and so utterly shocking ever happened quite that close to me in Liverpool. That maybe, in some ways, this village could actually be the sharp end. I thought, am I going to wash off his blood and walk away?’

‘It always affects you more in the country.’ Ted came to stand beside her at the window. ‘Everything that happens. Because you know everybody. Everybody. And you’ll find, as minister, that you’re regarded as more of a ... a key person. Births and deaths, you really have to be there. Even if nobody from the family’s been to a church service since the war.’

‘That’s fair enough. Far as I’m concerned, belonging to the Church doesn’t have to involve coming to services.’

‘And you’ll find that hills and meadows are far more claustrophobic than housing estates. You see somebody coming across a twelve-acre field towards you, you can’t dodge into a bus shelter.’

‘Fine.’

Ted raised a dubious eyebrow. ‘And everybody gossips,’ he said. ‘For instance, they’ll all tell you Edgar Powell’d been handling that shotgun since for ever.’

‘Making it suicide?’

‘What it looks like, but they haven’t got a motive. Money worries? No more than the average farmer. Isolation? Hardly – not living on the edge of the village. Depression? Hard to say. Perhaps he’d just had enough. Or perhaps he simply wanted to ruin the Cassidys’ olde English soiree. Been a spiteful old bugger in his time.’

‘You are kidding, aren’t you?’

‘Anyway, Garrod Powell’s insisting it was an accident. Came to consult me about it. He’ll be telling the coroner the old chap was simply going soft in the head. Can’t blame him. Who wants a family suicide? I suggested he have a word with young Asprey, get something medical. But it could even be an open verdict.’

‘What’s that mean exactly, Uncle Ted?’

Merrily turned to find Jane sitting on the top stair, elbows on knees, chin cupped in her hands.

‘Means they can’t be entirely sure what happened, Jane,’ Ted said.

‘Wish I’d been there.’

Merrily rolled her eyes. Having made a point of leaving Jane at her mother’s when she’d come to do her bit of undercover surveillance prior to applying – or not – for the post. The kid would’ve given them away in no time.

‘Do you get many suicides in the village?’ Jane asked.

‘Not with audience-participation,’ Ted said dryly.

Merrily was thinking, half-guiltily, how she’d scrubbed and scrubbed at her face that night and had to throw away the old fake Barbour.

They stayed the night at the Black Swan, sharing a room. On the third floor, as it happened, but it was different in a hotel. The Black Swan, like all the major buildings in Ledwardine – with the obvious exception of the vicarage – had been sensitively modernized; the room was ancient but luxurious.

Jane was asleep about thirty seconds after sliding into her bed. Jane could slip into untroubled sleep anywhere. She’d accepted her father’s death with an equanimity that was almost worrying. A blip. Sean had lived in the fast lane and that was precisely where he died. Bang. Gone.

Sadder about the girl in the car with him. She could have been Jane in a few years’ time. Or Merrily herself, ten years or so earlier.

Too many thoughts crowding in, Merrily upended the pillow behind her, leaned into it and lit the last cigarette of the day. Through the deep, oak-sunk window, the crooked, picture-book roofs of the village snuggled into a soft and woolly pale night sky.

Perfect. Too perfect, perhaps. If you actually lived here, with roses round the door, what was there left to dream of?

‘How are things financially, now?’ Ted had asked in the lounge bar, after dinner.

Jane had mooched off into the untypically warm April evening to check out the village. And the local totty, she’d added provocatively.

‘Oh’ – Merrily drank some lager – ‘we get by. Sean’s debts weren’t as awesome as we’d been led to believe. And a few of the debtors seem less eager to collect than they were at first. I think it was meeting me. In the dog collar. It was like ... you know ... dangling a sprig of garlic in front of Dracula. I’m glad I met them. I don’t feel so bad about it now I know what kind of semi-criminal creeps they are. Jesus, what am I saying, semi?

‘I won’t ask. But I did think he was being a little overambitious setting up on his own. Why didn’t you both come to me for some advice?’

‘You know Sean. Knew. Anyway, I blame myself. If I hadn’t got pregnant instead of a degree, it was going to be Super-lawyer and Lois-thing, defending the poor, serving the cause of real justice. Zap. Pow. But ... there you go. He was on his own, and with the responsibility of a kid and everything, he was floundering, and he got a little careless about the clients he took on. It’s a slippery slope. I wasn’t aware of the way things were going. Too busy being Mummy.’

‘You blame yourself for letting him get you pregnant?’ Ted raised helpless eyes to the ceiling. ‘Blame yourself for anything, won’t you, Merrily? Dangerous that, in a vicar.’

‘Priest-in-charge.’

‘Only a matter of time. Now Alf Hayden ... he never accepted the blame for anything. Act of God. Providence. His favourite words. Had us tearing our hair. But you can’t get rid of a vicar, can you? Once they’re in, they’re in and that’s that.’

‘Not any more. My contract’s for five years.’

‘Red tape,’ Ted said. ‘Don’t worry about it.’

‘Please, Uncle Ted. Don’t do anything ... anything else.’

‘You’re not feeling manipulated, are you?’

‘Of course not. Well ... maybe. A little.’

As if having a woman priest in the family wasn’t enough, her mother, from the safety of suburban Cheltenham, had been out of her mind when Merrily had gone as a curate to inner-city Liverpool, all concrete and drugs and domestic violence. Running youth clubs and refuges for prozzies and rent boys. Terrific, Jane had thought. Cathartic, Merrily had found.

While her mother was putting out feelers.

Good old Ted had come up with the goods inside a year. The vicar of Ledwardine was retiring. Beautiful Ledwardine, only an hour or so’s drive from Cheltenham. And Ted was not only senior church warden but used to be the bishop’s solicitor. No string-pulling, of course; she’d only get the job if she was considered up to it and the other candidates were weak ... which, at less than fifteen grand a year, they almost certainly would be.

‘You’ve had a stressful time,’ Ted said. He’d never asked her why she’d abandoned the law for the Church. It was evidently taken for granted that this was some kind of reaction against Sean going bent. ‘But you do feel right about this place now?’

‘I think so. And listen, don’t imagine I’ll be giving you an easy time.’

‘Ha. Alf was always far too apathetic to sustain a decent dispute. What did you have in mind?’

‘Well, you need toilets in that church for a start. I don’t care if it is Grade One listed with five stars, a lot of people won’t come to a place where they’re scared of being taken short. Especially on winter mornings.’

‘Shouldn’t be too much of a problem. If you can raise the money.’

‘I’m also into more streamlined services. No, streamlined’s not the word exactly. Shorter and more ... intense. Fewer hymns. Less meaningless ritual. I mean, we won’t be kicking people out afterwards. There’ll be tea and biscuits and all that, though I won’t ask for the espresso machine until I’ve been around for a while.’

‘What about the prayer book?’

‘Oh, strictly Book of Common Prayer. And no happy-clappy. Well, not much, anyway. Not for the grown-ups.’

Ted Clowes twisted his brandy glass around, as if contemplating something. ‘I shouldn’t really be saying this, but a few people were a little wary about you at first. Big parish for ... for ...’

‘For a woman?’

‘Well, yes.’ He looked uncomfortable. ‘But there were other considerations. It’s a mightily useful church, you see. Big. And with quite remarkable acoustics. Best concert hall for a good many miles.’

‘So I gather.’

‘And no shortage of people who recognize its qualities. People who’ve moved into the area. Dermot Child, the composer and early-music expert and your organist, of course. And Richard Coffey, the playwright.’

He lives here?’

‘Well, some of the time. With his young friend. An actor, not one you’d have heard of. And the Cassidys are very, er, cultured. Well, that’s just the core of it, but there are lesser figures and acolytes and followers. And you have to take notice of these people because they bring bodies – and money – into the church. Into the diocese. And a certain ... cultural cachet. Can’t be cynical about this sort of thing, Merrily.’

‘Has the Church ever been?’

‘Perhaps not. And most of us realize the Church needs a kick up the backside, and if it’s delivered by a more prettily shod foot, fair enough. Alf was always a bit of an old woman, time for a young one. But, naturally, we have our traditionalists. People who may have tried to block the way.’

‘Ah,’ Merrily said. ‘Would it help if I knew who they were?’

Ted didn’t hesitate. ‘Well, James Bull-Davies. He’s the only one counts for anything. Funny sort of chap, James. Career army officer. Then his marriage breaks up and his father dies quite unexpectedly from some sort of embolism following a routine op. James has to give up his career, come back and take over the estate. Catapulted into the situation really.’

‘What situation’s that?’

‘Weight of tradition, I suppose. Had to sell land and property to cover death duties and what have you, in addition to whatever it cost him to pay Sarah off. Left him with Upper Hall. And the burden of tradition. Soldier mentality, you see. Taken on the role of the squire in a way his father never did. Feels it’s his function to stop the slide of country values. Keep the modern world at arm’s length.’

‘I see,’ Merrily said. ‘And that includes ... what’s her name? Alison?’

‘Oh, well, nobody knows what goes on there. Power of the flesh, I’m afraid. Anyway, women in the boudoir, that’s one thing. Women in the pulpit of the church housing the bones of one’s ancestors is something else entirely.’

Merrily slowly shook her head.

‘It isn’t you, my dear,’ Ted assured her. ‘It’s the principle. The tradition. However, to his chagrin, he’s found that, in what was once a little world where the squire was a demigod, there are now other influential parties. Notably the affluent, articulate incomers, most of whom were rather keen on the idea of a lady cleric. Question of image, you see.’

‘Image? Somebody said that?’

‘They tolerated Alf, of course. Fat, scruffy old cove. Not very ambitious, not terribly bright. Always a bit of egg-yolk on the old cassock. But what the parish needs at this stage of the village’s development is someone more sophisticated, more attuned to the, ah ... is Zeitgeist the word I’m looking for?’

‘They’d prefer a woman priest because it’s cool and state-of-the-art? Jesus.’

‘Not merely a woman.’ Ted shuffled about a bit. ‘I mean, when they saw you at the wassailing and somebody put two and two together ...’

‘What?’

‘Oh, Merrily, don’t make me spell it out. You’re young and you rather, as someone said, rather smoulder ... in black.’

‘Oh no. Oh, hell. Who said that?’

‘Not going to say. Told you I shouldn’t have said anything.’

‘Bloody hell, Ted.’

Merrily awoke just as it was growing light. Above the timbered gables, a wooded hill had formed.

She was brightening with the sky. What had been outrageous last night seemed quite funny now. Smoulder. Who’d said that? And where? Hopefully, not at the bishop’s palace. Things really had changed, hadn’t they? Used to be schoolgirls falling for the new curate.

Merrily smiled, feeling younger than she had in quite a while. She looked across at Jane, who was still asleep. Hey, what the hell? If she wanted to set up some kind of apartment under the eaves, why not? The kid had given up enough these past years: two changes of school, becoming single-parented, coping with a mother who spent whole nights fuming about some of the crap they threw at you in theological college.

And, for Merrily – she glanced at the thick-beamed ceiling – it would take away the irrational, background stress connected with an empty third storey.

She went to the window which was set into a wall divided into irregular, white rectangles by huge varicose veins of Tudor oak. Jane, who was into fine art these days, said those white areas were just crying out for something interesting with acrylics. Oh dear.

Merrily gazed out over the inn-sign, across to the intimate market square with the squat, crablike, oak-legged shelter they called the market hall or cross. Overhung with shape-shifting black and white houses, every crooked beam and truss preserved and presented with pride.

The village wore its past like a row of glittering horse-brasses over an inglenook fireplace. Defined by its past, shaped by invaders. The Norman church with Saxon origins at the end of a Roman road. The cramped, cobbled alleyway where the gutters had once overflowed with pig-blood and piss, now a bijou arcade, soon to be scented with fountains of flowers from a score of hanging baskets.

For the new invaders, the Cassidys of this world, were here not to pillage or desecrate or change, but only to preserve, preserve, preserve. And wallow. Preserve and wallow.

Merrily looked down into the still-shadowed street, saw Dr Kent Asprey, heart-throb GP and fitness-freak leading his jogging party of sweating matrons past the new tourist information office. Saw Gomer Parry, the retired digger-driver, kick a stone into the road and stand on the kerb, hands rammed deep into his pockets, cigarette jammed between his lips. He looked aimless. What, after all, was there to do in this village but stand and stare, appreciate, absorb, be enriched?

Ideal, her mother had said. After what you’ve been through, you need somewhere quiet with no stress and no drug addicts and homeless people to make you feel guilty. Somewhere you can sit back a bit and take stock.

Merrily knelt before the window to pray. She thought, No need for homeless people to make me feel guilty.

According to dream analysts, the one about the realization of a third storey was an indication of a whole new area of yourself which remained unexplored. A higher consciousness.

‘Dear God,’ Merrily whispered, her palms together, angled on the rising sun.

From behind her, she heard the squeak of Jane’s bed as the kid sat up.

‘Oh shit,’ her daughter muttered, sleepy and cross. ‘Do you really have to do that in here?’

2

Black-eyed Dog

LOL PLANNED HIS suicide with all the precision missing from his life.

He drew curtains across the small, leaded windows facing the lane and the orchard. The curtains were cheap and thin but they took away the brightness of the morning. And also meant that Alison would not be able to look through the windows for his body.

On the turntable, Lol placed his third, already-worn copy of Nick Drake’s first album, Five Leaves Left. The lush arrangements, the soft and ghostly vocals of a man with only five years to live. All his adult life, he’d identified with Nick Drake, even though Nick had been taller and posher and dead – by his own hand – since 1974.

The album hissed and clicked into ‘Time Has Told Me’, veined through with Richard Thompson’s serene guitar. Lol went outside to check on the milk. With the bright mornings, the milkman had been arriving earlier of late. So the bottle was already on the step.

OK. He went back for another bottle from the fridge – yesterday’s, unopened – and set it down next to the new one. Then he shut the door and went to explain to Ethel, kneeling down on the carpet, looking into the unmoving green-gold eyes.

‘I’m going to have to shut you in. It won’t be for long. Don’t want you looking for me, OK?’

Ethel looked unconvinced, licked red mud from a paw. She was technically a stray, or maybe dumped. He’d heard this piteous mewling two nights running in the middle of January and finally found this thing in the hedge, about five inches long and not much thicker than a piece of black hosepipe. At first, Alison had not been pleased, displaying that hard edge he used to think would eventually wear away in the country. But on the morning she left, she said she was glad Lol had Ethel. Something for him to feel responsible for.

Lol went into the kitchen and didn’t put the toaster on; the smell of hot toast was one of the great scents of life. It would be hard to die with the smell of hot toast in the air. He didn’t switch on the radio either. He didn’t rake out the woodstove. He sat down at the table, facing the pot of Women’s Institute plum jam. He pulled off the rubber band and the parchment top, smelling the sweetness.

‘You should’ve told me,’ he said to the jam.

Meaning he should have realized. This was the last of the three pots Alison had brought back from the Women’s Institute. The day after she brought it, she’d told him herself and he’d just broken down into tears, here at this table, with the shock.

He’d always been naive. As a kid. As a songwriter. But naivety was something you were supposed to grow out of, like spots.

At the time, the idea of Alison joining all the farmers’ wives at the WI had seemed, OK, a little bizarre. But also kind of quaint and homely. It showed that coming here had really worked. It made him want to become part of the community too, a bellringer or something. Keep chickens, grow tomatoes for the chutney Alison would learn to make ... at the WI.

Just off to the WI. It had been a while before he’d realized that all those times she’d said she was off to the WI and returned a few hours later with a pot of jam, she’d really been with James Bull-Davies in the big bed at the big farmhouse called Upper Hall.

How had it begun? He didn’t know. Everyone else in the village seemed to know – the new woman in the life of the Squire of Upper Hall, that was bound to be a talking point. But there was nobody who’d have told Lol. He was a stranger, even to all the village newcomers. Lucy Devenish might have broken it to him, but he hadn’t known her then, in those long, hazy days of trying to get vegetables to grow and watching Alison’s easy smile slowly stiffen in her beautiful face.

Lol’s chin dropped into the crumbs on the kitchen table. All he wanted was to know why.

He closed his eyes and saw Alison riding, as she did almost every day, down the bridleway from Upper Hall, along the edge of the orchard and out into Blackberry Lane just before the cottage gate.

She was on her chestnut stallion. Alison knew a lot about horses and rode this one with something like contempt. It looked muscular and spectacularly masculine, a thoroughbred beast she could make a gesture out of being able to handle with no particular effort. Like Bull-Davies himself, who was the horse’s owner but would never, Lol was sure, be Alison’s.

He’d kept watching out for her, convinced she’d come back. For several weeks he’d really thought she would. Then he’d thought that one day she would at least dismount, lead the horse to the door, explain what had happened between them. But the morning ride always ended with an apparently casual glance towards the cottage, to see the smoke from the chimney, signs of life, signs of Lol’s survival ... before Alison and the stallion turned, both heads high, back into the bridleway.

Today there would be no smoke.

‘You all right, mate?’

Lol’s eyes had shuddered open when the knock came at the front door.

‘Oh.’ He didn’t know how long he must have been staring at the postman. ‘Sorry. Do I have to sign for it?’

‘No, I just couldn’t get it through the letter box, could I?’

‘Oh,’ Lol said. ‘Right. Sorry. Thanks very much.’

‘Your milk’s come.’

‘Oh ... I’ll come back for it. Thanks.’

‘Cheers,’ said the postman.

Lol carried the parcel into the kitchen, laid it down on the table. Ethel jumped on it, whiskers twitching.

The parcel was about fifteen inches square and an inch thick. It was postmarked Wiltshire. His name was on the front, typed on a label. Did he know anybody in Wiltshire? Lol lifted the cat to the floor and slit the brown paper with the butter knife.

Inside, under some stiff cardboard, was an LP record. Nick Drake. Time of No Reply.

Lol stared at it. He didn’t understand. He was afraid to touch it.

This was the posthumous album. The one with ‘Black-eyed Dog’, the bleak and eerie little song of depression and impending death. The one where Nick said he was feeling old and he wanted to go home. He was twenty-five years old. At barely twenty-six, he’d taken one anti-depressant too many and his mother had found him lying dead across his single bed.

Lol began to shake. Out of the speakers, from slightly happier days, Nick sang ‘Way to Blue’.

What kind of omen was this? He looked up at the curtained window facing the orchard. Suddenly had the overpowering feeling that posh, languid Nick was standing out there among the trees, waiting for him. A bass player he’d once met said he’d been to this party at someone’s flat and Nick Drake, six months before he died, had been there and had stood leaning in a corner next to a candle for two and a half hours, spoken to nobody and then slipped silently away, like a ghost.

There was a letter with the album. Neat and official and word-processed and signed ...

... Dennis Clarke.

Oh. Lol sat down. Oh, yeah. It was, in fact, his own album, the one he’d left with Dennis when he went into the hospital.

Dear Lol,

I found this record when Gill and I were sorting everything out for the move. Sorry, I’ve been meaning to send it for months. To be honest, Gill kept putting me off, saying it might make you depressed again. But now we know you’re over it and settled with a nice lady, well, here it is.

As you can see, we’re in Chippenham now, where I am a partner in a new accountancy firm. A couple of us decided to break away from the old outfit and set up on our own, and I think it’s paying off.

Gill and I have got three kids now, and we live in a four-bedroomed, neo-Georgian villa, extremely suburban. I do think about the old days quite a lot, how things might have been. Disastrous, probably. On reflection I’m always glad it ended when it did. We still get our royalties, don’t we?

Anyway, the real reason I’m writing is that I had a visit yesterday evening. From Karl.

Lol let the letter fall to the table. He didn’t want to read any more, and he didn’t need to, did he? Karl was over. Karl was gone. Karl was in ...

If you remember, he was in Seattle, managing a band and doing very well. However, it seems they split quite suddenly (musical differences, of course!!) and Karl was left with quite a few pieces to pick up. Anyway, he’s back in this country now because this is now Where the Future Is. He says.

I was a bit thrown when he went on to say he was convinced WE were part of that future. I never read the music papers these days, don’t have the time or, to be quite honest, the interest. However, according to Karl, the first two albums are now considered Seminal. That is, they have been discovered by a couple of the major bands – one of them might have been The Verve, no less – who list them among their influences, and sales are picking up again (expect to see this reflected in the next royalties, or I’ll want to know why!!).

Needless to say, I’d be happy to see those albums get the recognition they never really had in their day (with whatever resulting remuneration might be forthcoming!!) but I’ve been out of the business for a considerable time now and that’s what I told Karl when he said we should be thinking seriously about re-forming the band. Look, I said, I shall be forty-five next year, I have lost most of my hair, I have got three kids to support and I am very happy to be a chartered accountant in a nice part of the country. Also I have had a periodic problem with my elbow and have not lifted a drumstick in about three years.

Well, he didn’t push too hard, because, let’s face it, he can manage without me. I never wrote a song. I wasn’t even a very good drummer. It’s you he needs – not only the major talent in the band but nearly ten years younger than the rest of us and so less likely to seem like an old fart.

I don’t know how you feel about this. I did wonder, with you being in a stable relationship now and perhaps better able to hold your own with Karl, whether you might not be ready for something like this. However, when he asked me where you were living now, I decided on caution. I said, Look, Lol’s had his problems, you had better go easy. I think he got the message. Naturally, I said I didn’t know where you were living now, and I rang that guy Chris in A and R at TMM and warned them not to give your address to him either, but somebody’s bound to leak it, and that’s why I’m writing. I would have phoned, but I find you are ex-directory.

Anyway, I thought I had better let you know. Karl has changed ... well, a little. All the same, Gill didn’t take to him and was not at all happy when he took out what I would swear is the SAME TIN and rolled himself a joint, which, as you can imagine, is not exactly the drug of choice in our part of Chippenham.

Let me know if you hear anything. Give my best wishes to – Alison, is it? We were both so delighted to hear things are working out for you at last on a personal level and once again, sorry for keeping the album so long.

With very best wishes,

Dennis Clark.

Dear old Dennis Clarke.

Methodical, play-it-safe Dennis. If you work it out for yourselves, lads, you’ll see that if we do these two gigs in Banbury, we’ll be twenty-seven pounds better off than if we go up to Sheffield, taking into consideration at least three Little Chef meals, eleven gallons of petrol and tyre-wear ...

Dear old stupid, bloody Dennis. Put it behind you, Lol, it’s not the end of the world. Make a new start. In a couple of years you’ll be laughing about it.

Lol slumped into the old blue armchair.

Nick Drake sang ‘Cello Song’. Calm, upper-class English accent. And yet the black-eyed dog had been at Nick Drake’s door, as sure as the Hellhound had pursued Robert Johnson, the poor bluesman, over half a century ago. Both of them dead before the age of twenty-seven.

The thought of the hellhound who was Karl Windling back on his trail made Lol’s mouth go dry.

He thought, Where will I go?

The days were growing longer. Living in the country, you could really feel the earth turning, and it made you dizzy.

He would do it. He’d go. Now. In the springtime, when the sun was beginning to linger over the village with its ancient black and white cottages and inns, its old and mellowed church, its narrow, brown river.

In a similar village, not two hours’ drive from here, sometime in the night, Nick Drake had opened his door to the black-eyed dog.

Now, out there in the orchard, Nick was waiting for Lol.

3

Local History

ACTUALLY, JANE THOUGHT, it was excellent living at the pub.

Even though they had to share a bedroom: her at one end knocking off her homework, Mum at the other agonizing over a sermon. Even though you had to be up and into the bathroom pretty early to avoid having to watch Mum saying – oh my God – her morning prayers.

You tried not to be embarrassed, you really did try. But a grown woman, who actually wasn’t bad-looking for her age, down on her knees under the window, whispering sweet nothings to some invisible old bloke in the sky ...

What a psychologist would have said, how a counsellor would have put it, was that Jane was actually jealous of God. This single-parent only child, OK, a semi-orphan, and here’s her widowed mother taking up with Another Guy and this time it’s much more intense, this time it’s the Big Guy, the Real Thing.

This was what a psychologist would say. And was, in fact, more or less what a counsellor had said. The counsellor forced on her by Mum’s bloody theological college the time she ran away, as they insisted on putting it. Or took a night off, as she tried to explain it to them.

Anyway, the night off had involved putting on some serious make-up and going to a pub and getting chatted up by a computer salesman from Edgbaston before being spotted by one of the prissy bloody trainee vicars who fancied Mum and took great pleasure in grassing up the delinquent daughter. Jesus, how ironic.

‘All right, what’s on your mind, flower?’

Mum plonked two Diet Cokes on the pub table, the one near the toilets that was always the last to be taken – except, of course, when good old humble Mum was around.

‘Oh,’ Jane said. ‘You know. I mean, nothing really. As such.’

‘As such.’ Mum nodded solemnly.

‘Just wondering if I can put up with that bloody school for another two years before I wind up doing drugs and self-mutilation.’

Third new school in as many years. Though, frankly, when you’d done it once, it got easier. The kids were always more curious about you than you were about them, everybody wanted to hang out with the new girl, and the teachers would give you the benefit of the doubt for months before proclaiming you Public Enemy Number One.

‘Mmm,’ Mum said. ‘Is it that particular school or just any school desperate enough to take you?’

Jane wrinkled her nose. ‘I just sometimes think I’m too old for it.’

‘Too old for school?’

‘Older than everybody else my age, anyway. Do you really have to wear that thing in here?’

Saturday lunchtime. With the post-Easter tourist season starting up, the bar was pretty full. Being seen lunching with your mother was one thing, sharing a table with the Vicar was something else.

‘Yes, I really think I do.’ Mum patted her ridiculous collar with something Jane was horribly afraid could be pride.

She lowered her eyes. Hell, even a real dog collar would look better, one of those with coloured-glass jewels or brass spikes. People of Mum’s generation apparently used to wear them quite a lot during the punk era. She remembered Dad telling her once that Mum, as a teenager, had been a sort of punk. Not exactly the full safety-pin-through-the-nose bit, but certainly cropped hair and black lipstick. Dad talking in a way that suggested he’d been quite turned on by it. Pretty revolting, really. And the music was embarrassingly awful.

‘Going undercover was never a good idea,’ Mum said. ‘Not in the parish. It only leads to embarrassment later.’

Possibly meaning the guy who’d tried to pick her up in this very bar and had turned out to be head of English at Jane’s new school, the smarmball who could be teaching her A-level next year. Which – him being married to the girls’ PE teacher – Jane would not hesitate to use to stitch him up if the oily git should give her any hassle.

It was OK staying at the pub, because you learned things about people. Things you might not find out for ages if you were banged up in the vicarage. Like that TV-playwright guy, Richard Coffey, moving this youngish actor into his house on a fairly permanent basis. The actor was called Stefan Alder and was really succulent totty. Apart from being gay, of course. Or maybe he just hadn’t met the right woman.

So, yeah, it was good at the Black Swan. Swinging off the school bus and strolling coolly into the bar. On the other hand, there was the question of her apartment. Mustn’t let that one slide.

‘So, how long before they finish de-Alfing the rectory?’

‘That’s what I was about to tell you.’

Mum was taking delivery of a couple of ploughmans-wifh-cheddar from the waitress. Don’t do it, Jane pleaded silently. Please don’t say fucking grace ...

‘I meant to say last night.’ Mum speared a piece of celery. (Thank Christ for that.) ‘The rewiring’s complete, they’ve nearly finished work on the kitchen. And yesterday, apparently, they took out that huge electric fire which is so old it breaks every known regulation. According to Uncle Ted, Alf Hayden must have been getting divine protection to have avoided being fried. Anyway the bottom line is, we could be in by next weekend. Good?’

‘Yeah. Could be OK.’

Give her the whole of the summer holidays to get things together, apartment-wise. She had in mind this kind of Mondrian effect for the main room; you could paint the squares inside the timbers in different colours. Ingenious, huh?

It was Uncle Ted, of course, who’d fixed it for them to stay on at the Black Swan, persuading the diocese to fork out for the Woolhope Suite, a bedroom, bathroom and small sitting room with a decent-sized TV. It was still off-season, so Roland, the proprietor, had been amenable to the kind of deal that people like Uncle Ted prided themselves on making.

Uncle Ted was widowed and seemed to have an arrangement with a widowed lady in Church Street. Ledwardine was really quite liberal and sophisticated. Perhaps the country had always been like that.

To Jane’s horror, the local paper had been along, to get a picture of her and Mum outside the pub. Mum had insisted on wearing the clerical clobber, and the photographer had made them both sit on the pub steps, smiling like idiots. B and B Vicar Holds the Fort, it said. Yuk!

Mum’s only objection was to the word vicar. Priest-in-charge was the correct term. It was a temporary thing; apparently there was going to be this big reorganization and Mum could wind up with about four extra churches, making her a kind of flying minister. That was when they’d give her the official title; meantime it was just the one church, which should have been a piece of cake. Would have been to anyone but Mum, who seemed determined to become some kind of spiritual doormat: people cornering her in the pub all the time, emergency meetings of the Church Council, articles to write for the parish magazine (Dear Friends ... yuk!), four trips to Hereford to see parishioners in hospital.

And three funerals inside a fortnight: mega-depressing, or what?

Well, obviously you’d get used to that – be like planting bulbs after a while. Except, if you were Mum, you felt obliged to spend most of a day and a night quizzing relatives and neighbours about what kind of person the prospective interee was prior to being dead. It’s a life, Jane. You can’t just dismiss a life with a handful of cliches and a couple of jam scones in the village hall. She wasn’t even getting bloody overtime. And she was starting to look seriously knackered.

‘Ah. Merrily. Might one perhaps have a word?’

Jane looked up from her lunch. Yeah, she thought. The word is tosser.

‘Sure,’ Mum said. ‘Take a pew.’

‘Thank you.’

Mr Cassidy, of Cassidy’s Country Kitchen – naff, twee, or what? – parked his tight arse, in pristine stonewashed jeans, on the edge of a stool. He held a glass of white wine. He smiled indulgently down.

‘And how are you, Jane?’

‘Getting by.’

‘We really must arrange for you to meet Colette.’

His snotty daughter, who went to the Cathedral School in Hereford. You saw her posing around the square in the evenings. Sixteen (nearly) and sultry. Jane kept her distance.

‘Super,’ she said.

‘Got a problem, Terrence?’ Mum said briskly.

Mrs Fixit. Why didn’t she just tell him to sod off until she’d finished her lunch?

‘No ... No ...’ Cassidy said airily. ‘It’s simply ... Are you doing anything special tonight?’

Is she ever?

‘Depends which part of the night, really, Terrence.’

‘Mum hates to miss Homicide, Life on the Street.

The vicar frowned at her daughter. Mr Cassidy smiled thinly. Everything about him was thin, which told you all you needed to know about his bloody awful restaurant.

‘This would be about eight,’ he said. ‘It’s an impromptu meeting of the Festival Committee.’

‘Am I on the Festival Committee?’ Mum wondered.

‘Well, Alf Hayden wasn’t. But we rather thought you should have a say. Especially as we were hoping this year to make more use of the church itself in other than musical areas. To be specific: drama.’

‘Oh, I’m sure it’s seen plenty of that in its time.’

‘Quite. In fact, it’s about that ... You see, Richard’s over from London for the weekend ... Richard Coffey.’

‘With his boyfriend?’

‘Shut up, Jane,’ Mum said.

‘As you may have heard,’ Cassidy said, ‘Richard has agreed to write a short play especially for the festival, to illustrate a lesser known aspect of local history.’

‘Gosh,’ Mum said. ‘There’s prestigious.’

‘We originally had in mind something social. Perhaps showing how the trade in high-quality cider was almost irrevocably damaged in the eighteenth century by the growing fashion for French wines.’

‘Yeah, you could invite the Euro-MP—’

Jane ...

Jane retired behind a smirk.

‘However,’ said Cassidy, ‘Richard’s apparently become fascinated by the story of Wil Williams. Which I suppose also has a social aspect, in its way.’

‘Mmm,’ Mum said.

‘Obviously, it’s not something the village nowadays is particularly proud of.’

‘No,’ Mum said. ‘Quite.’

‘Although I suppose it has its tourist possibilities, in a lurid sort of way. Point is, Richard’s drawn certain conclusions which appear to have quite excited him. The case itself is not well documented, as you know – probably some sort of kangaroo court. But this, of course, gives Richard considerable artistic licence.’

‘Right.’ Mum nodded.

‘And as he’s even talking about bringing in some professional actors, which would be wonderful, especially if the play went on to London. Be rather super, wouldn’t it? Premiered in Ledwardine Church, and then conquers the capital.’

Mum nodded again. Her eyes had acquired a guarded look.

‘I’d have to talk to the bishop.’

‘Of course.’

‘And, er, Richard’s going to be revealing his plans at tonight’s meeting, is he?’

‘We hope so.’

‘Eight o’clock, you said.’

‘At the village hall. We normally meet in the restaurant, but Saturday is our busy night. You’ll be there?’

‘Well ... all right.’

‘You haven’t met Richard, have you?’

‘We’ve seen him in the bar, though,’ Jane said. ‘With his b—’

‘Look forward to it, Terrence.’

Mum laid her knife and fork neatly down the middle of her half-full plate. Another aborted lunch. You could get quite worried about Mum sometimes. She wasn’t getting any younger. Past the age when you should be eating like a supermodel.

‘Splendid.’ Cassidy wove off through the crush, holding up his wine like some sort of sacrament.

Jane grinned.

‘I thought you didn’t.’

Mum tossed her bag on her bed.

‘How the hell should I be expected to know who Wil Williams was. I’ve been too busy to even think about local history.’

‘Never mind, you’ve got hours yet.’

‘No, I haven’t. I’ve got to meet Gomer Parry at four. The digger man. Wasn’t for him and the gardening club, the churchyard’d be some kind of nature reserve.’

‘What a great idea.’

‘Don’t start!’

Mum flopped back on the bed, covered her eyes. The sun blared in through the old leaded window and turned her into a tableau: the exhausted saint.

‘And it’s Saturday afternoon, so the libraries are closed in Hereford and Leominster.’

‘Mum, this is ridiculous, nobody expects you to know absolutely everything.

‘Yes, they do! That’s the whole point. Jane, I’m the bloody priest-in-charge. I’m supposed to have done my homework. I suppose I could go round and see ... who’s that old bloke who does the all-our-yesterdays bit for the parish mag?’

‘God, no. I heard him in the post office once. Great queue of people and he was on about how you could send a three-piece suite through the post for less than a shilling in 1938. You’d be lucky to get away in time for the meeting. Look, OK ... I’ll find out who he was.’

Mum took her hands away from her eyes.

‘How?’

‘Don’t look at me like I’ve never done anything for you ever!’

‘I mean ... properly?’

‘No, I’ll make it all up. Of course properly. And I’ll keep you out of it. I’ll say it’s for a school project.’

‘Where will you go?’

‘Ledwardine Lore.’

‘But that’s—’

‘Miss Devenish.’

Mum sat up. ‘Oh no. You said properly. You’ll just get the Miss Devenish version, which may not ... And anyway ...’

‘Yes?’

Mum did one of her heavy sighs. She’d had this thing about Miss Devenish ever since the great Powell suicide. The old girl had made a scene about this wassailing scenario being all wrong and no good would come of it and ... bang!... no good came of it. Spooky, yeah? Right. Jane was never going to forgive herself for missing all that. Of course, that was in her Ledwardine Denial Period; she was over that now.

‘Mum, look, that’s the only shop in the village where you can get real local history books. We’re going to have to get one sometime.’

‘All right, just pop in and grab a book.’

‘I won’t know which one it’s in, will I? You can’t stand there in a shop that size, going through all the indexes. I’ll have to ask her about it.’

Jane sat on a corner of the bed, searching out her mother’s eyes. People said they had the same eyes, dark and curious.

‘Got you,’ she said. ‘You don’t like me going in there, do you? Because people say she’s a bit of an old witch. Daughter of the priest-in-charge mustn’t be seen consorting with satanic forces, right?’

‘That’s cobblers, Jane. However, until we’ve got our feet under the table we’re going to have to tread carefully, walk on a few eggshells. Is that a mixed metaphor?’

‘No, spot on, actually. In an accidental sort of way. So. How do you want to play it? Do you want me to find out who Wil Williams was, or do you want to busk it with Coffey and Cassidy? Hey, you think Stefan might be there tonight?’

‘I have no idea.’

‘Can I come?’

‘Absolutely not. God forbid. Neither will you hang around the bar. You can stay up here and watch TV.’

‘It’s Saturday night.’

‘Look, flower, we’ll have a home in a week or so. We can start shipping all your clothes and your albums and books and stuff over from Cheltenham.’

‘Yeah.’ She supposed there had been cultural withdrawal symptoms, from the music especially. Weeks since she’d lain on a bed with her eyes closed in a room full of Radiohead.

‘You won’t have to be bored any more,’ Mum said. ‘We’ll be settled, for the first time in years.’

‘You think so?’

‘Actually, I don’t know. I don’t really know what I’m doing.’ Mum sighed. ‘Sod it, flower,’ she said wearily. ‘I suppose I could consult Ted, but I’ve been bothering him too much lately. Go on. Go and ask Miss Devenish who on earth Wil Williams is.’

4

Straight Shooter

THIS FRENZIED SLAM, slam slam, flat of a hand on the door panels, someone who’d given up with the bell, given up with the knocker.

Lol flailed out of unconsciousness. Must’ve fallen asleep. Did that so easily now in the daytime, result of spending evenings dozing in front of the stove, staggering miserably to bed and lying awake until it was light. Yet there was something different about today ... wasn’t there?

Now the door handle was being rattled, the letter-flap pushed in and out, his name being screamed.

Oh my God. The black cat sailed from his knees. He rolled out of the chair. Alison. She’s here.

Go carefully. Go slowly. You only get one chance. Be cool.

Yeah, I’m fine. I just needed to talk to you. No weeping, no pleading. Just the truth. Because I can’t believe it was some fast-flowering infatuation did this to us, nor a sudden realization that he was what you’d always wanted. I can’t believe you saw him in his tweeds and his gumboots and you thought, that’s what I need to give my life direction, a genuine old-style landowner in a damp old seven-bedroomed farmhouse with cowshit on the lino and—

‘Laurence! Are you there? Laurence!’

Close to the door, Lol sagged.

It was not Alison. No indeed. He opened up, and there she was under the big hat, elbows making batwings out of the poncho.

‘You dismal tripehound! What the fuck are you playing at?’ Striding into the living room, flinging back curtains. ‘Do you know what time it is?’

He looked at the travel alarm on the mantelpiece. It said 14.15. This had to be wrong; maybe it had stopped.

Christ, six hours?.

Lol looked sheepishly into Lucy’s hot, glaring face. ‘I ... fell asleep.’

He remembered that this was Saturday afternoon. He’d promised to mind her shop.

The Nick Drake album was still revolving on the turntable, the needle grinding it up. It would be ruined now. Like everything he touched.

‘Don’t know what happened, Luce. It was just like ... I got up this morning ... then like fell asleep in the chair. Just completely—’

‘You’re lying.’ She was advancing on him like a big policewoman. ‘Come on, hand them over.’

‘Huh?’

‘Pills.’ She held out a big, pink palm. ‘Don’t fart about with me, Laurence, I’m not in the mood. Pills. Want to see what they are.’

‘I haven’t got any pills.’ He spread his hands. ‘Honestly.’

‘People with a background like yours,’ Lucy said, ‘always have pills.’

‘Oh God.’ He was far too ashamed to explain. ‘Doesn’t everything go pear-shaped?’

‘What you mean by that?’ Her eyes nail-gunned him to the wall. ‘Two days’ milk outside? All the curtains drawn? I won’t ask you again ... How many did you take?’

‘Lucy,’ Lol said, ‘would I leave a little cat to starve?’

She loomed over him. ‘Answer my question, damn you, or I’ll box your bloody ears.’

He stood back, both hands up. ‘I didn’t take any. No pills. All right?’

‘The milk? The curtains?’

‘See, I was lying awake all night. I’m thinking, you know, you’ve got to get your shit together, you can’t be a little wimp all your life, you’ve got to talk to her. And that ... I mean, that isn’t easy. I can’t go up to her in the street, I’m not ready to do that.’

‘Why can’t you simply phone her up?’

‘Because either he answers and I hang up, or she answers and she hangs up. She doesn’t want to talk to me. But she likes to know I’m all right, that I haven’t done anything really stupid. Like, what she really wants is for me to move out, but in the meantime she rides past the house every couple of mornings, presumably hoping she’ll see a For Sale sign but, failing that, some reassurance that I haven’t set fire to the place, cut my wrists in the bath, you know?’

‘How thoughtful,’ Lucy said.

‘I find that ... comforting.’

‘That she’s worried she might have driven you to take your own life? Ah ...’ Lucy took off her hat, tossed it on the chair. ‘One begins to see. You really are a sick, twisted little person, aren’t you, Laurence?’

He said nothing.

‘A silly charade. This was a silly, stupid charade. You wanted her to think you’d done it. You drew the curtains, made it seem as if you hadn’t collected the milk for two days, put on some mournful record. And then what? She sees you’re alive and falls into your arms?’

‘We just talk,’ Lol said. ‘Finally, we talk. See, I tried calling to her. She won’t get off the horse. She just turns around, trots away. You run after her. She—’

‘Pshaw!’ Lucy said. She was the only person he’d ever encountered who actually said this. ‘If attempted suicide is a cry for help, Laurence, this is, at best, a feeble squeak.’

‘Mmm.’ He nodded miserably.

‘Laurence!’ Lucy held his eyes like a hypnotist. ‘You’re letting me bully you! You aren’t even putting up a fight against an old woman with no business interfering in your affairs. We can’t have that, can we? Can we, Laurence?’

‘No,’ he said humbly, and she threw up her arms.

‘Aaagh! You can have what the hell you like, you clown. It’s your life. My God, but those hospital shrinks have a lot to answer for. Keep ’em drugged up to the eyeballs and then send ’em out like zombies.’

‘Actually, I was a bit like that before I went in.’

Lucy shook her head. ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Have a pee, splash some water on your face, and then we’ll go.’

Through the window, he saw her moped parked behind his muddied Astra in the short drive.

‘All right,’ Lol said.

She let him push the moped down Blackberry Lane, across the square and into the mews enclosing Ledwardine Lore.

Lucy insisted she needed somebody to look after the shop occasionally. When was she to do her own shopping otherwise? Used to be a girl came in two afternoons a week, but she’d had a baby and left the area.

‘Everything’s priced,’ Lucy told Lol, unlocking the door. ‘And if it’s not, you can always make one up.’

She was doing this to bring him out, bring him into the village. He hated coming into Ledwardine on his own. They still smirked at him in shops. Been smirking at him for months. He’d thought it was because he was such an obvious townie and maybe he should grow sideburns below his ears, buy a rusty pick-up truck. Not realizing they all knew what he didn’t, that the entire bloody village knew.

‘And you won’t have to face any of the locals,’ she said, identifying his fears, gathering them up. ‘Only tourists on a Saturday.’

He relaxed. Lucy’s tiny, overcrowded shop had in it the essence of what he liked about this place, what he’d miss when he sold the cottage and cleared out: the red soil and the long, wooded hills and the twisted houses with old bones of blackened oak. And the apples. Why were apples so cheerful and wholesome, while the orchard was so oppressive?

‘Bad for you,’ Lucy was saying. ‘Wrong type of woman entirely. Not that she won’t be bad for him. But that’s his lookout. And he’s stronger than you are.’

‘Thanks.’

‘I never dress things up. Woman’s a destroyer. What you need is a preserver.’

‘We had something,’ Lol said. ‘I know I’m naive, I know I don’t see things. But you don’t set up a home with someone in a new place unless you feel there’s something worth having.’

Lucy shook her head at his short-sightedness. Lol thought of the day he’d come home to find Bull-Davies’s big Land Rover outside the cottage, filled up to the canvas with Alison’s stuff. How cool she’d been, how matter-of-fact about it, sitting him down at the kitchen table and telling him simply and concisely. Apologizing, in an almost formal way. Kissing him calmly, like she was just going off to London or somewhere for the day.

‘If you’d seen her at that Twelfth Night debacle,’ Lucy said, ‘you wouldn’t be so damned charitable. Where were you on Twelfth Night, anyway?’

‘Oxford. With a bloke I’d done some lyrics for.’

‘A cruel woman. And yet curiously shallow. Horse-riding, point-to-point, driving around in muddy Land Rovers, racing up the sweeping drive, being lady of the manor ...’

‘You’re making her sound starry-eyed,’ Lol said. ‘She’s not.’

‘No, indeed. She’s cunning. Manipulative. Knows how to use her looks. And the Bull’s a male-menopausal stooge who’s known only two kinds of women, garrison-town whores and county-set heifers. She’s got his balls in the palm of her hand and she’s not going to let go. And if you think a passing concern that little Laurence might top himself is any sign she may come back when she tires of the Bull’s body then, my boy, you’re even less bright than you look.’

‘Thanks.’

‘I’m a straight shooter, Laurence. You were just a stepping stone to the mansion on the hill. Poor James.’

‘Poor James?’ Lol sat down on the stool behind the counter. ‘He’s got the mansion on the hill, even if it is crumbling around him. Now he’s got the girl, too, no strings. Yeah, poor old James.’

‘I’m sorry. It’s just that I knew his father. Or at least I knew Patricia Young, who, I suppose, was one of the old man’s Alisons.’

‘Family tradition, huh?’

‘A tradition in most old country families. I say one of the old man’s Alisons, but she wasn’t at all like that. Patricia was bright, but a little naive. Like you. Stablegirl at the Hall who hadn’t realized that part of a stablegirl’s job was to lie down in the hay with her breeches off, as required. For John Bull-Davies.’

Lucy frowned. She took a paperback book down from a shelf, laid it on the counter.

‘Dissolute old bastard, John Bull-Davies. Slave to the flesh, and let everything else slip through his fingers: money, land, public esteem. If he hadn’t died when he did, there’d’ve been nothing left for James. Perhaps that would have been no bad thing, boy seemed to have been on the straight and narrow in the army. Now he’s been forced to pick up the pieces. And seems, unfortunately, to have slipped further into the family mould than I’d have expected.’

‘What happened to the stablegirl?’

‘I warned her to get out and she did. She left. I’m sure he must have found a replacement – or two, or three – before he died. Time that family faded out of the picture, I say. Turn Upper Hall into a nursing home. And that’s coming from an old conservationist. No, I hope your Alison takes him for everything he’s got, forces him to sell up and move away. It isn’t healthy for him here, because James has some sort of conscience. But that’s not your problem.’

He no longer understood what she was on about. She looked down at him, pushed towards him the paperback book she’d taken down.

‘I shall be back by five-thirty,’ she said. ‘Read this between customers. If you don’t get any customers, you’ll be able to read the lot.’

Lol picked up the book. A Penguin Classic. Thomas Traherne: Selected Poems and Prose.

‘This is the man you need,’ Lucy said. ‘Sitting there playing your mournful, wistful records. Do you no damn good at all. It’s spring. Let Traherne into your life. Open your heart to the Eternal.’

Lol had heard of the guy. Seventeenth-century visionary poet, born in Hereford, lived in Credenhill, about seven miles from here, where he was ...

‘He was a priest, wasn’t he? Vicar?’

‘Rector of Credenhill. I know what you’re thinking, but Traherne’s spirituality and your parents’ so-called Christianity are poles apart. That’s the whole point of this. You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crownd with the stars

‘That was him?’

‘You have to learn to open up. Let the world flow into you again. Go into the village on your own and go in smiling. That’s what Traherne did. Happiest man in the county. Discovered felicity. His great realization was that God wants us to enjoy life and nature. That if we don’t, we’re throwing it all back in His face. Traherne walked the fields and was truly happy.’

‘Maybe he’d just discovered magic mushrooms,’ Lol said.

Lucy snorted, pulled down her big hat and left him to it.

5

Buds

THE TRUTH OF it was that, from that first solo stroll around the village, Jane had been looking for an excuse to go into Ledwardine Lore.

She’d been up to it several times, but you could see through the window that the place was too small to browse around and escape without buying something. Maybe that was why so few local people seemed to go in – made more sense than all this stuff about Miss Devenish being weird. Like weirdness was something new in the countryside.

Emerging from the lustrous oakiness of the Black Swan, Jane skipped down the five steps to the cobbles. These were mainly new cobbles, the original ones being so worn away by horses’ hoofs that they’d apparently been considered too dangerous; smart ladies en route to Cassidy’s Country Kitchen might fracture their stiletto heels.

The alleyway was just yards from the bottom of the steps. It was tres bijou, the most terminally bijou part of the village, all bulging walls and lamp-brackets. In the days when the Black Swan was a coaching inn, it was probably a mews, with stables. Now the stables and an attached barn had become Cassidy’s Country Kitchen, with its deli and its restaurant, specializing in game and salmon and things served in nouvelle-cuisine-size portions at silly prices. Jane thought she’d have preferred it in the old days when the best you could expect was a nosebag full of oats.

There were a few early tourists about. Also the famous Colette Cassidy, shrugged into the Country Kitchen doorway, looking like a high-class hooker in a short, white dress. She raised an eyebrow at Jane but didn’t smile. Jane, in jeans and an old blue Pulp T-shirt, breezed past with a noncommittal ‘Hi’.

Ledwardine Lore was at the very end of the mews, crunched into a corner by the flatulent spread of the Country Kitchen. The sign over the window was uptilted so that ‘Lore’ was almost pointing at the twisted chimney; if it had been horizontal they’d never have squeezed all the letters in. As she pushed open the door, Jane could have sworn she heard an amused snort from Colette and was disgusted with herself for blushing.

Inside the shop, there was more standing room than you found in a phone box, but not a lot more. Jane felt suddenly nervous, like when you went into a fortune-teller’s tent and it was just you and her. When she closed the door behind her, this smell went straight to the back of her throat: not the usual horrible incense, but a piercing fruity scent.

She looked around and, at first, it seemed like just the usual tourist bric-a-brac: pottery ornaments and those little stained-glass panels you put over your windows. Cellophane-covered jugs of pot-pourri and gift packs of local wine. And books. Jane’s eyes went in search of history and found the usual paperbacks: Herefordshire Curiosities, Herefordshire Castles, The Folklore of Herefordshire, The Old Straight Track, The Old Golden Land.

Plus dozens of other books about apples. Apples for Growing. Apples for Health. Identifying Apples. Books of apple-legends, apple-customs, superstitions, games, even a book of poems called Ripest Apples.

And then she saw that most of the tourist stuff was apple-shaped and apple-coloured. The pottery was little apple jugs and mugs. The pot-pourri was orchard-scented, which accounted for the pervading smell. The stained-glass panels featured Eve and what looked like an oversized Cox’s Orange Pippin. The local wine was in fact cider, twin green bottles labelled Bittersweet and Bittersharp. There were also rosy apples in small oil paintings, crudely framed. Russet apples glazed on kitchen tiles. Wax apples, apple-shaped notepads and address books and naff fluffy apples, like the dice people hung in their cars, dangling in bunches from the ceiling beams.

And clinging to the fluffy apples and the jugs and the mugs and the frames of the paintings were scores of what looked like butterflies, but on closer inspection proved to be ...

‘Fairies!’ Jane said in surprise. They were tiny and delicate with little matchstick bodies and wings of soft red and yellow and green. Apple colours.

‘Lucy makes them. Two pounds each or three for a fiver.’

‘Oh!’ She jumped. She hadn’t seen him behind the counter. Well, until he stood up you couldn’t see anything at all behind the counter because of a pile of big green and red apple-shaped candles promising to give your living room an exquisite orchard ambience.

He peered out between the candles. He had long hair tied up in a ponytail and small, brass-rimmed, tinted glasses. He didn’t seem very tall.

‘Sorry,’ Jane said. ‘It didn’t look as if there was anybody here. Just ... apples.’

‘Pick-your-own?’ He plucked a fairy from a candle wick. ‘Spend over ten quid, we throw one of these in for nothing. They’re very lucky. Apparently.’

‘I didn’t really come in for a fairy. I was looking for a book on local history.’

‘Right,’ he said uncertainly. ‘Well, they’re around. They are around. You just have to keep moving things until you find what you’re after.’

She turned to look around and everything started to rustle and jingle.

‘I’m scared to touch anything. You never know what you might bring down.’

He smiled, indicating a small sign in a wooden frame between the candles on the counter. It said,

Lovely to look at

Delightful to hold

But if you break it ...

don’t worry, it’s my own

bloody fault for daring to

run a business in such a

grotty little hovel.

‘Cool,’ Jane said, impressed.

‘Lucy’s got a bit of a thing about these really precious gift shops that have all this delicate stuff in precarious places then make you pay through the nose when you dislodge one with your elbow. You said local history ... How local?’

Very local.’

‘Try up there.’

He didn’t seem to want to come out from behind the counter. A Roswell-style alien face stared impassively from his black sweatshirt. She reached up to a stack of volumes between stone book-ends featuring a sort of Gothic Rottweiler with an apple in its mouth.

‘There,’ he said. ‘That one.’

Pulling down a soft-backed book, she knocked over a stack of greeting cards displaying appley watercolours.

‘Chaos, here.’ But he didn’t come round the counter to help her pick them up. ‘It’s OK. I’ll do it later.’

The book she held was not very thick. The Black and White Villages: A short history. Jane flicked through it; it seemed to be mainly photographs.

‘I’m trying to find some information about a guy called Wil Williams.’

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Mmm. Right.’

‘You know who I mean?’

‘You won’t find much in there.’

‘So where would I find something?’

He shrugged. ‘Difficult.’

‘This is my only hope. I need it. School essay.’

‘Well ...’ His accent wasn’t local, but there was an accent there, a vaguely rural one. ‘It’s difficult.’

‘You keep on saying that.’ What was it with this guy? He seemed harmless but he was definitely weird. Almost like he was scared of her.

‘Problem is,’ he said, ‘Lucy’s not happy about the way the story’s been handled. Doesn’t think they’ve got it right. Lucy has very definite ideas about things.’

You’ll just get the Miss Devenish version ... Yeah, OK, Mum.

‘Look,’ Jane said. ‘I don’t need anything in any great depth. I mean, just who was Wil Williams?’

‘I thought you were doing a school essay on him.’

‘I ...’ Her mind went fuzzy.

He smiled, took off his glasses. He wasn’t as young as she’d first thought. That is, he had a young face, but there were deep little lines around his eyes. He’d be more like Mum’s age, really. Pity.

‘He was the vicar.’

‘Oh, really? When?’

‘In the seventeenth century. About 1670, something like that. I’m not sure whether they actually called them vicars in those days, but that was what he was. See, Lucy’d give you the whole bit, but she takes Saturday afternoons off when she can. I don’t know that much about it. Keep meaning to find out, but at the end of the day, I don’t really think there’s much known for certain. It’s like one of those murky areas of history. All kinds of atrocities in those days, weren’t there?’

Atrocities?

‘But he was the minister of ... this church?’

He didn’t reply. He seemed suddenly to have forgotten she was here. He was staring through the window, into the mews, where Colette Cassidy still stood in her doorway and a bearded man was strolling by. The man looked at Colette’s legs.

‘This church,’ Jane said. ‘You mean the village church? Excuse me?’

‘Oh, shit.’

The shop guy folded his fingers together and squeezed hard. It was difficult to be sure in this light, but Jane thought he’d gone pale. He looked at her.

‘Look ... You on your own?’

‘Well ...’

She felt uncomfortable, found herself backing instinctively towards the door.

‘What I mean ... you’re not with that bloke out there?’

‘What?’

The bearded man was standing in the middle of the mews, about fifteen feet away. He wore jeans and a denim shirt and those dark glasses that went all the way round. He had his hands in his pockets and was gazing at the shop window. He seemed a quite ordinary tourist-type, perhaps waiting for his wife.

‘Why would you think I should know him? I’ve never even seen him before.’

The shop man had his glasses back on. He didn’t look cool any more. He sort of ... jittered. He bit his lip.

‘Yeah. Right. OK. Do me a favour, er ...?’

‘Jane.’

‘Jane.’ He shook his head, in a wry you-have-to-laugh kind of way. Then the hunted look was back. ‘Jane, could I ask you to mind the store?’

‘Right,’ said little Gomer Parry through his cigarette. ‘That bit, that’s all yours, Vicar, see.’

She’d given up correcting people when they called her vicar. You couldn’t really have people calling you Priest-in-Charge anyway, could you?

Gomer was pointing to a small meadow, about two acres, Merrily reckoned, sloping gently from one end of the churchyard down to the river.

‘Now, what we done the past couple o’ years,’ Gomer said, ‘is we mowed ‘im, end of July roundabout, then we sells the bales to Powell. We could sell the ole grass standing, let Powell cut it ’isself, but bein’ as how I got the gear, where’s the point in loppin’ off the profits? Plus, Gomer Parry Agricultural and Plant Hire, we does a tidy job.’

‘And what do you charge, Gomer?’

‘Aye, well,’ Gomer Parry said. ‘Bloody retired, en’t I? Can’t charge nothing no more, see.’

As Minnie, his wife of four years, never neglected to remind people, Gomer Parry Plant Hire, in the literal sense, was no more. Which Merrily reckoned accounted for Gomer’s general air of depression.

‘But the running costs,’ she said. ‘The maintenance of all that machinery ...’

‘Ah, does it good to get the ole things up and turnin’. All it is now is just a’ – Gomer struggled to cough up the contemptible word – ‘hobby.

She felt sorry for him. Apparently, Minnie had refused to marry him unless he promised to pass on the operational side of the business to his nephew, Nev, and move these twenty miles back over the English border. But as he kept on telling you, he was only sixty-eight. What was sixty-eight in the Age of Power Steering?

Could it really be that Minnie hadn’t realized that Plant Hire was part of his name, part of who he was?

‘Mabbe you could mention me to the Ole Feller sometime,’ Gomer said. ‘In passing, like.’

‘Old ...? Oh. Right.’ Merrily nodded. ‘I’m sure He does notice these things.’

‘All respect, see, but the way I sees it, it’s a better thing all round if I’m out yere getting to grips with God’s good earth than inside that ole church throwing everybody off key with my deplorable bloody singing.’

‘Mmm,’ Merrily said dubiously. ‘We’ll, er, maybe go into that argument in more detail sometime.’

‘I never argues with the clergy,’ Gomer said, putting the lid on that one. ‘Now, your ditches. As I kept pointin’ out to the Reverend Hayden, them ditches is in a mess. En’t been cleared in my time back yere, which is four years come October, and there’s all kinds o’ shit down there.’

Gomer led Merrily along a crooked avenue of eighteenth-century graves to where the churchyard met the Powell orchard. It was a raised, circular churchyard, partly bordered by a bramble-covered ditch about four feet deep.

‘Get rid o’ this lot, no big problem, Vicar. However, wise not to widen the ditch this side, on account some of these ole graves’ve slipped and slid a bit over the centuries like, and you goes into that bit o’ bank you never quite knows what’s gonner tumble out, you get my meaning.’

‘Oh.’

Merrily imagined ancient bones rattling into the shovel of Gomer’s JCB.

‘As for the other side ... Well, who knows, Vicar, who knows?’

‘Who knows what?’

She hitched up her cassock to bend down and peer into the ditch. A rich, musty smell rose up. She looked across to the other side; the nearest apple tree was a good twenty yards away. Further into the tangly orchard, she was sure she recognized the twisted boughs of the Apple Tree Man and couldn’t suppress a shudder.

Gomer followed her gaze.

‘They won’t do that again, Vicar.’

‘The wassailing? No, I suppose not.’

‘Funny thing, though ... You wanner see the buds on ‘im now.’

‘On the ...?’

Merrily looked at Gomer. Those ridiculous, little round glasses and the often-unlit cigarette, like a baby’s dummy, made it hard to take him seriously.

‘Gonner be ablaze with blossom in a week or two, that ole bugger. You’d’ve sworn he’d given up. Makes you think, don’t it?’

She was chilled.

‘I think I’d rather not think. What did you mean just now when you said who knows? About the other side of the ditch.’

‘Ah. Well. You gotter ask yourself why the ole orchard’s still there, see. Rod Powell, he en’t a man to keep a worthless bit o’ scrub without there’s a reason for it. Well, a cider apple’s no use for nothin’ but cider, specially them stunted little buggers, and the Powells en’t made but their own in half a century. Rest of the farm’s beef and’ – Gomer growled – ‘battery chickens.’

Merrily, who also disapproved of battery chickens, kept quiet.

‘So you gotter ask yourself, Vicar, why’s he keep that ole orchard?’

‘Sentiment?’ Before the word was out, Merrily felt embarrassed.

‘Superstition.’ Gomer tapped his nose. ‘Them as don’t believe superstition counts for much in the countryside no more en’t never lived yere. Powells put in a bunch of new trees down the bottom end, to please that Cassidy, but Edgar wouldn’t grub up this bit, nor even scrat around too much in there, on account of he knows and all his family knows that there’s ...’

Gomer paused, took off his flat cap. Wild white hair erected itself.

‘... the First Unhallowed Ground.’

Merrily thought she understood, but she wasn’t sure.

‘You dig up decently buried bones, see, well, that’s one thing. You just puts ’em straight back. But any bones the other side o’ that ditch ... Now don’t get me wrong, Vicar, I’m not saying I goes for this ole toffee, I’m just telling you the kind of superstition you’ll encounter if you sticks around these parts ... But the bones t’other side, them’s the ones you don’t wanner be diggin’ up, you get my meaning.’

On the other side of a curtain behind the counter was an iron spiral staircase leading up into what seemed like complete darkness, apparently a loft without a window. Jane stuck her head through the curtain.

‘OK, Lol. He’s gone.’

‘You sure?’

The voice was hollow with – Jane was amazed and thrilled – actual, real fear. It made her think again about the little crunch before the man had left.

‘Jane?’

‘Yeah, honest. I’m certain. Gave him two minutes, then I went to the end of the mews and he was talking to Colette Cassidy, then he was getting into this pretty smart yellow sports car. Toyota.’

‘He didn’t see you following him?’

‘Not a chance.’

His face appeared at the top of the spiral, blinking from the dark, full of suspicion and ... yeah, anxiety. Definitely that. The lines around his eyes deeper.

‘You know the Cassidy girl?’

‘Only by sight.’

He came down. ‘That means you’re local?’ He looked dismayed.

‘I am now,’ Jane said. ‘For my sins.’

She was still feeling rather electrified. This could be the most utterly bloody brilliant place she’d ever lived. Best of all, she felt in control. She’d saved this man from God knows what. He owed her one.

‘So what exactly are we looking at here?’ Jane said loftily. ‘Drugs?’

‘Huh?’ He slumped back on the stool behind the counter, shaking his head. He looked drained, as though he’d spent the last few minutes on the lavatory.

Pretty heavy.

‘Listen.’ Putting on her cynical smile. ‘I might be local now, Mr Robinson, but I’ve been around. Like you’re into that guy for some amount you can’t afford, and he wants his money. What are we talking? Coke? Smack?’

‘What?’

Jane said, ‘Es? Whizz?’

‘Huh?’

‘You can tell me.’

‘Oh ... God.’ It was probably the last thing he felt like, but he started to laugh. ‘Who the hell are you?’

‘Don’t change the subject. My general feeling is, that wasn’t a very nice guy. Underneath all the charm and the Florida tan and the really white teeth. I can sense these things.’

‘He buy anything?’

‘He said he was looking for an old friend. He described you. Puny little guy, long hair, glasses. He said he’d been to your house and asked around and somebody said they’d seen you with Miss Devenish, and this is her shop, so ...’

‘And you said?’

‘I said I didn’t know anybody called Robinson, which was true. I said I couldn’t think who he meant. So he’s like ... Oh, well, he might’ve changed, got fatter, lost his hair. And I’m saying, Well, in that case he could be any one of a dozen people.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Like, I don’t think he believed me that you weren’t here. He said – in this kind of knowing way – that if I should just happen to come across you, tell you he’d be back. And he kept like looking at the curtain. As if he was wondering whether to thrust me aside and go in and drag you out.’

God, this was fun. If not so much for Mr Robinson.

‘He say when he’d be back?’

‘Nn-nn.’

‘What was his attitude?’

‘Like I said, charming. Lovely white teeth. Capped, I suppose. He imports the stuff, does he?’

‘Look ...’ Mr Robinson pulled hair out of his glasses. ‘He may be into drugs, I wouldn’t know. We are not business associates. He’s what he said he was. An old ... friend. Sort of.’

‘If you think I’m that dumb,’ Jane said loftily, ‘you’re spending too much time with the fairies.’

‘He’s just hard to get rid of. You must’ve had friends like that. That’s all it was. No drugs. Sorry. Oh—’ Alarm doubled back across his face. ‘You say he talked to the Cassidy girl?’

‘Briefly. Like he was asking her the way or something.’

‘Look. Seriously. Jane? You listening? If you see him again, keep out of his way, yeah? Will you promise me that, Jane?’

‘You want me to come and tell you if I see him again?’

‘No! Just stay out of his way. Tell Colette, too ... No, don’t, it’d just get her interested. Leave it. Please. Forget it happened.’

Fatal instruction. ‘Bit bloody one-way, this, if you ask me,’ Jane said.

‘Suppose I give you the dirt on Wil Williams.’

‘Oh, sure,’ Jane said. ‘Change the subject.’

‘It’s one L, by the way,’ Lol said. ‘If you didn’t know. W-I-L. The Welsh way.’

‘All right then,’ Jane said. ‘Wil Williams. One L. And it better be good.’

‘It wasn’t that good for him. But I expect you’ll find it good. It’s spooky. Here, have a notebook to write it down.’

Lol reached up, flipped one from a rack behind him. A quick, nervous thing, as though he was giving his hands something to do to stop them shaking. He laid the notebook on the counter; it had an apple on the front.

‘I’ll pay for it,’ Jane said primly. ‘And what should I do about this?

Opening her left hand over the counter. A tiny fairy looked up, stricken, from her palm, its apple-streaked gossamer wings in shreds, its matchstick spine snapped.

‘Your ... old friend ... knocked it off its perch. Crunched it under his shoe on his way out. Pretended not to notice, but I think he did.’

Both Lol’s hands were behind his back now. He bit his lip.

After the lady vicar had gone, Gomer Parry was down the ditch dragging some of the brambles away, sizing up the job, when the shadow fell across him.

‘What d’you think of her, Gomer?’

The hooked nose under the hat. Like some old eagle, she was.

‘The vicar? ‘Er’s all right, Lucy. Nice little girl. Don’t throw the Ole Feller in your face the whole time.’

Nice little girl. Pshaw! You know what I’m asking, Gomer. Is she strong?’

‘’Er gonner need t’be, Lucy?’

‘She’s a woman.’

‘Never thought to hear that comin’ from you.’

‘Because you don’t know what I mean, do you?’

Gomer tried to climb out of the ditch, slipped back, and she offered him a hand and pulled him out easy as this hydraulic winch he used to have.

‘What did you talk about? When you were looking out to the orchard?’

Ah, watching them, was she? ‘This an’ that,’ Gomer said. ‘Number of buds in the Apple Tree Man kind of thing.’

‘The Apple Tree Man?’ Face near black against the light. ‘Heaven save us, there’s no such damn thing as the Apple Tree Man! Not here. That’s Somersetshire lore. Ours is a different tradition altogether. You should know that. No apple tree man, no guns.’

‘Well, pardon me,’ Gomer said, ‘for bein’ just a humble plant-hire operative.’

‘It’s important, Gomer. These clowns move in with their twisted interpretations, and we wake up one day and we’re living in a different place – a fantasy village. It’s what happens when you get too much change too quickly. This was a terribly poor place when I was a child – miserable farm wages, children still in rags. Now it’s damn near the richest village in the county. Looks beautifully authentic, but it’s a sham. And do they care, the locals, what’s left of them? Do they hell.’

‘Money’s money,’ Gomer said, winding her up, see where this was heading. ‘Shops doin’ well. Plenty jobs for plumbers, builders, carpenters, the ole rural craftsmen. Why should they care?’

‘It’s false wealth, you know that. Cider was Ledwardine’s wealth, and it dried up long ago.’

‘But hang on yere, Lucy, if this Mr Cassidy’s out to revive it—

‘In his dilettante, touristy fashion.’

Gomer studied her. She’d never been what you’d call pretty, but there was a time when she could’ve had her pick of men. And, from what he’d heard, she’d picked a fair few in her time and thrown them back a bit more out-of-breath than they might’ve reckoned on. But time passed.

‘Well,’ He fished out his ciggy. ‘I wouldn’t know what that means, dilly-whatever ... me bein’ just an ill-educated plant-hire man, like. But it do strike me, Lucy, as you’re bein’ a bit of a wosname in the manger. Cause you din’t think of it yourself, you don’t wannit to work. Same with the festival. You feels ... what the word? Sidelined.’

Lucy Devenish blinked and brought a hand to her face, and for one terrible moment, Gomer feared she had a tear coming. But she used the hand to straighten her hat.

‘What I feel, Gomer,’ she said, ‘especially when I stand on this side of the churchyard, is a certain fear for your nice little girl.’

6

Cold in the House of God

MERRILY WALKED SOFTLY into the darkening church, still hesitant, still unsure.

‘Do you know what I couldn’t do?’ her mother had said a couple of years ago. ‘I couldn’t go into one of those old churches alone at night. Spooky. Anybody could be in there: tramps, rapists. That’s another reason why it isn’t a job for a woman, in my view.’

Least of my problems, Merrily thought, still half-afraid that she would be met by a chill of hostility, a cavernous yawn of disapproval.

It had all been too easy, so far. Respectable congregations (all right, curiosity, novelty value). Sermons which seemed to write themselves, even in the hotel room at midnight. No dark looks in the street, no suspicious stares.

And not even inducted yet. Apart from reducing the number of hymns, she hadn’t even started on what she planned. Although she didn’t, to be honest, know what form it was going to take yet.

It still didn’t feel quite real, this was the problem. Staying in a hotel – even when you had to drive into Hereford at night to use the launderette – created this illusion of a holiday. Perhaps when they moved into the vicarage, reality would set in.

She wasn’t looking forward to that; the vicarage was too big to be a home; it scared her far more than the church.

It was a dull evening now, the stained glass fading to opaque. Her hand slid over the stone, up to the light switches. Even the air in here was temperate. The brass-bracketed lamps came on. In the soft amber, the walls themselves glistened with antiquity, yet not in an austere, forbidding way. The stones were mellow and softly encrusted, like country honey.

The evening visit had become a kind of ritual. Her trainers pattered on the flagged floor of the nave. Her footsteps made no echoes; the acoustics, as Alf had said, were warm and tight.

Walking on bones. Several of the flags were memorial stones, dating back three, four centuries. Francis Mott, d. 1713. John Jenkyn, whose dates were worn away into the sandstone like the lower half of the indented skull in the centre of Jenkyn’s flag – they didn’t dress it up in those days.

Couldn’t be more different from the last place, in Liverpool: a warehouse: scuffed, kicked about, a city church of smutted brick, with no graveyard, only rusty railings. The building couldn’t have been less important; it was what you did there, what you brought to it.

This church was important – medieval, Grade One Listed. Beautiful beyond price, even to people with no faith. And it felt friendly. Even to a woman. It enfolded you.

Hey, don’t knock it.

Merrily faced the altar through the rood-screen out of which row upon row of apple shapes were carved. Closed her eyes and saw a deep, dark velvety blue. Feeling at once guilty about this habitual need for reassurance.

‘Mum? That you?’

Merrily’s eyes opened. ‘In here!’

Jane’s head appeared round the door, hair as dark as the oak. ‘You’re not doing anything ... private?’

‘Like what, for heaven’s sake?’

‘You know...’

‘Like doing the rounds? Locking up?’

Merrily stood with hands on hips. Getting a bit fed up with this attitude, the kid treating God like a stepfather. Was it always going to be like this until she left home and old mum in the dog collar became a figure of affectionate amusement?

‘Got him, Mum.’

‘Well, don’t leave him on the mat. Who are we talking about?’

‘Wil. Wil Williams.’

‘Oh.’

‘One L. He was Welsh.’

‘Anything wrong with that in the seventeenth century?’

‘A lot wrong with him,’ Jane said. ‘In the seventeenth century. Though I don’t think it would’ve worried me.’

‘Well, that’s wonderful,’ Merrily said glumly. ‘That’s all we need, isn’t it?’

They sat side by side in the front pew.

‘There’s no evidence he was.’ Jane picked at the thick varnish on the prayer-book ledge. ‘Not what you’d call real evidence. I mean, people were always getting stitched up in those days.’

‘But not vicars. Believe me, there’s very little history of this kind of thing inside the Anglican Church.’

‘Very little of interest has ever gone on inside the Anglican Church.’ Jane grinned. ‘Still, they haven’t had you very long yet, have they?’

‘Ha.’ Merrily looked up at the Norman arch, so plain, so curiously modern-looking. ‘All right, why hadn’t we heard about this, Jane? Why isn’t it a celebrated case, like Salem, Massachusetts?’

‘Because he was only one bloke, I suppose. Besides, it never came to a trial, according to Lol.’

‘Lol?’

‘Guy in the shop. Very nervous.’

‘You make everyone nervous. Where was Miss Devenish?’

‘Day off. Look, it’s all straight up.’ Jane pulled a little notepad from her jacket. ‘Date: 1670. That makes it after the Reformation, right?’

‘Restoration.’

‘Whatever. After Cromwell. Was that Charles the Second’s time, guy in the curly wig? Anyway, in rural areas, they were still very reactionary and always on the lookout for witches to persecute. Poor old Wil put himself well in the frame.’

‘Meaning?’

‘I’ll tell it in sequence, so I get it right. He’d been vicar a couple of years, OK? Got the job possibly on the recommendation of the Rector of Credenhill, the poet guy ... ?’

‘Thomas Traherne.’

‘Yeah. They were mates. Went for long nature rambles together, Lol reckons, discussing ethics and stuff. Only then Traherne gets a new job near London, and when he leaves there’s nobody to stick up for little Wil and somebody like dropped him in it, big-time.’

Merrily smiled. Jane’s style of historical narration wasn’t exactly textbook, but it did confer a certain immediacy.

‘See, from what I can make out, Wil Williams was serious, serious totty. Like really great-looking, in a poetic, ethereal, unworldly sort of way. Strawberry-blond, unblemished, lovely smile. Women swooning in the aisle kind of scenario.’

Merrily frowned. ‘You’re not embellishing this by any chance? Because if you drop me in it at this meeting ...’

‘Swear to God. And it’s significant because this could be one reason he wasn’t all that popular with the men. I mean the macho, hunting types who ran things. Lol reckons parsons in those days were expected to ride with the hunt, drink too much port, get gout ...’

‘Sure. Go on.’

Jane turned over a page in her notebook, following the lines with a forefinger; she’d never quite outgrown that.

‘Very superstitious times, OK? So when you get reports of strange phenomena, I mean, you know ... Sounds like complete rubbish, total crap, today. But people didn’t take too much convincing back then. Everything was an omen. You only had to start a rumour and they’d all be screaming for blood.’

‘What sort of phenomena?’

‘I’m coming to it. Most of it was centred on the orchard ... just over the wall? Powell’s orchard? Mum, you shivered ...’

‘I didn’t!’

‘You bloody did. And now you’ve lied in the House of God!’

Merrily growled. ‘It gets cold in the House of God after a while. Just shut up and get on with it.’

Jane peered at her notes. ‘Something about ... hogs? Oh. Yeah. The orchard belonged to the Church back then. They produced quite a lot of cider in those days, apparently, and the vicar’s stipend included what he could make out of it. Which was expected to be about fifty hogsheads of cider every year. Is that a lot?’

‘I have no idea. What happened in the orchard?’

‘Lights,’ Jane said. ‘Lights and music.’

‘Parish barbecue?’

‘Strains of eerie music in the night.’ Jane’s voice dropped to a sepulchral whisper, which wasn’t actually all that funny in the vast, lamplit church. ‘Fiddle music, like for dancing. Little, glowing, bobbing lights among the apple trees. Wil Williams ... dancing with demons.’

‘I see.’

‘One guy actually did see. Or claimed to. Lol couldn’t remember his name, but he was a local miller or tanner, one of these quaint, rustic professions. One dark night, he was coming back from the pub – probably well pissed – and he strayed from the track and wound up in the orchard. Or was kind of lured towards the lights and the music, couldn’t help himself. What’s that noise, Mum?’

‘Bats, probably. Vampire bats. Don’t try it on, Jane, I’ve got approximately an hour before the meeting. What happened to the miller?’

‘Private screening of the seventeenth-century equivalent of a dirty video. Wil Williams stark naked, dancing around an unearthly light with these silvery, shapely ... demons. Or sprites, as he called them.’

‘How very tawdry.’

‘Obviously gave the miller a hell of a hard-on.’

‘Jane!’

‘Sorry. Sorry, God. No, naturally, the miller claimed to have been shocked and terrified and he spread it all round the village, and word reached the Sheriff of Hereford and the Bishop of Hereford, and eventually a bunch of them went round to the vicarage, all official—’

Our vicarage?’

‘Presumably. It’s old enough, isn’t it? So all these sanctimonious gits arrive on Wil’s doorstep to ask for an explanation or arrest him for devil-worship or whatever the charge was. But there was no answer when they knocked on the door. So they came ... here.’

Merrily didn’t move. Resisted the urge to look around. It was only a story, it was all in the past, and yet ... she was apprehensive. She didn’t want there to have been some sort of Thomas a Becket death scene at the altar, the honeyed stones stained with innocent blood ... some set-piece slaughter she’d have to try not to think about when she arrived to take communion on drab winter mornings.

‘Somebody kicked open the door,’ Jane said.

This time Merrily did look – towards the main oak door, imagining the group of po-faced guardians of the law striding righteously past the font, bearded men with swords half-drawn.

‘But the church was empty,’ Jane whispered. ‘Wil Williams wasn’t here.’

Merrily sighed. The kid really knew how to spin out a story.

‘He was outside,’ Jane said. ‘In the orchard. All dressed up for them, in his full vestments and things.’

‘He was expecting them?’

‘Presumably,’ Jane said.

‘This is the suspense bit, is it?’

‘You could say that.’ Jane gave half a smile. ‘He was hanging from an apple tree.’

‘Oh God.’

‘In his richest vestments,’ Jane said dreamily. ‘Poor Wil, dangling there, all aglow on a bright, sunny morning.’

Jane nodded to signify The End and closed the notebook with a snap, raising her gaze to the vaulted ceiling so that the amber lights were reflected in her big, dark eyes.

‘Terrific.’ Merrily blacked out a flash-image of the half-head of old Edgar Powell hanging like a left-over Christmas bauble on the Apple Tree Man. ‘I hate that bloody orchard.’

Funny thing, though, Gomer Parry had said ... You wanner see the buds on ‘im now.

So the orchard used to belong to the Church, although it was not, of course, holy ground. And yet close. The First Unhallowed Ground, Gomer had called it. Suicides were invariably buried in unhallowed ground.

‘He knew they’d be coming for him,’ Jane said. ‘And he couldn’t face it. The trial, the abuse and everything. Poor, sensitive soul. He was only about twenty-five.’

Obviously, Terrence Cassidy had said, it’s not something the village nowadays is particularly proud of. Although I suppose it has its tourist possibilities, in a lurid sort of way.

‘So they buried him where he died – in the orchard. With only an apple tree to mark his grave. And, as apple trees don’t live very long, nobody knows where it is now.’

Merrily recalled what Gomer had had to say about the reasons the Powells had never grubbed up their unproductive orchard.

... the bones t’other side, them’s the ones you don’t wanner be diggin’ up, you get my meaning.

Unless you were a distinguished playwright, for whom no bones could be buried too deep.

She watched Jane’s gaze travelling around the church with a new interest. The first time, in fact, that the kid had displayed any interest. It would have a history now, a mystery, a romance. In that age-blackened pulpit had stood the doomed Wil Williams, serious totty, with the sunlight in his strawberry-blond hair.

‘Heavy stuff, huh?’ Jane said, well satisfied.

Nothing unhealthy about this. Wil Williams was as remote and unreachable as the lead singer of some boy band in Sugar magazine. Merrily remembered the stage when she would fall in love with the ludicrous heroes of fantasy novels, princes with magic swords. It was a phase. A safe phase which wouldn’t last long. Not long enough. Real boys, real men would be in the picture all too soon.

‘Sure,’ Merrily said. ‘Heavy stuff.’

And felt a pang of impending loss. The sandstone walls still had an old-gold glaze in the lamplight but, when she stood up, she was sensing an end to the honeymoon period.

‘Well,’ she said. ‘Thanks, flower.’

7

Dirty Video

‘I BEG YOUR PARDON,’ Terrence Cassidy said, irritated.

Old Cider!’ Dermot Child, the musician, thumped the table. ‘That’s what we should call it!’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘The entire event. The festival. Old Ciderrrrrr! Resonates.’

Everything Dermot Child said seemed to resonate. He was a plump friar of a man, who, without being obviously Irish, Scottish or Welsh – indeed, his accent was closer to Oxford – vibrated with an emotional fervour you could only describe as Celtic. Merrily quite liked him.

In the absence of the parish secretary, who was also the treasurer of the Women’s Institute (as distinct from the Women’s Group, formed by newcomers) and was attending some sort of WI convention, she’d agreed to take the minutes of this hastily called meeting. She wrote down, Old Cider?

‘Explain, shall I ... Mr Chairman?’ Child leaned over onto an elbow, making a determined fist, as if prepared to arm-wrestle Cassidy into submission.

‘Please do,’ Cassidy said, resignation soaked in acid. It was, after all, his festival, Merrily thought. His idea, his concept. Eccentrics like Child should content themselves with being occasionally amusing.

Merrily smiled. Child caught her eye, winked. Outside, a small motorcycle was being expertly skidded on the cinders under the open window. Councillor Garrod Powell moved swiftly to the door. ‘Give it a rest, Kirk,’ they heard him shout mildly. ‘Else I’ll be round to see your dad, boy.’

It was getting rather dim in the village hall, screened from the sunset by two huge oaks. On the way back to his chair, Councillor Powell lifted a hand over the panel of metal switches to the left of the T’ai Chi group noticeboard. ‘Leave it a moment, would you, Rod?’ Child said.

Powell, tall and trim and oddly dignified, shrugged and went back to his seat between Cassidy and a moody-looking James Bull-Davies.

‘It begins with “Crying the Mare”,’ said Child. ‘You’d know all about that, Rod. They used to do that on your farm?’

‘Sure to,’ Powell said uncertainly.

‘Harvest custom. They’d leave the last of the corn standing, separating it out into four bundles, sticking up like legs. The Mare, you see? Then they’d tie these together at the top to make a single sheaf, step a few paces back and hurl their hooks and sickles at it, to try and cut off the ears of corn.’

‘Sounds rather pointless to me,’ observed Terrence Cassidy, apparently failing to recall his role as principal organizer of the infamous Twelfth Night event in which shotguns were discharged into an apple tree.

Dermot Child ignored him. ‘Be interesting to arrange a contest in one of the fields, see how many chaps can still do it.’

Somehow, Merrily couldn’t quite imagine Lloyd and Garrod Powell, plus sundry seasonal labourers, abandoning the combine harvester to waste a valuable daylight hour attempting to shave a sheaf with tossed sickles.

‘However,’ Child said, ‘this was really a preamble. On this and other occasions, the ritual would invariably conclude with mugs of cider all round. Now. This would be preceded by all the chaps gathering into a circle and intoning—’

Abruptly, he pushed back his chair, stood up, filled his lungs. And with his fingertips pressed into the tabletop, bellowed in a lugubrious bass, ‘Auld ... ciderrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Rolling and dragging out the word on a single note, in a deep, rumbling drone, a Herefordshire mantra. Merrily was startled. How eerily primeval it seemed in the purply gloom. You felt that if several of them were doing it, the walls would start to peel and crumble.

No one spoke again until Child sat down.

‘Aye,’ Rod Powell said then, into the silence. ‘I remember.’ He moved to the switches again, and bluish fluorescent tubes began to flicker.

Merrily recalled, as the lights revealed the sickly, sixties, pink-brick interior of Ledwardine’s only real architectural embarrassment, what Gomer Parry had said about even the mercenary Powells being far from immune from superstition.

Dermot Child was patting his chest.

‘Don’t know about the rest of you, but I find that absolutely thrilling. Bunch of working men using their lungs and their throats to make contact with the earth itself. Setting up this marvellously powerful vibration ... Ciderrrrr. The very roots of music.’

‘Sort of vibration we need for this festival,’ said James Bull-Davies. ‘That’s what you’re saying?’

Bull-Davies was wearing a tan gilet over a checked shirt with a cravat. Until you actually lived in a place like this, Merrily thought, the idea of there still being a kind of uniform for local squires would strike you as a joke. But it was a fact that people like James did not wear jeans, they did not wear T-shirts, and they would never, under any circumstances, be seen in a baseball cap, even the right way round.

‘You know ...’ Child leaned across the table. ‘You’d be absolutely perfect for it, James. Your voice has the timbre.

Cassidy scowled but said nothing. Probably not caring to emphasize his own reedy lack of timbre. Merrily wanted to giggle. James Bull-Davies caught her eye and looked away at once. Merrily stifled a sigh. How long would it take for this guy to come to terms with a woman priest? Answer: he never would; it wasn’t the thing.

‘I’m planning, you see,’ Child announced, ‘a new choral work, for which this will be the focus. Old Cider. I’m looking for voices. Local voices. I want to work with the voices. I want the composition to arise from those voices. From the earth, the red earth of Ledwardine. Any thoughts, Rod?’

‘We did have a male voice choir, Mr Child, some years back. Folded through lack of support. A few of the ole boys still around, though, sure to be.’

Child beamed. ‘Vicar?’

‘I could put the word around the church choir,’ Merrily said. ‘See if we can get a few volunteers.’

‘Good girl,’ Child reached over and patted her hand, lingering perhaps a little too long on her fingers. ‘So what’s the committee’s view on using “Old Cider” as the name of the festival. Terry?’

Terrence,’ Cassidy said tightly. ‘Well, we obviously can’t make a decision tonight—’

‘Who says we can’t?’

‘Look, I suggest you submit a paper on the proposal and we’ll circulate it before the next meeting.’

‘Hell fire!’ boomed Bull-Davies. ‘Only a question of a bloody title. I propose, Chairman, that we take a vote on whether to decide it here and now. In fact, not to prolong the issue, I formally propose the Ledwardine Festival be known hereafter as the Old Cider festival.’

‘Seconded,’ Child said quickly.

‘Now just a minute ...’ Terrence Cassidy’s thin face was flushed. ‘What this means is that the entire festival would effectively be promoting your as yet unwritten choral work.’

‘Or my choral work, for heaven’s sake’ – Child threw up his arms – ‘would be supporting the concept of the festival.

‘Proposition on the table, gentlemen.’ Bull-Davies made a grimace of a smile. ‘And, ah ... lady. Chairman, my understanding of the rules of the committee game is that what you do next is ask if there are any amendments.’

Cassidy folded his arms obstinately. ‘I think we should wait until Richard Coffey arrives. His play’s going to be the thing that gets us national publicity, and he might—’

‘Chap knew it was eight p.m., didn’t he?’ Bull-Davies rumbled. ‘Can’t wait all night. Move progress.’

‘All right.’ Cassidy very red now. ‘Very well. If that’s what you want. So be it.’

Looking around for an amendment. In vain. Even to Merrily, the idea sounded simple and unpretentious, reflected the identity of the village and would look good on posters. Why waste time?

‘Old Cider’ was passed by three votes to one. Councillor Garrod Powell, as the only official local politician there, did what local politicians did best and abstained. Hostile looks were exchanged.

Oh God, Merrily thought, it’s going to be that sort of committee.

She was suddenly depressed. Was this how Alf Hayden had started out: dutifully attending all the bitchy little meetings, wondering how God wanted him to vote? Wondering, after a while, if God was really concerned one way or the other. Village life: the cradle of society, or just a shallow pond across which Jesus surely would never have bothered to walk?

Tyres crunched the cinders under the window.

‘Richard, I imagine,’ Cassidy said, as if it didn’t matter any more, as if he’d washed his hands of them all.

Merrily had hoped Coffey wouldn’t show. After what Jane had told her, she needed a bit of time to think about Wil Williams, minister of this parish 1668 to 1670. She needed to consult a few people. If James Bull-Davies was in a decisionmaking mood tonight, she might be pushed into a corner on the issue of whether the local Church should be actively involved and allow its premises to be used for the resurrection of a seventeenth-century minister apparently hounded to death by his own parishioners.

Her first dicey decision. Sitting directly beneath the No Smoking sign, Merrily ached for a cigarette.

Back at the Black Swan, Jane watched National Lottery Live on TV, alone in the tiny, half-panelled residents’ lounge, and almost began to understand why her mother had gone into the Church.

The bloody lottery. Look at them all, whooping and squealing with every number drawn. Was this what the human race had come to – naked lust for money, mob greed?

Greed. Well, of course, Dad had been greedy. No getting around that.

Poor bloody stupid Dad.

For nearly two years, she’d kept a secret picture of the wreckage. Secret from Mum, that is. Mum having tried to shield Jane, at eleven, from the worst of it. No local papers had been allowed into the house that week.

But Dad’s car was such a horrific mess, like a screwed-up ball of newspaper, you could hardly tell it had ever been a car, that the picture had made it to a couple of the nationals. She’d cut it out, hid it under her mattress.

The picture froze her up inside, but she’d forced herself to bring it out every night before she went to bed and she’d stare at it and stare at it, knowing he was still in there when the photo was taken, like shreds of meat in a burger.

Dadburger.

With added Karen. Fragments of Dad and Karen all mixed up, intermingled: flesh around flesh, bone to bone, tissue on tissue, sinews intertwined. More together than they could ever have been in life. More intimate than Sean Barrow had ever been with Mum. Karen had him totally at the end and for ever and ever, and it would be convenient to think that this was what had driven Mum into the arms of God. Only it wasn’t that easy, it had been coming on for quite a while before that. The impenetrable paperbacks, the long walks, the tedium of evensong, the voluntary work at the Christian Youth Centre. Creepy.

‘Ah, here you are.’

A powerful whiff of musk made Jane spin round in her chair, and there, in the doorway, was the glamorous Ms Colette Cassidy in her teenage-hooker dress. Glancing at the TV, smirking.

‘Yeah, they said you were an intellectual. Want to come for a drink?’

‘More than my life’s worth,’ Jane said frankly. She hadn’t been Mum-less in a bar since the infamous running-away incident in Birmingham, since the creepy counselling session.

‘I didn’t mean here,’ Colette said. ‘We could go down the Ox.’

Jane was reluctantly impressed. The Ox was this tiny, seedy pub, flickering with gaming machines on the corner of the alleyway leading to the public toilets.

This was a test, wasn’t it?

‘Your mother isn’t going to get away from that meeting this side of eleven,’ Colette said. ‘My old man’ll see to that. Gives you a couple of hours, at least.’

‘I don’t know.’ Jane was thinking fast, too fast, feeling flustered. Street cred on the line in a big way here.

Colette tossed back her dark-brown hair like an impatient, thoroughbred pony. She had this scintillating diamond nose-stud. Could you get away with that at the Cathedral School, or was it a weekend thing? Must be a pain to keep taking it in and out. Worthwhile pain, though.

‘And if you’re worrying about word getting back to the Reverend Mummy,’ Colette said smoothly, ‘I think it’s fair to say that the clientele of the Ox aren’t known for religion.’

‘Especially on the morning after Saturday night, I suppose.’

‘You got it.’ Colette smiled her sophisticated smile, fifteen going on thirty-five.

‘It’s a bit close to the village hall.’

‘Live dangerously,’ Colette said.

Jane stood up, no option.

‘Am I late?’

Not actually sounding as if he cared one way or the other, the playwright slid his briefcase across the table, shed his jacket, spidered into a seat. A single motion. Richard Coffey was all motion.

‘Not at all’ Terrence Cassidy gathered his papers, and his dignity, to his chest.

‘Yes,’ James Bull-Davies snapped.

This was unnecessary, Merrily thought. Uncalled for. But nobody appeared to have heard him. The lord of the manor had been eclipsed. There was a powerful new energy in the meeting.

‘Er, Richard ...’ Cassidy half-rose, ‘I’d like to introduce our new vicar, Merrily Watkins.’

‘Charming name,’ Richard Coffey said.

Merrily had never seen him up close before. He was, she thought, almost shocking. Had the taut, muscular body of an ageing ballet-dancer, at the stage where staying fit was becoming painfully obsessive. His lean, pocked face vibrated with colours and textures, divided into pulsing segments like a portrait by Lucien Freud or Francis Bacon, full of life and personal history, a history, you would have to conclude – even if you hadn’t heard the stories – of sensual excess.

She was fascinated and wasn’t aware of how long she’d been staring at him until the vacuum of silence around them was popped by a discreet chairman’s cough.

‘Mustn’t waste time.’ Terrence Cassidy tapped his pen on the table. ‘You all know Richard as one of our most celebrated contemporary writers for both the stage and television. He’s now living, part of the time, at Upper Hall Lodge, and naturally we’re glad he chose our village as his weekend retreat.’

‘My feeling now is that it chose me,’ Coffey purred diffidently.

Merrily saw James Bull-Davies gazing at the ceiling. Envisaged words in a bubble above his head. Tiresome bloody poofter, something like that. He’d be seeing rather more of Coffey than any of them; Upper Hall Lodge was, of course, at the bottom of his drive and used to be occupied by generations of Bull-Davies gamekeepers.

Cassidy nodded. ‘I’m sure that’s true. And we’re all delighted at Richard’s plan to use the Ledwardine Festival to premiere a major new drama illuminating a rather ... rather unfortunate episode in our history. Unfortunate, but ... but fascinating. Ah, at the moment, apart from its general theme, I know no more than any of you about the project. Which is why I asked Richard along tonight to tell us as much as he feels able to divulge at this stage of the, ah, creative process.’

‘Thank you, Mr Chairman.’ Coffey fluidly opening his briefcase and extracting a file of papers. ‘I should, however, say from the outset that the prospect of staging a complete production, with a full cast, here in late summer, early autumn, is not really a viable one.’

‘But, I ...’ Cassidy fought for balance, the rug sliding from under him. Merrily saw Dermot Child perk up.

‘However – calm yourself, Terrence – what I do have in mind will be very much an event in itself. A re-creation, in the original setting, which I think could be absolutely electric. Will not only, I believe, lay a ghost, clear the name of a good man, but effectively solve a three-hundred-year-old mystery.’

‘Oh. Is that all?’ Bull-Davies said sourly.

Yes, it would upset him, having his village’s history mined for nuggets of controversy by the celebrated interloper who’d turned his one-time gamekeeper’s lodge into a less-than-discreet second home. Had he, Merrily wondered, seen The Crystal Dungeon, Richard Coffey’s controversial TV play about a reclusive earl’s incestuous relationship with his sister and their persecution by an evil butler?

Coffey didn’t even seem to recognize the big, tweedy person as the owner of the rundown heap at the top of the drive.

‘Anyway,’ he said smoothly, ‘I propose to outline my idea and then leave you to discuss it amongst yourselves. If it bothers any of you, I’m sure one of the other villages—’

‘No!’ Cassidy looked helpless. ‘I mean, tell us, Richard. Tell us.’

‘Wil Williams.’ Coffey slid on half-glasses, spoke with precision. A man with nothing to prove and no time to waste on dissent. ‘I take it we’re all conversant with the brief facts.’

Merrily was able to nod. Thank God for Jane.

‘Williams became rector here in the late 1660s. We don’t know how old he was when he arrived. We think late twenties. His friend and neighbouring cleric, the poet Traherne, in a letter to his brother Philip, describes Williams as fair-haired, youthful in appearance and exuding a kind of perpetual joy.’

‘Traherne.’ James Bull-Davies was scornful. ‘Chap never had a bad word for anybody. Walked around in bloody cloud-cuckoo-land half the time. Wrote as if he was on something.’

‘One could argue at some length with you there. But this is not the occasion. I think no one would deny Williams was a man who loved the area and exulted in his ministry.’

Bull-Davies shrugged impatiently. Merrily wrote down, Traherne, feeling a bit ignorant. Traherne had been mentioned briefly at college as a major literary precursor of Wordsworth and Blake and one of the greatest Christian mystical poets, but she actually didn’t know that much about him or his work. Fairly reprehensible, really, considering he’d been rector of a parish not ten miles away.

‘As I understand it,’ Dermot Child said, ‘it was Traherne who more or less secured the Ledwardine post for Williams. Then buggered off.’

‘It’s never been proved that Traherne had a hand in the appointment of Williams,’ said Coffey. ‘Although, as you say, it is a theory. Certainly the two knew each other before Williams came here, possibly at Oxford. You say “buggered off" ... Traherne certainly appears to have lost touch with Williams when he left the area in 1669. We know of no correspondence, and it seems unlikely that Traherne knew of the subsequent persecution. Perhaps because Williams made a point of not telling him.’

‘Not telling him he’d been accused of bloody witchcraft?’ Child leaned over the table, hands clasped together. ‘Man’s life was on the line. Surely, he needed all the support he could get. Traherne had good contacts by then – chaplain to this fellow, er ...’

‘Sir Orlando Bridgeman, one-time Lord Keeper of the Great Seal for Charles the Second. Yes, Traherne could perhaps have helped him, had the charges quashed. But Williams didn’t seek Traherne’s help. Why? I see that question as crucial’

Merrily said tentatively, ‘It seems incredible to me that a minister of the Church could find himself accused of witchcraft, even then. I know that was a fairly paranoid period, but ...’

Coffey glanced at her, twitched a smile.

Merrily said, ‘You’re going to say he was fitted up, aren’t you, Mr Coffey?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘On what basis?’ Bull-Davies said sullenly.

‘Well,’ Coffey eased from his case a photocopied document. ‘Let’s look at the evidence. In September 1670, Williams was accused of “consorting with sprites”. What do we mean by sprites?’

Silence.

‘Spirits of the dead?’ Child offered finally. ‘Evil spirits?’

‘I think not,’ Coffey said. ‘The only specific evidence handed down to us is a statement by one Silas Monks, a tanner—’

‘The only evidence that remains,’ Bull-Davies said. His eyes were hard.

‘—who tells us that, while returning to his holding from the inn one night, he saw Williams in the orchard next to the churchyard, cavorting under the fruit-laden trees with an unspecified number of “vague and slender persons ... whose forms shone palely in the moonlight”.’

He paused, presumably to allow everyone to draw individual conclusions about this. Merrily thought of what Jane had said about the seventeenth-century equivalent of a dirty video, and a slippery, silvery image floated into her mind. She felt herself blush.

‘Well, good for him.’ Dermot Child laughed lightly, as if to dispel what Merrily sensed was a thickening fog of discomfort around the table.

‘But it wasn’t, was it?’ Coffey said. ‘On the alleged evidence of this presumably drunken tanner, and the resulting rumours, Wil Williams was visited and formally accused of witchcraft by a delegation including a Justice of the Peace, the local schoolmaster and, ah ...’

A chair’s metal legs scraped on the wooden floor. James Bull-Davies stood up, eyes reduced to black slits in a big, darkened face.

‘I’m leaving. I’ll be in the pub. Call me back when you’ve heard enough of this shit.’

‘James ...’ Cassidy coming to his feet in a panic.

Bull-Davies didn’t look back.

8

The After-hours Social Club

‘IT’S LIKE I’VE walked in on her and she’s having sex or something, you know? I’m like, Ooops, sorry. Backing out of the room, kind of all gooeyed-up inside. And then she tries to talk to me about it, which makes it worse.’

Jane was sweating. She drank some more cider to cool herself down. The cider was quite sweet and very soft. Never had it before. Amazing. You could actually taste apples.

‘Can’t handle it,’ she said. ‘Talk about a cross to bear. Just embarrasses me to bits.’

It was really dark in the Ox. Dark like a church. And hazy, so that the red and green and orange lights in the old slot-machines hung in the gloom like the small panes in the corners of stained-glass windows. Which was what had reminded her, brought up the awful image of Mum wearing out the knees of her tights.

Colette was unimpressed. ‘At least praying’s quiet. My mother shouts a lot now. Shouts at my old man, shouts at the cleaner and the cook and the waitresses. I don’t mean bollocking them, just being loud. Asserting herself. It’s one of her new words. Assertive. She went on this course for it. Kind of menopause training – when you start to lose your looks, make sure you get on top in bed kind of stuff.’

Jane didn’t contest the issue. Everybody knew Colette’s parents were a first-division pain.

‘You just have to accept,’ Colette said, ‘that one way or the other they’re going to embarrass the piss out of you. It’s what they’re for. At least yours is youngish.’

‘And paranoid. She’s convinced I’m gonna make the same mistake. Like get pregnant before I’m twenty. Doesn’t realize how everything’s changed. Like with condoms. Her day, you had to sneak into chemist shops wearing a false beard or something. Now they’re hanging on Christmas trees. Anyway, I’m never going to get pregnant. Nobody with any sense of responsibility these days wants to dump another kid on the heap.’

‘You should get her to put a condom machine in the church porch,’ Colette said. ‘That’s where it all happens.’

‘Yeah. And have them handed out with the prayer books!’

And they both broke up laughing and clutched at each other, and Jane thought, Hey, this woman is really OK, you should never judge people by their parents.

‘Another one.’ Colette stood up. ‘You got anymore money?’

Jane found the last fiver in her jacket pocket. Colette was getting the drinks because she looked the older, at least twenty-five, although she was only a few months older than Jane, coming up to sixteen and able to do It legally – be no fun any more, she reckoned. Woman of the world.

And one day ... Jane leaned back against the scratched oak settle, which was kind of like a pew. Feeling pretty dreamy actually.

But aware that some of the guys at the bar were sneaking little glances at her. Even if one of them was this oozing gumboil, Dean Wall, a year over her at the high school. Dean and his mates played three-card-brag on the bus, big men. When they’d sidled over once tonight, Colette had taken no crap at all, told them to piss off back to their homework, and they’d slunk off, laughing, although you could tell they were really feeling stupid. One of them said something to Colette now, as she turned away from the bar with the drinks, white dress rucked up to her thighs, and she turned and raised a contemptuous middle finger and the boy laughed, but he was blushing too, under the sweat.

‘Virgins.’ Colette put down their ciders. ‘Got virgin written all over them.’ Except for the ones who’ve done it with sheep.’

‘That’s not really true, is it?’ Jane drank some cider. ‘I mean you hear all these jokes—’

‘Of course it’s true! This is the country. You only have to look at that Dean Wall, his eyes all wide apart. Even looks like a sheep.’

‘Maybe his mother was a sheep.’

Jane looked over at Dean Wall, and his eyes were actually quite a long way apart and also his upper lip seemed to overhang the other one, like a sheep’s did. She spluttered over her drink. Couldn’t remember how many they’d had; must be the fourth, good job it was only sweet cider. She mopped her mouth and then the table with her handkerchief. The table seemed quite a long way below her and wobbling, and she kept missing the puddles.

She remembered something important. ‘Hey, what did that bloke say to you this afternoon?’

‘What bloke?’

‘In the sports car?’

‘Oh, yeah, right. Not bad, was he? Bit old. He just said was it too late to get some lunch, and I said it was and he said maybe he’d come back for dinner, would I be there, the way guys do. What were you doing with little Lol?’

‘Oh. Just, like ... checking out the shop. Weird.’

‘Sad. Lol’s mega-sad. Lucy doesn’t need anybody to look after the shop on a Saturday, she’s just trying to bring him out, introduce him into the community. Gives him nice poetry to read.’

‘Huh?’

‘Like with mental patients? They don’t lock them away any more, they let them out on the streets. The way there used to be village idiots?’

‘You’re saying he’s mental?’

‘Sort of. He had a breakdown. Actually, he used to be a sort of pop star, way back. Well, very minor. I mean, like, tiny.

Pop star ...?

‘Like, he was in this band and he wrote songs for other people.’

‘Like what?’

‘I don’t know, do I? It’s way back. I’m not interested. I only listen to dance music’

‘Why’d he have a breakdown?’

I don’t know. He lost his girlfriend, but I’m not sure whether that was before or after or maybe the reason she walked out on him. They never looked right together, she was taller than Lol for a start. And then she left him for ... Oh ... in fact, for him.

Colette nodded towards a big guy in a tweed jacket, with leather patches, and khaki-coloured trousers. Jane recognized him at once, course she did. Why, it was ... it was ... Jesus, what was up with her?

‘James,’ Colette said. ‘The anachronism. Hey, anachronism. Not bad after six glasses.’

Six? ‘What?’

‘Bull-Davies. He’s this kind of throwback. Family used to be lords of the manor. They say he’s got a seventeen-inch ...’

What?

‘Maybe it was seven. Oh, shit. He’s on the bloody festival committee, isn’t he?’

Jane blinked blankly.

‘Means they’re out, Jane. Yes? Got it? Committee-meeting over? Reverend Mumsie on the loose?’

‘God, wazza time?’ Where was the clock? Didn’t seem to have one at the Ox. Hadn’t been here that long, had they? Then again, it seemed like hours, days ... ‘Oh, shit. This is the problem when you have to share a suite with your mother. Can’t sneak in, can’t sneak out. We’d berrer go.’

‘Finish your drink first. You paid for it.’

Jane didn’t really feel like it, but at least it was only cider and went down quite easily. Trouble was that when she stood up, she couldn’t. Well, couldn’t stay up. Sank back into the settle and didn’t want to move again. All the little red and green and orange lights dancing like the fairies on wires in Ledwardine Lore.

‘Oh no,’ Colette said. ‘I can’t believe it.’

‘Wassup?’ Over the other side of the bar she saw Dean Wall and his mates nudging each other in a kind of soupy haze.

Colette wore a big, ice-cream grin. ‘You are completely pissed.

‘I’m not! You can’t get pished on cider.’

‘I can’t believe it. You poor little sod. Come on, Janey, we’ll make a discreet exit. Just like hold on to my arm.’

Jane raised herself up again and Colette threw a surprisingly capable arm around her waist. She was already a good mate, Colette. You needed a good mate in a new place.

‘Don’t look at Jimmy Bull, Jane. Don’t look at anybody. And for Christ’s sake don’t throw up on me.’

Silence hung over the four of them for quite a while. The festival chairman, the musician, the councillor, the new vicar.

‘Well,’ Garrod Powell said slowly. ‘If he wasn’t a witch, what was he?’

He looked genuinely puzzled.

Richard Coffey opened out his hands. ‘I shall let you deliberate at your leisure. Suspect I’m overdue for an early night. Country air rather hits one after a couple of weeks in town. I’d ask you, of course, to keep the details to yourselves until we’re ready for the publicity.’

‘Of course. Thank you for coming, Richard.’ Cassidy’s face was glazed. ‘I’ll call you tomorrow, if I may.’

‘Make it Monday.’

‘Of course.’

‘Well,’ Dermot Child said when they heard Coffey’s tyres spinning brusquely on the gravel. ‘It’s quite funny, really.’

‘Is it?’ Cassidy said weakly, covering his eyes with the fingers of both hands. ‘Is it funny, Dermot? I don’t think it is. I think it’s going to cause a lot of trouble. I think it’s going to split the village and I don’t see what we can do about it.’

James Bull-Davies had not returned. Perhaps, Merrily thought, that was as well.

‘He could, of course, be right,’ she said hesitantly. ‘About Wil Williams. It makes a lot of sense.’

‘It makes perfect sense,’ Dermot said. ‘But it doesn’t make it into a happier story with which to climax the festival and put Ledwardine on the national tourism map.’

‘I suppose it might become more of a ... a sort of shrine. To a certain kind of martyr. If you see what I mean.’

‘And how would the Church take that, Vicar?’

Merrily shrugged uncertainly. ‘These days, no problem. I suppose. It’s politically correct. Plus, it removes the ancient stain of Satanism or whatever.’

‘Just, just ...’ Councillor Garrod Powell beat a small, agitated tattoo on the tabletop, ‘just let me get this absolutely right. What our friend Mr Coffey is suggesting is that he uses the church for a performance featuring his ... companion ... Mr Stephen ...’

‘Stefan Alder, Rod,’ Cassidy said through his fingers. ‘Alder, as Williams, will appear in the pulpit before a capacity congregation to formally defend himself against the charges of witchcraft levelled by his parishioners.’

‘The delegation of local bigwigs will lay out the various charges, one by one,’ Dermot Child said. ‘Witnesses will be called, including the drunken tanner, Silas ... Monk? Monks? And Williams will reject all the accusations of consorting with sprites, giving the simple explanation that, although he is a fully committed Christian and renounces the devil and all his works, he is also ...’

‘A homosexual,’ said Councillor Powell. His voice was flat. ‘That’s right, is it?’

Child sighed with mischievous pleasure. ‘Yes, it is, Rod.’

Councillor Powell thought about this for nearly half a minute before he said, ‘So what this play’s gonner be implying is that the people of our village – that’s our ancestors ... our ancestors, not Mr Coffey’s ancestors – drove this young man to his death ...’

‘... in a frenzy of post-Restoration queer-bashing,’ Child said. ‘Also – I wasn’t entirely sure about this, but the impression I gathered was that the slender persons shining palely in the moonlight will turn out to have been not necessarily local youths corrupted by Williams, as much as—’

‘Careful,’ Cassidy said.

‘Sorry, did I mean converted? Not so much having been converted by Williams, as having conspired together to display their bodies in his churchyard, thus tormenting the poor bloke beyond the point of human endurance, until he chased them into what is now your orchard, Rod, and—’

‘What I thought.’ Powell’s face had closed right up. ‘I think I’ve heard enough.’

Taking a stand at last, from which he’d not be swayed. Of course, Merrily realized, he was a magistrate. If it was happening today he’d be in that stern delegation of local bigwigs.

‘And I would have to say, as your elected local government representative, that, in my view, this is a very sick idea. Gonner rake up stuff as shouldn’t be raked up.’

Idea being the operative word, Rod,’ Child said. ‘Coffey’s using the Williams story to make a political point. In The Crucible, Arthur Miller employed the Salem witch trials as a parable reflecting McCarfhyism. Coffey’s turning Wil Williams into a gay icon. There’s really no evidence at all that Williams was gay.’

Merrily’s liberal instincts began to nudge her. ‘You’d rather he was a devil-worshipper?’

Dermot Child regarded her with a lopsided smile. ‘I do believe you’re starting to smoulder, Vicar.’

Merrily scowled.

‘What I would rather ...’ Rod Powell was on his feet. He made quite a distinguished figure, the only one of them in a suit and tie. ‘... is that this whole damn business went away.’

‘Well, it won’t,’ Cassidy said. ‘So let’s not get it out of proportion. At the end of the day, we’re being given the opportunity to present a significant work of art by a distinguished writer.’

‘With an axe to grind, Mr Chairman.’ Rod Powell thumped the table. ‘An axe to grind.’

‘Well, perhaps ... But isn’t that what worthwhile art is all about?’

‘Then let him grind it somewhere else, sir. Not in our church.’

‘I rather think that’s up to the Church itself to decide, don’t you?’

They all turned to Merrily.

‘Hey, don’t look at me, I’m only the vicar. I’ll have to consult ... somebody.’

‘And your conscience, Mrs Watkins.’ Rod Powell’s voice was low and quiet but somehow carried all the resonant menace of Dermot’s auld ciderrrrr.

The village hall went ominously quiet after this. Until Terrence Cassidy said gently, ‘Merrily, I rather think you may find, at the end of the day, that this will be your decision.’

Well, thank you, Mr Chairman. How was she supposed to react? Come over all spiritual and lofty, tell them she’d pray for guidance and hope they’d all do the same?

Garrod Powell looked distant, Terrence Cassidy anguished. Dermot Child gave his vicar a sympathetic smile, but his eyes were bright with anarchic glee.

‘Er ...’ Merrily reached for her bag. ‘Anybody mind if I have a cigarette?’

Before Colette pushed her out of the pub door, Jane glanced over her shoulder and saw the slug Dean Wall and his mates frantically gulping down their lagers.

‘Shit,’ Colette said. ‘Move, you silly cow. Listen. When we get outside, we go right. Got that?’

Jane’s legs felt like somebody else’s legs.

‘Jane ... You listening to me? I’m not dragging you up the street, past all the houses. Those low-lifes’ll be trailing after us, making smart remarks, and it’ll be all round the village before breakfast, and you’ll never get out at night again.’

‘Legless.’

‘What?’

‘Leg ...’ All the times she’d heard the term and never once thought about what it really meant, and now she knew.’... less. I’m leglesh!

It was suddenly the funniest expression she’d ever heard.

‘Jesus wept,’ said Colette.

The spring night air was lovely and warm. Softly lit by a wrought-iron lamp over the pub entrance and overlooked by crooked black and white gable-ends, the cobbled alley was intimate and story-book romantic. Ledwardine by night: wonderful. Jane stood there, gazing up at the stars, feeling suddenly, amazingly, more absolutely at home than she’d felt anywhere they’d ever lived and that was a lot of places. Another lantern hung across the entrance of the alleyway, orangey, alluring, and she glided towards it.

‘Not that way. Right.’ Colette tugging her back across the cobbles. ‘Follow your nose.’

Meaning the horrible, acidy pong from the public toilets at the end of the alleyway. The proximity of the dirty-brick toilet-block spoiled the idyll, and the smell killed the atmosphere stone dead. Obstinately, Jane turned her back on it.

‘Why can’t we go—?’

‘Shut up!’ Colette’s hand came down over Jane’s mouth with a slap. ‘They’re coming out.’

Jane was shocked into silence. She swallowed, feeling unsteady inside. Colette took the hand away from her mouth and used it to haul her past the cracked gents sign, up some steps, on which Jane stumbled, and then it was soft underfoot and suddenly really dark.

‘The old bowling green, all right?’ Colette said. ‘We cut across here, over to the footpath, round by the churchyard, out of the church close and we’re back on the square.’

‘Ingeniush,’ Jane said thickly. She looked up. The sky was brilliant, the stars huge and blotchy like Van Gogh stars. Actually, everything was bigger and blotchier.

‘All right?’ Cocky voice from just a few yards behind them. ‘Need any help, do we, ladies?’

‘Shit.’ Colette pulled Jane across the grass. ‘Duck.’ Branches grazing her head. ‘Not a word.’ Colette tugged her down behind the trees. She fell back into the grass, lovely and soft at first. Closed her eyes and everything turned into a big, waltzing fairground ride, which wasn’t so pleasant, so she opened her eyes and sat up, feeling kind of damp and clammy and wishing she was in bed in the Black Swan.

‘You all right, girls?’

‘Danny Gittoes,’ Colette hissed into her ear. ‘If he knew where we were he wouldn’t keep shouting.’

‘He’s not so bad.’ Jane recalled a lanky, slow-moving character who played the trombone in the school orchestra.

‘Keep your bloody voice down. Not so bad sober. Not so bad on his own. Bunch of them at closing time, you don’t get involved. Bad news. I got caught once, never again.’

‘Thought you were a woman of the world.’

‘You do it on your terms, Jane. Not theirs. Never theirs. Besides, if Gittoes was mine, you’d get Wall. Up against the back of the toilets. Fancy that, do you?’

‘Yuk.’

‘Right. So shut up. Come on, on your feet. There’s a path. We get to the churchyard we’re all right.’

‘You wanner come to a party, girls?’ Danny Gittoes called out, further away now.

Colette sniffed. ‘Very small party, I reckon. Hold on to my arm, Jane, this bit’s muddy.’

Danny Gittoes bawled out, ‘Bring your mother, you wanner.’

The ground was harder underfoot; they’d found the path. Danny Gittoes was lumbering about, a good twenty-five yards behind.

‘Give ‘er some holy communion, I would. Any day o’ the bloody week.’

‘I rest my case,’ Colette murmured. ‘Scumbag?’

‘Scumbag. Least he’s on his own.’

‘Yeah, but that worries me a bit.’

Jane felt cold now. She was glad to see the big, black hulk of the church thrusting through the trees and bushes like a liner on a dark ocean, stars drifting around the steeple. Another hundred yards and they’d be out on the square and the only problem then would be slipping quietly into the Black Swan and looking like she’d just been for a meditative stroll. Best thing, before going up to the suite, would be to pop into the downstairs Ladies’, slap some cold water on her face. Although the chances were Mum would be too stressed up over tomorrow’s sermon to notice much.

‘Wow.’ Jane leaned into the rough stones of the church wall. She felt like they’d walked miles. ‘I think I got cider a bit wrong.’ When she closed her eyes it felt like she was falling through the wall. ‘Jesus.’

‘Yeah, well, we all have to learn.’ Colette patted her shoulder. ‘Come on, Janey.’

‘Sorry.’ Jane blinked a few times and straightened up. ‘I ... you know ... I just ...’

Becoming aware that Colette’s hand hadn’t left her shoulder. In fact it had gone into a grip.

‘Shit,’ Colette said. Jane turned quickly; the sudden motion made her queasy.

‘Evening, girls.’

He was leaning up against the wooden lych-gate. Dean Wall. The sheep-shagger.

‘Very clever,’ Colette said in a bored voice. ‘Do they call that a pincer movement?’

‘Told ’em about the party.’ Danny Gittoes came up behind. ‘At the club.’

‘What you on about?’ Dean said. ‘Oh. Right. The ole after-hours social club.’

The only good light was pooled around one lamp on the corner of the close, where it met the square. She saw two other boys skirting the light. There was nobody else about, no cars. The olde worlde, time-warped magic of Ledwardine late at night.

The two other boys slouched into the close to join Danny and Dean, the four of them forming a rough circle around Colette and Jane. God. Big boys. Men, really. In the same way that Colette was a woman.

So why did Jane feel like a little girl? Wanting to be up in the big, safe hotel suite, warm in the glow from two bedside lamps, Mum bent over her sermon pad.

Another figure walked over from the square. ‘What’s all this, then?’

It was Lloyd Powell, the councillor’s son. He was a few years older than the others, a working farmer. Lloyd was good-looking, drove a white American truck and was considered intensely cool by some of the girls at school, possibly because he was always so aloof.

‘What you got yere, Dean?’

‘No problem, Lloyd.’

‘You girls all right? This lot bothering you?’ Like his old man, Lloyd was an old-fashioned gentleman. Pretty boring, in some ways.

Colette said lazily, ‘Like he said, no problem.’ Jane, who was starting to feel sick, was annoyed with her. Lloyd Powell could’ve stopped this, let them get home.

‘You sure?’ Lloyd said.

‘Yeah,’ said Colette. ‘The day I can’t handle hairballs like this is the day I enter a fucking closed order.’

Lloyd shrugged and strolled back to the market place. Jane suspected there were going to be times when she wished Colette’s sass-quotient was not so far off the local scale.

Still, she did her best to sound cool.

‘So like where’s the After-hours Social Club?’

Colette Cassidy sighed. Dean Wall grinned. He really was huge and had big muscles. You saw him heaving around great sacks of potatoes and stuff at his father’s farm shop on the edge of the village.

‘I think he means the church porch,’ Colette said.

9

A Night in Suicide Orchard

‘POOR MERRILY.’ Like a white, woolly terrier, Dermot Child followed her into the lobby of the village hall. ‘Can I walk you back to the Swan?’

Merrily unhooked her coat from the peg. ‘You can walk with me. If you’re going that way.’

‘Well ... yes.’ Child held open the metal door for her. ‘I thought I’d have a nightcap.’

Merrily locked up the hall. Double lock, big key. She had quite a bunch of these things in her bag; the vicar seemed to be responsible for the security of half the public buildings in the village. Maybe she could use a minder.

But not Mr Child. Oh no. He’d nearly become Dermot, but he was Child again now. Quite blatantly fancied her, but was not necessarily on her side. Bad combination.

‘Rod and Terry cleared off pretty rapidly, Vicar.’ Wry smile as they crossed the car park.

True enough. Rod Powell heading for the Ox, round the corner, Cassidy striding rapidly up towards the lights of the square and his restaurant, to regale Caroline with the juicy details of their dilemma.

‘A lot to talk about, I suppose,’ Merrily said.

‘Oh yes.’ Dermot Child fairly bounced along, his springy, white hair flopping. One of those volatile characters who thrives on discord, was energized by controversy. Fun to have around, but you wouldn’t trust him to the end of the street.

‘All right.’ Plunging her hands down the pockets of her new but even cheaper fake Barbour. ‘What did you mean, poor Merrily?

‘Well ...’ He gazed up the dark street, into the future. ‘Going to get the blame, aren’t you?’

‘For what?’

‘For whatever you decide. Yes or no to a witch trial in the church. You’ll be either the trendy, radical priest who cares nothing for local sensibilities or just another reactionary who doesn’t want to muddy the waters or offend the nobs. Either way, your congregation suffers. Must be hell, being a vicar.’

‘Hang on. What makes you all so sure it’s going to be me who makes the decision?’

‘Oh, really!’ Dermot Child stopped, leaned back against the railings of a white, Georgian village house, base of Kent Asprey, the jogging doc. ‘You were there when they decided.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Well, Bull-Davies buggered off – for reasons which will soon become very apparent. Then Rod Powell advised you to examine your conscience. And finally the appalling Cassidy told you very politely and sympathetically that he rather thought it was going to be your decision. How firm d’you want it? They’ve all officially copped out! Tossed the hot potato into your lap and run like hell. When it makes the papers – which it surely will – it’ll be Vicar Bans Top Writer!

‘And if I don’t? If I don’t block it?’

‘Then you’ll get – I don’t know – Vicar Backs Poof Playwright Against Local Protests ... Well, not that, obviously, but you get the idea.’

‘I see,’ Merrily said. ‘You’re saying that, whatever happens, I’m stuffed.’

‘Burden of village life, my dear. This was some suburban parish in London or Birmingham, you’d have a small flurry of controversy and then it would all be forgotten. Here ... Well, don’t be fooled by appearances. All right, post-modern ... state of the art ... the New Countryside of rich commuters, hi-tech home business people, oak beams and the Internet ...’

He motioned to a half-lit shop window. MARCHES MEDIA: Fax, photocopying, computer supplies.

‘Illusion. Surface glitter, Merrily. And only the surface changes. Underneath, the structure’s as rigid as an old iron bedframe.’

‘You seem to like it here, all the same.’ She knew he’d been a music teacher at some London college, had links with a small record label specializing in modern choral works. Suspected he’d left at least one ex-wife somewhere.

‘I know my way around, Vicar. May not sound like it, but I’m a local boy. We go back three generations. Not many, compared to your Powells and your Bull-Davieses, but it’ll do. Born here, and I suppose I’ll die here, sooner or later. As for that big, sloppy lump of life in the middle, skipping round London, Paris, Milan ... that was just time spent finding out that, in the end, it’s really better the hell you know ...’

‘Hell?’

He didn’t respond. There were eight or nine cars parked on the square, clustered under a black-stemmed electrified gas lamp. The cars included two BMWs, a Jaguar and a Range Rover. People dining at Cassidy’s or the Black Swan. The village centre, also quietly lit by uncurtained windows and the stars, looked, if not exactly smug, quite settled in its prosperity.

‘When d’you move into the vicarage, Merrily?’

‘Could be next week.’

‘Terrific. Mind you ... big old place.’

They could see, on the edge of the church close, the end gable of the vicarage and its chimneys, rising above most of the others.

‘I think I’d rather have a bungalow,’ Merrily said.

‘Oh no. God, no. That would never do. Has to be the official residence. Nice, roomy lawn for garden parties. Vicar – all right, priest-in-charge, but still an important figure in Ledwardine. Mind you, you do need a husband.’

‘Oh, really?’

‘Oh yes. Decent local man. Solid foundation. The WI will have it at the top of their agenda.’

‘Bloody nerve,’ Merrily said. ‘What is this, Jane Austen?’

‘Like I told you, the framework doesn’t change. What do you expect? You’re a very lovely young woman.’

‘Oh, please. Anyway, I’m an old widow.’

‘Ah yes.’ They’d stopped at the steps of the Black Swan. ‘Which rather got you out of a hole, I gather.’

Merrily froze.

Dermot Child dropped a hand on her shoulder. ‘Sorry, my dear. Am I being indiscreet?’

Merrily gazed across the square towards the vicarage.

‘Ted Clowes is a dead man,’ she said.

Of course, it was Colette they really wanted. The squashy lips, the provocative breasts in the white frock. Colette was the nymph, the real thing. Grown up.

This was very clear to Jane, if nothing else was. She could smell their sweat, and the heat source that brought it out was Colette.

Jane was feeling more and more queasy, and strangely separated from it all. Like they were the players and she was merely the audience. And she couldn’t alter what was happening because she was just ... well, just a kid. If she spoke, nobody would hear her. Bring your mother ... give ’er some holy communion ...

Her stomach felt horribly tight and distended. Something like liquid gas welled up in her throat and she gulped it back, clinging to the church wall. The stones felt damp and gritty. Slimy. The sweat smell was a disgusting haze.

‘Come on,’ one of them said. ‘We got a few bottles. And Mark’s brought some sweeties.’

‘Oh yeah?’ Colette said.

‘Es,’ this Mark said. ‘No rubbish, mind. Got ’em in Leominster.’

Colette looked at them, hands on her white-sheathed hips, shoulders against the church wall.

‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, doesn’t that just about show the mentality of you seed-suckers? Like we’re all going to get hyped-up in the church porch and put on our iPods and pretend it’s a major rave. Come back when you’re older, yeah?’

‘How old you like us to be?’ said the fourth boy, who’d come along with Mark who had the pills.

‘Old enough that you don’t have to hang around with kids any more,’ Colette said.

Jane was in awe of her. The boys were quiet for a moment. She could smell the beer on them, through the hot sweat. Their senses were surely too fuddled for clever repartee; maybe they’d slink off, spit a few insults from across the street then melt into the night like foxes.

But then Dean Wall said, all the humour gone, ‘Think we’re kids, is it?’

Danny Gittoes put a hand on his arm. ‘Let it go, Dean.’

Dean shook him off. ‘Fucked if I will.’

‘Please.’ Colette smiled thinly. ‘Don’t use words till you know what they mean.’

Dean took a couple of seconds to work this out, then he gave out a kind of strangled sob.

‘Right. Got some’ing to prove, do you?’

‘Not now, Dean,’ Danny said. ‘You blown it, I reckon.’

‘Come yere ...’ Dean moved apelike towards Colette. ‘Come yere, you fuckin’ clever bitch.’ Big hands clawing for Colette’s breasts. She sprang back like a cat, reared and spat.

‘Touch me once, mucus-sac, and I’ll tear your balls off!’

‘Wooooh!’ Danny Gittoes and Mark backed off in not-quite-mock terror.

But Dean didn’t. It was personal now. It had history.

‘Cathedral fucking School fucking snob. Not puttin’ out for the likes of us, eh? You’re just a slag, Cassidy. Stand outside your shitty cafe, tongue hangin’ out. You’re panting for it, you are.’

‘Well, maybe.’ Colette didn’t blink. ‘But unless you’ve brought along one of your old man’s best carrots—’

Like a sack of potatoes falling over, Dean Wall tumbled at Colette, who was spinning and hissing, too fast for him, but there were four of them, and in a second it had become a soggy blur and although Jane thought she heard a distant man’s voice shouting, ‘What’s going on down there?’ there was no sound of footsteps behind the squeals and grunts.

And so, feeling very ill, Jane went in scratching, nails raking the back of a leather jacket.

‘Nnnnnooooo!’ she screamed.

Aware, though, before it was half out, that it was going to be rather more than a scream.

That she was being sick.

Boy, was she being sick ...

‘Oh! Oh, shit! Oh, you fuckin’ little cow!’ Dean Wall was on his feet, flailing about, dripping. He no longer stank of sweat. ‘Oh, you fuckin’ disgustin’ little ...’

Dean had his jacket off and he was shaking it, gobbets of vomit flying through the air. Then he started slapping it against the church wall, screeching outrage, Danny and Mark laughing at him from a safe distance.

‘I’m sorry,’ Jane gasped, wiping her lips on her sleeve, mouth full of sourness. ‘Oh God, I—’

Then her left hand was snatched, her arm jerked savagely out in front of her and she had to start running to avoid falling over. All she could hear behind her, as she was dragged over something shin-scrapingly hard and wooden, were curses and oaths and the sound of the leather jacket being slapped repeatedly against the church wall.

‘No escape that way, you bitches.’ From a distance.

‘Up yours, slimeball!’ Colette shrieked, triumphant.

Halfway up the steps of the Black Swan, Merrily tensed.

‘What was that?’

‘Kids, I expect.’

‘In the churchyard?’ Happened every night in Liverpool; you didn’t expect it here.

‘They don’t have many places to go,’ Dermot Child said. ‘There was a plan for a big youth centre a couple of years ago. On the derelict bowling green behind the Ox. An influential lobby of local people – i.e. newcomers – managed to get it squashed. Not in keeping, you understand.’

‘Look, I think I’d better pop down to the church and see what’s happening.’

‘Merrily, look, if you were supposed to police the place, the bishop would’ve supplied you with a tazer.’ Dermot elbowed open the double doors at the top of the steps. ‘Come and have a drink.’

‘I don’t think I will, thanks. Got a sermon to go over. Dermot—’

He raised an eyebrow. She joined him on the top step, pulled the doors closed again.

‘What did Ted say about my marriage?’

He was unembarrassed. ‘Not a great deal. Don’t be too hard on Ted. I think he had your best interests at heart. Wanted us to know you weren’t just some new-broom, feminist theologian. That you’d had a bad time. Been through the mill’

‘So what, precisely, did he say?’

‘Oh, he ... he said your husband was unfaithful. That a reconciliation was out of the question. That this unfortunately coincided with your decision to apply for theological college. When it must have occurred to you that ordination and divorce were still quite some way from being entirely compatible. And then, just when all seemed lost, your husband and his, er ...’

‘Secretary,’ Merrily said. ‘As corny as that.’

‘Piled into a viaduct on ... the M5, was it? Very quick, apparently. No one suffered.’

‘No.’

‘Except you, of course. Perverse kind of guilt.’

‘Ted was talkative,’ Merrily said grimly.

‘Agonizing over whether you’d wished it on him, to clear the way for your Calling. Ridiculous of course.’

‘Sean was a lawyer,’ Merrily said. ‘I was going to be one too. A barrister. We met at university. We were very idealistic. We were going to work for people who’d been dumped on but couldn’t afford proper representation. Batman and Robin in wigs.’

‘Very commendable.’

‘Sure, but most young lawyers start out like that. It doesn’t last. Certainly didn’t for Sean. He changed his mind, became a solicitor, joined a practice I didn’t care for, then went solo. As for me, I hadn’t even finished the first year before he got me pregnant. Sorry. Unchristian. Before I got pregnant.’

‘You could have resumed, though, couldn’t you? Something happened to turn you away from the law and, er, towards the Lord?’

‘Ted didn’t tell you about that?’

‘He didn’t tell me any of this. Look, let’s go in the lounge bar, get a couple of single malts, and—’

Merrily smiled and moved delicately past him through the double doors. ‘Goodnight, Dermot.’

Jane was aware of sitting in grass, in absolute darkness, wiping her mouth on a tissue she’d found in her jacket, her brain about six miles away and still travelling.

‘Oh God. Oh God. I’m dying.’

‘You ain’t felt nothin’ yet, honeychile.’ Colette’s smokey tone drifted comfortably out of the blackness at her side. ‘You wait till tomorrow.’

‘Where are we?’ Jane sat up.

‘Hey, nice one, Janey. Men these days are so particular about their clothing.’

‘I couldn’t help it.’

‘Don’t spoil it. Jesus, that was so funny.

‘You could have been raped.’

‘Those hairballs couldn’t summon a decent hard-on with a year’s supply of Playboys and a splint.’

‘Well, messed about then. Oh yuk.’ Her mouth and throat felt rank.

‘Yeah,’ Colette conceded. ‘Maybe messed about.’ She sounded very high, not fully in control.

‘Where are we?’

‘Where they won’t come.’

Jane put out a hand. Touched something cold and knobbly. ‘Come on, where are we?’

‘Relax. It’s a good place.’

‘It’s Powells’ orchard, isn’t it?

Orchard ... apples ... cider. She felt sick and closed her eyes, leaning back against the scabby tree trunk. Never again, never, never, never.

‘Yeah,’ Colette said. ‘It’s the Powell orchard.’

Jane took a gulp of clean night air. ‘Why’s this a good place? Why won’t they come here?’

‘They won’t come in. They’re shit scared, Janey.’ Colette raised her voice. ‘Scared of ... old Edgar.

A swish of bushes. Jane opened her eyes, looked up and couldn’t see any stars. She could make out the shape of Colette’s white dress now. Just the dress.

You see? They’re there, all right. Four brave country boys. You there, slimeball? But they won’t come any further. Because’ – her voice rising to a kind of whoop – ‘we ... are under Edgar Powell’s tree!’

Jane sat up rapidly, inched forward on her bottom, away from the tree trunk.

‘The Apple Tree Man,’ Colette said. ‘The old king of the orchard. I often come here.’

‘On your own?

‘No, with the Cricket Club. Of course on my own!’

‘Aren’t you scared?’

‘You mean of the ghost of Edgar Powell? Well, actually— Hey, listen, all of you, listen – He’s been seen, OK? He has been seen. I heard some people whispering about it in the restaurant. Old Edgar Powell, the headless farmer. All aglow and hovering about nine inches off the ground.’

‘No. Stop it.’ Jane giggled and shuddered simultaneously. ‘You’re making that up.’

‘Sort of a grey light around him, from his feet to his neck. Situation is that his mind was going before it happened and he doesn’t know why he did it to himself. Doesn’t know he’s dead, probably. So he just walks around the orchard. He Walks. Plod. Plod. Plod.

‘Colette,’ Jane said. ‘Shut up. Would you mind?’

‘You believe in ghosts, Janey?’

‘No.’

‘Does the Reverend Mummy?’

‘I don’t know. But I do know the Reverend Mummy’ll be out of her mind with worry if she gets back and I’m not there, so I think we should get moving.’

Colette laughed.

‘It’s not funny,’ Jane said. ‘It’s her big working day tomorrow, up at five-thirty. She’s going to kill me.’

Colette said, ‘This grey light, it’s from his feet to his neck, did I just say that? Just his neck. No head. Now where could his head be? I know. Look up. Look up, Janey!’

Jane looked down. She didn’t want to think about Edgar Powell. Instead, she found herself thinking of Wil Williams, poor lush Wil, coming out here on a lovely spring morning to hang himself. Oh God ... a night in Suicide Orchard. Goosebumps started forming on her arms.

Colette said slowly, ‘You look up ... into the branches ... and maybe there’s this wizened old face. Grinning. Gappy old grin. Eyes like grey holes. Most of his chin blown away, though. In these very branches, just over where we are.’

‘Shut up!’

‘Go on ... have a look.’

‘Sod off.’

‘Just a little glance, Janey.’

‘Don’t be stupid.’

‘You can look through your fingers if you want.’

‘I don’t want. I want to go home.’

‘I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts.’

‘Leave me alone.’

‘Don’t go all fractious on me, Jane. This is fun.’

‘It’s not.’ Jane hugged herself and tried to see the shapes of apple trees. Or anybody behind one. ‘They’re not here at all, are they? Dean Wall and Gittoes. They never followed us. They’ve gone to get cleaned up.’

‘I don’t know,’ Colette said. ‘Why don’t you take a chance on it? Get up and just walk away, and pray they don’t ... grab you!’

Jane screamed. Colette had seized her from behind. Her arms were very cold.

‘Go on, Janey! Edgar will protect you. He’ll put his old mac around your shoulders. Squeeze you tight.’

Stop it!’ Jane felt tears coming.

‘Look up. For me. Just look up, once. And then we’ll go.’

‘OK. There. Now can we—?’

‘You didn’t look up.’

‘I did!’

‘You didn’t, Janey,’ Colette said lightly.

‘All right!’

With Colette’s cold arms around her, Jane looked up.

10

Mistress

THE KNOCKING ON the door had Lol rolling on to his side on the rug, where he’d been reading Traherne’s Centuries. Bringing his knees up, like an embryo in the womb – he was aware of that and ashamed, but he didn’t move all the same.

But what about his breathing? If you put your ear right up to the thinly curtained glass you’d surely be able to hear the ragged, terrified pumping of Lol’s lungs. He tried to slow his breathing; it nearly threw him into a coughing fit. He choked weakly.

At least you couldn’t see much through the curtains. He’d been outside and tested it out, creeping like a burglar through his tangled front garden. All you could see was the glow of the lamp, and that was OK, because people often left lamps on when they were out, for security. So he could be out, could be down the pub drinking with his mates. Except that if you knew Lol, you’d know he wouldn’t have any mates and was too shy to go in a pub on his own ... full of people he didn’t know ... but they all knew who he was. People laughing.

Thump. Rattle. Batter.

He didn’t move. Reciting Traherne in his head. You never enjoy the world aright till you so love the beauty of enjoying it that you are covetous and earnest to persuade others to enjoy it ...

If he let Karl in ...

Karl would have a bottle with him, maybe two, and they’d still be drinking when the sun came up on a new and ominous day.

... and so perfectly hate the abominable corruption of men in despising it, that you had rather suffer the flames of Hell than willingly be guilty of their error. There is so much blindness and ingratitude and damned folly ....

Batter, batter batter. Almost frantic. Someone losing it.

Karl wouldn’t do that. Not at this stage. Karl stoked his rages slowly, with finesse. Karl laid detonators, timed his explosions.

Not Karl? A cautious relief began to seep like warm oil into Lol’s clenched-up muscles.

‘Lol! For Christ’s sake!’ A woman’s voice, and batter, batter, crash.

He stood up shakily, shuffling into his sandals. In the hall, he switched on the bulkhead light on the outside wall before he opened the front door and Ethel the cat streaked in between his legs as though she’d absorbed some of the agitation radiating from ...

... Colette Cassidy.

‘For fuck’s sake ...’ Colette’s face was full of fury and reminded him of Alison. Except Colette was fifteen years old and she was on her own, in a skimpy white frock, and it was late at night. ‘What were you bloody doing, Lol?’

‘Sorry. I fell asleep on the rug. Is there something wrong?’

She stared at him in despair, a bit like the way Alison used to stare at him. Disappointed that he was all there was. He found that look, under the circumstances, almost comforting, but he didn’t want her here at night. He had to get rid of her.

‘You’ve got to help me,’ Colette said, and it was an instruction, not a plea. ‘She’s going on about little lights in the tree.’

Within five minutes, Merrily was back downstairs, edging into the lounge bar, peering over heads and into every corner. The low-beamed room was mellow with buttery lamplight and soft laughter. Well-dressed, well-off couples relaxing after dinner, not many locals.

Except, of course, for Dermot Child, on his own on a stool at the bar, accepting what must be his second Scotch from the morose manager, Roland, and brightening visibly when he spotted Merrily. She went right up to him, wasn’t going to tell the entire room.

‘Dermot, you haven’t seen Jane?’

‘Is she supposed to be here?’

‘Certainly not. She’s supposed to be in our suite, watching TV.’

‘Perhaps she’s just popped out for a walk.’

Merrily shook her head. ‘We have this agreement that she never goes out alone at night without I know precisely where and when.’

‘But this is Ledwardine, Merrily.’

‘That’s a pretty stupid thing to say. Didn’t a teenage girl go missing from Kingsland last year? Oh, look, I’m sorry, I’m just getting ...’

‘No, no.’ Dermot put down his glass. ‘You’re right, of course. No one can be too careful these days. Let’s go and find her.’

‘Sorry. Hysterical mother. It’s just that she knows I have to get to bed at a reasonable time on a Saturday night. She’s rarely intentionally thoughtless, if you see what—’

‘ We’ll find her.’ He took her left hand in both of his, pressed it. ‘Hold on to that malt for me, would you, Roland?’

‘I’ll be closing in twenty minutes, Mr Child.’

‘You drink it then.’ Dermot was on his feet. ‘Come along, Merrily.’ Steering her into the oak-panelled passageway. ‘Now, have you checked the residents’ lounge?’

‘And the public bar. And the snooker room. She’s definitely not in the building.’

‘Can’t be far away. Not into badger-spotting or anything like that, I take it.’ Hustling her out into the porch.

‘Nor bats, nor owls. I don’t think...

Down in the square, a couple got into a Range Rover and four youths played drunken football with a beer can on the cobbles. Dermot said, ‘She have a boyfriend?’

‘No one since we came here. Been a couple in the past. Nothing too intense. As far as you can ever tell.’

‘Must be a difficult age.’

‘Every age is a difficult age.’

‘Including yours? Sorry!’ Dermot clapped a hand to his head. ‘I’m sorry, Merrily. And please believe me, I didn’t mean to pry earlier. We just want you to be happy here. We know how lucky we are to have you. Old Alf ... I mean, he’d just been going through the motions for years. Just being there. Church is like the Royal Family. Needs more to survive these days than just being there. Needs motion.’

‘Motion?’ From the double-doorway of the porch, Merrily was scouring the square. Please, Jane ... ‘Don’t know about motion. Sometimes I think I’m struggling just to stay upright.’

‘You’re doing fine,’ Dermot Child whispered. ‘You have absolutely nothing to worry about.’

And she felt his arm around her waist.

‘We’ll keep you on your feet,’ he said.

She didn’t speak. She didn’t freeze. She was the vicar. He was the organist.

He was the best organist in the county, the presumptuous little bastard. She contemplated moving towards him, looking deep into his eyes. Then bringing up her right knee and turning his balls to paste.

Instead, she said, ‘Who’s that, Dermot?’ And walked steadily out on to the steps.

Dermot followed her but didn’t touch her again. ‘Wouldn’t you know it?’ he said.

James Bull-Davies walked out of Church Street on to the square. He walked almost delicately, like a wading bird, long legs rigid, neck extended.

‘Been in the Ox,’ Dermot said. ‘Drinks socially in the Swan, but when he’s serious about it, he’ll go to the Ox. He’ll stand at a corner of the bar, by himself, and hell sink one after another, cheapest whisky they’ve got, until his eyes glaze. Happens two or three times a year. He isn’t an alcoholic. Just needs to do it sometimes, to keep going.’

‘Keep going?’

‘He hates it here,’ Dermot murmured out of the side of his mouth. ‘Haven’t you realized that? Hates what he is. Or what he feels he has to be. Would’ve stayed in the army, the old man hadn’t keeled over. Probably be a brigadier by now, but like poor bloody Prince Charles, he’s got to keep going.’

Bull-Davies was in the centre of the square, looking over the parked cars, peering at each one individually, like a crazed traffic warden.

‘Coffey’s play brought this on?’ Merrily wished James would just go away; whatever his problems were, they weren’t as immediate as hers.

Dermot lowered his voice. ‘I don’t know many details of the Williams affair – mostly pure legend, anyway, I’d guess. But I’d be very surprised if, among that long-ago lynch mob at the vicarage, there wasn’t a Bull or a Davies.’

Oh God. Merrily stiffened. Remember poor ...

‘Never trust the Bulls,’ she whispered.

‘Who says that?’

‘Miss Devenish. On the night of the ... wassailing. Just after she had that row with the Cassidys.’

‘Didn’t go to that thing. Couldn’t face it. Too cold. What did Miss Devenish say?’

‘ “Never trust the Bulls. Remember poor ... poor ... Wil.” Of course.’

‘Old gypsy’s warning, eh?’

‘Never thought about it from that moment to this. I suppose what happened a few minutes later rather ...’

‘Woman’s insane, of course,’ he said. ‘Never forget that.’

‘Oh?’

‘Bonkers. And embittered. Used to write children’s books, but nobody’ll publish them any more. Roald Dahl, she wasn’t.’

Enjoying himself again. Trying to work his way up to another arm around the waist. She’d have to do something, couldn’t put up with months, years of this. She could deal with it. Would deal with it. If she could just find Jane.

‘Also feels threatened,’ Dermot said. ‘Mostly by the Cassidys because they want her shop to extend their restaurant. Well, partly that and partly because Caroline feels the Devenish emporium’s cheap and tacky and not in keeping with the sophisticated image they’re after. Every so often they’ll make the old girl an offer. How she can afford to keep refusing is beyond me, because that little shop’s doing next to nothing.’

‘That’s sad.’ Merrily moved as far away from him as she could get without falling off the damned step. ‘Jane went in there today, she—’

She stopped because she didn’t want to explain why Jane had gone to the shop and also because James Bull-Davies had kicked over a litterbin.

‘Fuckers!’ he roared. ‘Bloody fuckers?

He slipped and went down on one knee.

‘Fuckers,’ he said in a normal voice. Then laughed, picking himself up.

Evidently unaware of Merrily and Dermot Child, he leaned against the metal lamp-post beside the market cross and peered down Church Street, where the lights of a vehicle had appeared. The litterbin was still rolling along the cobbles.

‘Perhaps I should go down and talk to him,’ Merrily said. ‘This is my job, isn’t it?’

‘For what my opinion’s worth, Vicar, I’d seriously advise against it. He won’t be terribly civil, even if he recognizes you, and he won’t thank you for it in the morning.’

The vehicle stopped on the square, engine rattling. It was an old and muddy blue Land Rover. Alison Kinnersley jumped down. She wore tight jeans and a black shirt; her blonde hair shone like a brass helmet in the fake gaslight.

‘Come on then, my lord.’ She stood relaxed, legs apart, on the cobbles, the Land Rover snorting behind her like the stallion she rode around the village. ‘Let’s go home.’

Bull-Davies didn’t move from his lamp-post. ‘You whore. Who told you?’

‘Powell called.’

‘Good old saintly bloody Powell. Thought I saw his head come round the pub door.’

‘Let’s go home, Squire.’

‘Do you demand it?’ Bull-Davies grinned savagely. ‘D’you demand it, mistress?’

God, Merrily thought, she’s got him locked into some pathetic Brontë-esque sex play.

Alison seemed to shrug. Her breasts rather than her shoulders. Merrily felt Dermot Child quiver, and she shuddered and wanted to be almost anywhere else. But she also wanted to find Jane, and if Alison and James didn’t take their games home, she was going down there anyway.

‘Do it here, hey, my slinky, slinky whore?’ Bull-Davies rasped hoarsely. ‘Shag ourselves senseless on the bloody cobbles? Give the prissy bastards a show? Dent someone’s shiny Merc with your lovely arse?’

‘James, you’re pretty senseless already,’ Alison said coolly. ‘You’ve got ten seconds to get in before I leave you to sleep it off in the gutter.’

‘Whore.’ Bull-Davies detached himself from the lamppost.

‘Get in the truck, James. There’s a good boy. We have your reputation to look after.’ Alison sounding as if she knew they had an audience, of which James remained oblivious.

‘Reputation? Wassat going to be worth when that scented arse-bandit shafts me? You tell me, mistress. You bloody tell me.’

He walked unsteadily towards the Land Rover, mumbling morosely to the cobbles about the little, shirt-lifting, socialist scum, squatting at the bottom of the drive with his odious catamite.

‘You sold it, darling,’ Alison said wearily, as though they’d gone through all this many times before. ‘It isn’t yours any more.’

‘Man’s a piece of shit.’

‘Whatever. Do get in, Jamie.’

The Land Rover door was slammed. The chassis groaned, the engine spluttered and gagged and the battered vehicle was reversed, illegally, into the alley leading to Cassidy’s Country Kitchen and Ledwardine Lore.

‘Well,’ Dermot said after a moment. ‘I did warn you, didn’t I? The way it would go.’

But Merrily wasn’t listening; she was already stumbling down the steps.

Through the dirty wool of exhaust in the diesel-stinking air, she could see them bringing Jane along Church Street.

11

Pious Cow

‘AND IT’S A really terrifying situation to be in. I mean, you know, what on earth do we do? How can we – ordinary, fallible human beings – even contemplate making a decision which we know is going – whichever way we turn – to offend somebody?’

Pause. Merrily took a step back from the edge of the pulpit. She felt awful. The light sizzled harshly in the stained-glass windows, yellows and reds glaring out, florid and sickly. Something they never told you at college: you needed to be fit for this job.

‘What’s the first thing we usually do? We panic, of course. We just want to run away. That’s always the first instinct, isn’t it? Why me? What have I done to get landed with this one?’

You always asked them questions. You were conversational about it. Just having a chat. OK, I’m up here, you’re down there, but we’re all in the same boat really. Sometimes, you found yourself hoping one of them would stand up, join in, help you out a bit. Yeah, I take your point, Vicar, but the way I see it ... God knew, she could use some help from the punters: maybe she should hold a parish referendum: Wil Williams – Yes or No?

Coward’s way out. She swallowed. Her mouth felt like a sandpit. It was a warm, sunny, good-to-be-alive morning. She felt cold in her stomach. She hadn’t eaten, hardly slept.

‘But you know, in your heart of hearts, that running away isn’t the answer to anything ... ever. Sooner or later you’re going to have to face up to it.’

Pitching her voice at the rafters; she knew what they meant about the warm acoustic. She’d never needed it more.

Packed house, of course. Well, it would be, wouldn’t it? Sod’s Law. They were all here this morning. The twenty or so regulars, including Councillor Garrod Powell and his son Lloyd, both of them sober, dark-suited, expressionless, deeply local. Plus the occasionals – a resentful-looking Gomer Parry with his comfortable wife, Minnie. And Miss Lucy Devenish, who, according to Ted, would often walk out if the hymns were tuneless or the sermon insufficiently compelling.

Also the very occasionals, like Terrence and Caroline Cassidy (‘Sunday’s such a busy day, now – lunches and dinners, which effectively rules out both services, but we do often pop in during the week for a few minutes of quiet time’).

In addition, the never-seen-here-befores: Richard Coffey in a light brown velvet suit, with his wafery friend Stefan Alder, flop-haired and sulky-eyed, in jeans.

And the totally unexpected-under-the-circumstances: James Bull-Davies, frozen-faced and solitary in the old family pew. Well. Merrily leaned over the pulpit, hands clasped. This one’s for you ... Jamie.

‘So what do you do? The pressure’s building up. You’re starting to feel a bit beleaguered.’

Two messages had been on the answering machine she’d fixed up in the room; must have come in while she was out there trying to locate Jane. Terrence Cassidy: ‘Perhaps we could arrange a small chat, Merrily. Would you call me?’ Councillor Garrod Powell: ‘A word or two might be in order, Vicar, if you can spare the time. I’ll be in church as usual tomorrow.’

Bull-Davies wasn’t looking at her. He had his arms folded and his legs stretched out as far as they would go in the confining space between pews. He faced the door which led to the belfry. Just about the last place he’d want to go if the inside of his head was in the condition it deserved to be after last night.

‘Rule One: don’t give in to pressure. Rule Two: collect all the information you can get, listen to all the arguments, seek out independent people who might have an opinion or a point of view you hadn’t thought about. Try to step back and see it from a different angle.’

Dermot Child, thankfully, was out of view from the pulpit. He’d be smiling to himself on the organ-stool, half-concealed from the congregation, the only one of them who knew just how little time she must have had to put this one together.

‘And then ...’ Merrily said. ‘Well, you know what I’m going to say next, don’t you? You’re thinking what else can she say, in her position?’

She focused on Miss Devenish, who fearlessly met her eyes.

‘Because of what I am, I’m going to tell you there’s only one place you can go for help. But I’m also saying it because, to me, it makes perfect sense. You could take your dilemma to the United Nations, the House of Lords, the European Court of Human Rights, wherever ... and all you’d wind up with is a whole stack of reports and lists of precedents and Green Papers and White Papers. Bumph, in other words. Take you a couple of months to wade through it, and you’d be no wiser at all, just a whole lot more confused. And the decision would still be yours.’

Miss Devenish smiled, the old witch doctor’s face crinkling, the side of the mouth tilting wryly up to the eagle nose.

‘So why not put it all on Him. That’s what He’s there for. The best advice it’s possible to get. And absolutely free. Go into a quiet place ... the middle of a field, your bathroom – or come in here, if you like. Sit down, you don’t have to kneel, or you can walk about if you want to. However you feel relaxed. But put that question. Tell Him it’s urgent. Tell Him you’d like an answer as quickly as possible.’

Merrily gathered her props together: Bible, Prayer Book, clipboard, felt-tip pen.

‘And I’m prepared to guarantee,’ she said crisply, ‘that you’ll get one.’

Outside, when it was all over, nobody mentioned the sermon. To most of them it would have been routine stuff. But, during the ritual shaking of hands by the porch, there were discreet approaches from those who ought to know what it was about.

Councillor Garrod Powell mumbled, ‘Got my message, did you, Vicar?’

James Bull-Davies coughed. ‘Need to talk, Mrs Watkins. Problem is, never know where to find you.’

Caroline Cassidy, dark-suited and pearled, turned imploring eyes on Merrily, took both her hands, whispered, ‘I’m so, so sorry about what happened last night. Girls of that age ... We must talk this over, as parents. Soon.’

Merrily put them all off. Explaining that it would be a bit chaotic this week because they were moving, at last, into the vicarage. So if whatever it was could possibly wait, she’d be delighted to offer them coffee there – once she had a table to put the cups on.

Buying time.

But not from Miss Devenish, thoughtful enough to make sure she was the last to emerge from the church. She wore a wide-brimmed straw hat and her summer poncho, Aztec zigzags.

‘So what are you doing this afternoon?’ Merrily murmured.

‘Go for a walk, shall we, Mrs Watkins?’

‘Whatever suits you.’

‘Two stiles on the edge of the churchyard, yes? Not the orchard one, the other one. Three o’clock?’

‘Fine,’ Merrily said. It would give her a couple of hours for that long, meaningful mother-daughter discussion.

‘Oh, and don’t bring the child, will you?’ Miss Devenish said. From behind her, Richard Coffey honoured Merrily with a distant smile and a minimal nod.

Jane looked up.

‘I was just a bit tired.’

‘You bloody well deserve it. And the headache. And the nausea.’

Jane rose abruptly from the corner of the bed, staring angrily out of the window at the sun-splashed square.

‘Did I say I had a headache? Did I say I felt sick?’

‘You threw up enough last night. I could smell it.’

‘That’s not fair.’

‘Jane,’ Merrily said, ‘do me the courtesy of not trying to bluff it out.’

It wasn’t meant to be like this. Returning from morning service, Merrily had made a point of changing out of her cassock, dispensing with the collar, putting on jeans. It was going to be one-to-one. Mother and daughter. Friends, even. The long, meaningful chat dealing frankly with important, practical subjects.

Like (i) cider. A few facts: it was unexpectedly cheap, went down very easily but was also usually over seven per cent proof, which was approximately twice the alcohol content of beer. Bottom line: cider gets you pissed before you know it.

And like (ii) Colette Cassidy: a difficult, spoiled girl, with a weak father and a neurotic mother. Appeared sophisticated – probably been wearing make-up since the age often – but it was all superficial. According to Ted, who had a friend who taught at the Hereford Cathedral School, Colette’s worldliness was not balanced by any great intellect.

So the message to Jane, who only yesterday had loftily professed herself more mature than her contemporaries at the high school, was: don’t think you can learn anything from Colette Cassidy. Be your own woman.

And don’t get pissed again.

She’d left Jane to sleep through the morning undisturbed, asking Roland, the manager, to hold off the chambermaid until tomorrow because the poor kid was ill. No, nothing to worry about, just a mild stomach upset.

And what should have been a shattering hangover.

So where was the damned hangover?

Christ, she needed Jane to feel bloody awful for the whole of Sunday. It was part of the lesson: you got drunk, you went through hell next day, you were chastened. Time-honoured pattern.

The great, wonderful pang of anger and relief last night, when she’d discovered what had happened. When Jane had appeared in Church Street, supported by Miss Devenish and a smallish, long-haired guy she hadn’t seen before, with the guilty party, Colette Cassidy, trailing sullenly behind. All right, it wasn’t convenient, it had lost Merrily most of a night’s sleep, but it was one of those things which had to happen one day. God – her first time with excess alcohol had been much worse; it had involved boys, and she’d been lucky not to ...

Anyway. Calm yourself, woman. People react differently, that’s all.

She turned back to the bed. ‘What about some lunch?’

‘I’m not hungry,’ Jane said tonelessly.

Well, fair enough. Merrily could remember a whole day of hugging the pillow, between Paracetamols.

But it wasn’t like that, was it? The kid was lying on her bed quite relaxed, almost serene in her white nightdress. Which she must have changed into this morning, because she’d gone to bed in that old Pulp T-shirt.

‘Cup of tea?’ Merrily offered desperately.

‘No, thanks. I might get myself one later.’

‘Jane ...’ She sat down again on a corner of the bed. ‘I’m sorry to labour the point, but you’re sure there were no men ... no boys ... with you?’

‘I told you, we got rid of them.’

‘They didn’t follow you? They weren’t around when you ... lost consciousness?’

‘Oh, Mother ...’ Jane closed her eyes. ‘Your generation thinks everything has to do with sex. I had too much to drink, I went to sleep—’

‘You passed out!’

‘Yeah, all right. But when I woke up I felt ... well, good, actually. Yeah, good. But nobody touched me. They couldn’t ... get near.’

Jane looked faintly puzzled, then it passed.

‘I’m fine,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry about this, but I’m really OK.’

Merrily breathed in, counted slowly, lips tight. One ... two ... three ... four ... five.

‘I have to go out again,’ she said.

Jane stood at the window, watching bloody Mum cross the bloody square, heading towards the bloody church, where bloody else, the pious cow?

She walked experimentally around the room. She didn’t fall down. Legs felt like her own legs again. She felt good. She hadn’t been bluffing, hadn’t been taking the piss. She’d had a good night’s sleep.

She shrugged.

She had a swift shower, towelled her hair and got dressed.

She still felt fine.

She padded down the oak staircase and out into the square without, thank God, meeting anyone who might accuse her of having a drink problem. The only problem was she couldn’t recall very much of what had happened. The last she remembered with any clarity was being on the right track for losing her virginity to bloody Dean Wall or one of his spotty mates in the church porch.

Colette had got them out of that, although she couldn’t quite remember how.

Good old Colette.

Jane slipped into the cobbled alley. Cassidy’s Country Kitchen was closed after the Sunday lunch crowd. There was no sign of Colette. Jane wandered down to Ledwardine Lore, which was also closed. She stood at the window, looking in at all the apple curios. It seemed like months since she’d gone in there and the very odd but quite nice Lol Robinson had asked her to mind the store because of the guy he wanted to avoid. Weird. And then there was the story of Wil Williams who’d hanged himself and was buried in the orchard.

The orchard! Jane pressed her forehead into the cool glass, Colette’s voice drawling in her head.

Old Edgar Powell, the headless farmer. All aglow and hovering about nine inches off the ground.

Oh God, yes. She remembered running away from the Wall gang and then she was lying in some grass under branches and

... gappy old grin. Eyes like grey holes ... these very branches ... Look up, Janey ....

Colette was taunting her, just like she’d taunted the boys. Colette’s voice harsh and sly. Sassy, superior Colette.

Look up.

And had she? Had she looked up, with Colette and then Dean Wall and Danny Gittoes and somebody called Mark coming out of the bushes to stand around and laugh themselves sick?

Good old Colette? Bollocks.

Feeling really hot and embarrassed now, she glared resentfully at the shuttered facade of Cassidy’s Country Kitchen, seriously bloody glad now that Colette wasn’t there. In fact, she never, never, never wanted to see that bitch again.

She turned and ran out of the alley and into the square and stood there panting, confusion giving way to a sense of being horribly stupid and, worst of all, really, really young.

Luckily it was Sunday. Soporific Sunday afternoon, and nobody to laugh at her humiliation. Even the Black Swan closed its bars on Sunday afternoons, and there were only a couple of cars parked on the square. Jane stood in the middle of the road, at the top of Church Street, staring at her shadow on the cobbles.

Wondering how she could ever have felt at home here.

The yellow Toyota sports car came out of nowhere – well, in fact, out of Great Barn Street, which linked Church Street to the B-road to Hereford – and had to swerve to avoid splattering Jane all over the market cross.

Brakes went on, a window glided down. ‘Tired of life, are we, darlin’?’

Jane sniffed, put on a smile. ‘Sorry.’

‘Ah ...’ She saw a beard enclosing a very white smile. ‘It’s you again.’

It was the man from the shop. The man who was not dealing drugs, who accidentally crushed fairies and frightened Lol. Yellow Toyota – of course.

He said, ‘So you don’t know anyone called Lol Robinson, huh?’

‘Oh,’ Jane said. ‘Well, I do now. I just didn’t know his name at the time. I’m quite new around here. I know who he is now.’

‘I described him to you, sweetheart, and it still meant nothing. How do you ...? Oh, never mind. Would I be chancing my arm if I were to ask you where Blackberry Lane is?’

‘It’s up there. See that funny little building in the square? Just go up the side, to the left, and it’s this really narrow little lane. You’ll have to go a lot slower than you did when you came round that corner or you’ll wind up under a tractor or something.’

‘Thanks.’

The window went up; Jane watched the car move off. She hadn’t really wanted to help him, but he would have found out anyway. She supposed Lol lived up there, and now he’d get a nasty surprise.

He had a breakdown. Actually, he used to be a sort of pop star, way back. Well, very minor. I mean, like, tiny.

She’d forgotten that. And Colette saying Lol was megasad. And ... and ...

And she’d seen him again. She’d been in his arms. Carried in his arms. Oh God, he’d brought her home last night!

And now she’d shopped him to this bastard.

The Reverend Mum was right, as usual. She’d got pissed and left a trail of disaster. She had a lot of apologizing to do.

12

Sympathetic Magic

A WISPY BREEZE plucking at her poncho, Miss Devenish climbed, without much effort, to the top of the knoll. With her back to the sun, the big hat pulled down, she loomed over Merrily like some ancient warrior chieftain.

‘You’re never alone in the countryside, Mrs Watkins. It’s the most intimate place. The poet Traherne knew that. When he walked out here, Traherne knew he was inside the mind of God.’

Below them, nearly a mile away down the long, wooded valley, the village of Ledwardine lay like an antique sundial in an old and luxuriant garden.

‘The core of the apple,’ Miss Devenish said. ‘The orb. Traherne was always talking about orbs and spheres. Understanding that he was at the very centre of creation.’

‘Suppose he’d lived in some filthy city.’ Merrily looked down on the lushness of it all. ‘Or a desert somewhere.’

‘Wouldn’t have mattered. The man was a natural visionary. He instinctively picked up the pattern, the design. Before Wordsworth, before Blake, he stood here and he saw.

Merrily sat down on the edge of the green knoll, her legs dangling over a mini-cliff of rich, red soil. ‘How do you know he stood precisely here?’

‘I don’t.’ Miss Devenish smiled enigmatically. ‘And yet I do. He would’ve walked here with his friend Williams, to see the best view of the village.’

Because of the hedges, freshly greened, you couldn’t see the roads; you couldn’t see the cars and vans and tractors, only hear their buzzing.

‘So much country,’ Merrily mused. ‘Even inside the village.’

‘Still, thank God, an organic community. In spite of the best efforts of those who’d turn it into a museum full of horse-brasses and warming pans. And supposedly authentic ceremonies’ – darkness entered Miss Devenish’s voice – ‘which belong elsewhere.’

Merrily looked towards the church. The sandstone steeple stood proud, like the gnomon of the sundial, but the graves were all hidden by trees and bushes. The churchyard, more egg-shaped than circular, was partly enclosed by the orchard which, from here, had a deceptive density. Had the church once been entirely surrounded by apple trees?

‘Indeed. The heart, Mrs Watkins. And the blood it pumped was cider.’

Along the hidden road, a heavy lorry rumbled, the landscape seemed to tremble and her mind replayed the deepened voice of Dermot Child. Auld ciderrrrrrrrrrr ...

‘Yes.’ Merrily pulled herself together. ‘And talking of cider ...’

‘I can’t tell you what happened to the child.’ The old girl scrambled gracelessly down from the top of the knoll and came to sit beside Merrily. ‘And if I tell you what I think might have happened, I’m afraid our embryonic relationship might well be aborted.’

‘Don’t like the sound of that.’

‘Laurence phoned me,’ Miss Devenish said. ‘The Cassidy girl had arrived at his door.’

‘That’s ... Lol?’

‘I do so hate slovenly abbreviations. Gaz. Chuck. Appalling. Laurence Robinson helps me in the shop. His is the nearest cottage to that end of the orchard. The Cassidy girl was somewhat distressed – well, as close to distress as that madam’s capable of getting. Told Laurence your daughter had drunk too much and passed out in the orchard. The two of them brought her back to the cottage. Which was where I first saw her.’

‘She was conscious by then?’

‘I wonder,’ said Miss Devenish, ‘if she had ever been, in the strictest sense, unconscious.’

‘Meaning?’

‘She’d apparently been sick. Before she apparently passed out. My distant memories of such things tell me it’s usually the other way about.’

‘Was she coherent?’

‘Perhaps.’

Merrily took a deep breath. ‘Miss Devenish, she’s fifteen years old. She has no father, she’s had to change schools rather a lot, and ... well, she’s very intelligent, but rather less sophisticated than she thinks she is. Last night she was with a girl who seems to me to have been ...’

‘Been around. Yes.’

‘They seem to have been ... pursued ... by some boys. What I’m trying to get at is, when you found them, did you see any suggestion of ... of ...?’

‘Hanky-panky? No, Mrs Watkins. I don’t think you need worry on that score.’

‘Thank you. Next question. I don’t know how much cider she drank, but it was enough to knock her over. The first time I got drunk – not that much older than Jane – I spent most of the following day wanting to die. Jane slept like a baby and woke up with absolutely no trace of a hangover. So I wondered ... I mean, the word is, Miss Devenish, that you know a thing or two about herbal medicines. And things. I just wanted—’

‘My assessment of the situation tells me,’ said Miss Devenish, ‘that you wanted her to suffer.’

‘Well ...’ Merrily averted her eyes. ‘Let’s say I wanted her to regret it.’

‘Well, of course,’ said Miss Devenish, ‘you’re a Christian, and Christians are reluctant to believe that any significant lesson can be learned without suffering.’

‘And what are you, Miss Devenish?’

‘Labels!’ The old girl glared at her. ‘Why should one always have to be a something? Traherne was a Christian, but with the perceptions ... the antennae ... of a pagan. But I’ll not be drawn into that sort of argument. I’d prefer us to remain on speaking terms. You want to know how your daughter could get horribly inebriated on copious draughts of rough cider and come out of it without a king-size hangover, and I’m trying to give you a possible explanation without offending your religious sensibilities.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Merrily lay back against the knoll. ‘I’m not some fundamentalist bigot, honestly. Go on.’

‘What we used to call sympathetic magic. You’ll probably think this whimsical.’

‘I’ll try not to.’

‘All right. Like cures like. If you’re drunk on cider, what better place to sleep it off than an apple orchard? Crawl into the centre of the orb and curl up. Let nature do the rest.’

‘You’re right. That is whimsical.’

‘Wouldn’t work for everyone. The orchard’s a risky place, an entity in itself, a sphere. And this is a very old orchard. So it tells you – or rather it tells me – something about your daughter.’

‘I’m sorry, but what does it tell you about my daughter?’

‘I really don’t want us to fall out,’ Miss Devenish said. ‘But you would do well to trust the child.’

Wearily, Lol opened his front door.

In the brightness of the afternoon, the willow tree in the front garden dusted with gold, it was almost a relief to see Karl Windling there on the step. In person, in his denims, beaming through his beard. A moment of ridiculous anticlimax. No surprise; Karl would know Dennis would have warned Lol.

‘How the hell are you, son?’

‘I’m all right,’ Lol said tentatively. ‘How are you?’

‘Pretty good,’ Karl said seriously. ‘Pretty ... fucking ... good.’

And looked it. It was nine years since they’d last been face-to-face. Karl’s beard was evenly clipped like a hairbrush. It was probably concealing a double chin; he’d put on some weight, but only the kind of weight you needed to make work-out sessions worthwhile. He looked fitter, in fact, than he had fifteen years ago when he used to remind Lol of Bluto in the old Popeye cartoons. The difference being, course, that there was never any real, lasting harm in Bluto.

‘Hey, this is cute.’ Karl stepped back on to the lawn. He wasn’t actually that big, when you saw him. Only huge in the memory. ‘This is picture postcard. How long you been here now, son?’

‘A year. Something like that.’ Lol felt numb, anaesthetized by the new acceptance that no matter where he went, how he lived, he was never going to have the balls to control his own life.

‘Quaint.’ Karl fingered the rotting trellis. ‘Sweet little cottage at the end of a country lane. Little garden, little porch. Retirement home. Lovely.’

Lol nodded. He didn’t have to rise to it, or hide. Only let Karl see him as he really was: a small, spent force, a loser. And then Karl would leave him alone.

‘But you’re writing a bit, I hear. Few lyrics for Gary Kennedy?’

Lol shrugged. ‘He sends me tapes.’

‘You can do better than that, son. Gary’s long gone.’

‘Still writes good tunes.’

‘He’s gone, son. Washed up.’ Karl prodded a cracked plantpot with his desert boot; they must be back in fashion. ‘Look, we just enjoying the lovely country air, or are you gonna invite me in to meet your lady?’

‘There is no lady,’ Lol said.

Karl grinned in disbelief. In the old days, one of his more socially dubious pastimes had been poaching women from his friends and colleagues. He’d screw them once, rarely more than that, then give them back. To varying degrees, the friends and colleagues had found this irritating, but there was no record of retaliation.

‘You’re shitting me, son. You were always so popular with ladies. That air of helplessness brings out the universal mothering instinct. Made us all very, very jealous.’

‘That was then,’ Lol said.

‘So Dennis got it wrong.’

‘There was somebody,’ Lol said. ‘She left.’

‘Ah.’ Karl peered over Lol’s shoulder into the hall. ‘So you’re on your own.’

Lol stepped back to let Karl into the cottage. It felt like holding out your wrists for the handcuffs, baring your belly for the knife.

‘I don’t want to fall out with anyone.’ Merrily nibbled a stem of grass. She was finding Miss Devenish disturbingly easy to talk to. ‘I’m the new kid on the block, trying not to put my foot in it. But something tells me I’m on the edge of a minefield.’

‘Ah,’ said Miss Devenish. ‘Methinks the Reverend Wil Williams rears his pretty head.’

‘Perhaps, under the present circumstances, we ought to avoid words like “pretty”. Who told you about it?’

‘Anyone residing within a few hundred yards of Cassidy’s restaurant this morning would have heard the appalling Terrence beating his sunken breast. But I got the full details from Colette, as no one else seemed to be talking to her after last night. Don’t agonize about it, my dear. That’s my advice, for what it’s worth.’

‘It’s my job to agonize.’ Merrily sat up, reached for her bag. ‘Would you mind if I had a cigarette?’

‘Feel free to be human.’

‘Thanks.’ Merrily gratefully extracted the Silk Cut.

‘Agonizing.’ Miss Devenish regarded her intently as she lit up. ‘The need to agonize. That’s very interesting. I wonder, would your predecessor have said the same?’

‘Alf Hayden?’

‘Faced with any moral challenge, the dreadful Hayden would simply erect the screen of buffoonery and vacuous twittering that’s sustained the Anglican clerical tradition for the past fifty years.’

Merrily laughed, the smoke softening her up, the sun warm on her face and arms. ‘You’re a cynic, Miss Devenish.’

‘So perhaps the ordination of women will be the salvation of the Church. Women listen. Women worry. Call me Lucy. Listen, my advice, for what it’s worth, is to let it happen. Let the awful Coffey have his play.’

The face was shaded by the big hat and the eyes were invisible. The hands lay placidly where the hem of the poncho met a baggy frock splattered with sunflowers.

Merrily was cautious. ‘Why do you say that? I mean, Cassidy, for one, would be glad to hear you say it, but—’

‘Good heavens, whichever way it goes, Cassidy’s screwed, isn’t he? The festival needs Coffey for artistic credibility, but it needs Bull-Davies ... well, not for money any more, obviously, but certainly for the use of land for marquees and car parking. And also, more importantly, because Bull-Davies is the voice of the county set, and those buggers still stick together – more than ever, in adversity. Cause offence in that quarter and all kinds of barriers are erected. No, I shall enjoy watching Cassidy squirm. May even poke him with the occasional twig.’

Under the shadow of the hat, the lips twisted with a happy malice.

Merrily sighed. ‘So you think the play’s going to be valid.’

‘What?’ The hat came off to reveal a steel-grey plait in a tight coil and a fierce cobalt glare. ‘Valid? I think the whole concept is absolute cock.’

‘Then I don’t understand.’

‘Frolicking in the orchard with naked youths? Utter tosh. And yet the poor man was misjudged, I’m sure of that. Friend of Traherne’s, you see. Not a poet, unfortunately, but were his perceptions any less keen for that?’

‘So what are you saying? Was Williams a witch?’

‘Was Traherne a witch?’

‘Of course he wasn’t.’

‘Really? You’re sure of that?’

This was getting silly. ‘I wouldn’t claim to know much about him, but people who do tell me he saw God in everything.’

‘Quite.’ Lucy Devenish stood up, jammed on her hat.

Merrily followed her as she stalked down the footpath, across the sloping field towards the village. ‘You still haven’t explained ...’

Lucy carried on walking, with long strides.

‘... why you think the play should go ahead in the church,’ Merrily said, out of breath now.

‘Why? For the truth, of course. Nobody cares about truth any more. Coffey doesn’t care – he just wants to mangle history for his own purposes. Cassidy doesn’t care – he sees the past as a marketing tool. Bull-Davies cares, of course, but only about his personal heritage, his reputation. His family have doubtless been distorting the truth for generations.’

‘But we don’t know what the truth is.

‘No.’ The old girl stopped. They were on low ground now. Ledwardine had sunk into the trees so that only the steeple was visible, like a rocket waiting to be launched. ‘But when the ditchwaters are stirred, the turds often surface.’

‘Just don’t tell me,’ Karl said, ‘that you don’t miss it.’

A pigeon, disturbed, battered its way out of the hedge and flew up past the open window.

Lol was silent. Sitting in the blue chair with the cat on his knees. Being himself. A sad person.

‘Well, then?’ Karl looked around the room again, at the few cheap things in it. ‘Well?’

‘I’m doing what you said,’ Lol said desperately. ‘Not telling you I don’t miss it.’

‘Nah. You’re not being honest with yourself, son.’

Karl was leaning back in Ethel the cat’s chair, with one of the three cans of half-frozen lager Lol had found at the back of the fridge. He had his tobacco tin on the arm of the chair, the tin which had upset Dennis Clarke because it was not the drug of choice in his part of Chippenham. As he relaxed, another drug – California – had drifted into Karl’s accent.

‘This guy in LA, right? I hadn’t been there very long, and he was another Brit. Ex-para. Bodyguard to the stars now. Big bucks. We get pissed one night. I’m saying, So this is living, right? He gives me a funny look. Sour. He says, This is cruisin’, man, living it ain’t. He says, You wanna know the last time I was really alive? Port Stanley, he says. Or it might’ve been Goose Green. Back in the Falklands War, anyway. The last time his senses were really buzzing. I didn’t believe it. But like I say, I hadn’t been in Hollywood very long.’

Karl drained the can, crushed it with feeling.

‘What am I saying, son? I’ll tell you. His time in the Falklands was like our times on the road, gigging. The buzz, right? On stage, a little pissed, high on your own music, and the thought of—’

‘No! Bollocks.’

‘Listen, a year ago, I played bass for two nights with a band called APB, from Santa Monica. I was older than any of those guys, by a good twelve years. But it was still there, son. By Christ, it was there. Afterwards ...’

Afterwards. Was that what Dennis Clarke’s letter was saying in its cautious, accountantly way? Was that what had really offended the neat, suburban Mrs Gillian Clarke – Karl going on about the good old days of hot nights and tender young flesh? Lol tried to switch off Karl’s voice, summoning Traherne. Your enjoyment of the world is never right till you awake in heaven, till you ... till you look upon the earth ... no ... till you look upon the skies, the earth and the air as celestial joys ...

‘... tell you, I coulda gone on all night. Incredible. Left my brains all over the bedroom ceiling, yeah?’

Lol’s fingers tightening on Ethel’s scruff; Ethel purred. You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars ... and ... and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world ... and ...

‘... stayed in Hereford last night. This morning, I’m in Andy’s, browsing through the albums, and – I’m not kidding, son, this was like a mystical experience – these two young girls, sixteen, seventeen, black stockings, skirts up to here. Combing the racks – obviously not got a bundle to spend – pick one up, study it, put it back, have arguments. Finally, they come up with one CD. One says, Look, it’s midprice, too. Guess what it was ... Guess—’

The world ... the world is a mirror of infinite beauty yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man ...no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace ... it is ... it is ... it is ...

‘The reissue. I just wanted to kiss their little feet. Christ, if this wasn’t a sign ... They probably weren’t even born when we did that album. Their mothers had safety pins through their nipples and thought we were soft shit. Now, after all these years, we are becoming warm. Our time has come, son. It’s all turned around. Our ... time ... has ... fucking come. And I will not be deprived of it by someone whose balls are made of blancmange. You follow?’

Jane moved a little closer to the open window. Thanks to Lol’s inactivity in the garden, she was sure she wasn’t visible from the lane, but, Jesus, she’d nearly fainted when that pigeon crashed out of the hedge.

Her left leg had gone numb from crouching between the hedge and the window, but you couldn’t have prised her out of there now.

‘Just listen to me,’ Lol said. ‘Please. I can’t do it any more. I can write lyrics for other people, but I have to have that degree of separation. I can’t write them for me. I can’t marry up the tunes. I start to imagine being on stage again, I start shaking. I wasn’t any good even then. All I ever did was try and be Nick Drake.’

‘But he wasn’t appreciated then, was he? Plus he was dead anyway. Now he’s a bleedin’ icon. And you could be. We could be. Don’t even have to die.’

Karl was laughing. Lol had a distinct memory of Karl kicking his guitar over. Can’t you write anything but this wimpy shit? When’re your fucking balls gonna drop?

‘All I’m saying’ – Karl giving the crushed can an extra squeeze until it was the shape of an apple core – ‘is you give it some thought. We don’t have to go on the road. I know how that messed you up. I know we had problems.’

Problems? Problems? Oh Jesus, he was losing it. The cat, alarmed, jumping off his knee. ‘My parents didn’t speak to me after that. Ever again. My devout, God-fearing parents. Three years later, my mum died not having spoken a word to me, and my dad ... at the funeral, my dad turned his back.’

‘Listen.’ Karl didn’t want to hear this shit. ‘We’re looking at real money. And we’re older. We know how it works. I know how it works. I’ll see you don’t get shafted. Look, we do an album first. Give me six new songs, and we’ll recycle some of the old stuff. Maybe even do a couple of Drake’s.’

Lol was shaking his head so hard his ponytail was banging his nose.

‘What you got to lose?’ Karl waving a hand around the room, at the two old chairs, the table, the woodstove and the guitar. ‘The bitch obviously took you to the cleaners. Left you with the rubbish and the cat.’

‘No. She only took her clothes and a few other things. The rest I ... just got rid of.’

‘Why you do that?’

Lol shook his head. How could he explain about Traherne, the need for simplicity, the need to appreciate the real moon, the actual stars?

‘Old people do that.’ Karl’s face was an open sneer. ‘When they know they don’t have long. Tidying up. Unloading all their junk, giving away their prized possessions. Finally having to admit they can’t take it with them. Bad sign, when you start tidying up. Ominous.’

Prodding Lol, like he used to do physically when they couldn’t agree about a song or what to do after the gig. Using the word ominous. Talking earlier about a sign. No coincidence; he’d remembered that these were always Lol’s words, that Lol was deeply superstitious. Little Mr Ominous, they called him.

‘You have something in mind, son?’

Lol shook his head, too quickly.

‘Shit.’ Karl’s eyes lit up. ‘You’ve thought about it, haven’t you?’

‘Hasn’t everybody?’

‘Only you. Only you would say that. Look ...’

Karl stood up. Lol shrank back into his chair.

‘... I’ll go, all right? I’ll leave you to think about it, and I’ll try not to worry, ‘cause if you were gonna do it you’d’ve done it by now. Kurt Cobain, fair enough, he was mega, now he’s a legend. But Drake, he did it too soon. And you – you’re just ... I mean, who’d notice? Who’d give a shit? Who’d put flowers on your grave?’

A short while later, Jane crept away, wrapped in a clammy confusion of emotions.

‘There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you,’ Merrily said, as they walked back into the village, the footpath fringing the orchard. ‘It goes back to, you know, that night.’

‘Ah,’ Lucy Devenish said. ‘Twelfth Night. What a disturbing introduction that must have been to our little community.’

‘After it happened, when we were all deeply shocked and uncomprehending, I heard you whispering, I knew it, I knew it.

‘You have good ears.’

‘Not specially. What did you know?’

‘Only that someone was going to die.’

‘On that particular night?’

‘I thought it might have been sooner, but when autumn turned into winter and it didn’t happen, I began to suspect it might be something rather extraordinary. The orchard had told me, you see.’

‘Right,’ Merrily said calmly. ‘I see.’

‘Of course you don’t, and who could expect you to? I’ve been close to apples and orchards, and particularly that orchard, all my life. The apple’s the fruit of Herefordshire, its colours glow from the earth, its spirit shines out of the land. And the apples are terribly sensitive, the apples know.’

‘Know when someone’s going to die?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘I see.’

Miss Devenish threw her a glance.

‘Sorry.’

‘What you have to watch out for, Merrily, is uncharacteristic behaviour. Unseasonal phenomena.’

Several apple trees were overhanging the path, although not in a graceful way, Merrily thought. The apple was an ungainly little tree, spiky and irregular.

‘They’re going to be laden with blossom this year,’ Lucy observed.

‘That a good sign?’

Lucy sniffed. ‘Implies a big crop, but nothing’s certain about the apple. Especially this particular species, the Pharisees Red.’

‘Why do they call it that?’

Lucy smiled. ‘You asked me how I knew there was death in the wind. It’s because last autumn there was blossom. Out of season.’

‘Ah,’ Merrily said. ‘An old country omen.’

A bloom on the tree when the apples are ripe I is a sure termination of somebody’s life! pronounced Miss Lucy Devenish.

‘Classy piece of rhyming,’ Merrily said. ‘So there was blossom in the orchard last autumn.’

‘As late as November,’ Lucy said. ‘But only on one tree.’

Merrily turned away from the orchard, annoyed with herself, as a minister of God, for shuddering.

‘Before we part, my dear ...’

‘Yes?’

‘I want you to know, whatever you may have heard about me, that I have your best interests close to my heart. And if anything disturbs you ... anything frightens you ...’

‘Like what?’ Merrily saw that the old girl was no longer smiling.

‘Oh, I think I’ll wait for your specific questions. I don’t want to ...’

‘Quarrel, huh?’ Merrily said.

‘And don’t dismiss the orchard. It still surrounds the village.’

Part Two

As in the house I sate

Alone and desolate

... I lift mine eye

Up to the wall

And in the silent hall

Saw nothing mine.

Thomas Traherne, Poems of Felicity

13

The Feudalist

EARLY MONDAY EVENING, Uncle Ted took them back to the vicarage. Apart from the new sink and cupboards in the kitchen, square-pin sockets everywhere and a black hole where the monster electric fire had been stuffed into the inglenook, it wasn’t a lot different.

‘It’s still huge,’ Merrily said hopelessly.

‘Don’t worry, girl!’ Ted squeezed her arm. ‘You’ll grow into it in no time. You and Jane’ll fill this place in no time. In fact’ – he beamed – ‘the way you’ve held things together, you’ve already grown a hell of a lot over the past few weeks. In everyone’s estimation.’

‘That’s very nice of you, but it was just the honeymoon period.’

‘Nonsense.’ Ted chuckled. ‘Dermot dropped in last night to deplete my Scotch. He says you’re holding your own better than he’d imagined. Your Own Woman, he says. That’s good.’

Bloody Dermot. Bloody Ted. She wondered what else they’d discussed. Her delinquent daughter, product of a disastrous marriage to a crook?

She felt the vicarage looming behind her, huge and ancient and forbidding like someone else’s family seat.

‘Merrily,’ Ted said, ‘you’ll come to love it. I’ve been in some really awful, draughty old mausoleums, but this place has such a lovely, warm, enclosing sort of atmosphere that you’ll simply forget how big it is after a while. Especially when Jane has her Own Apartment. Eh?’

Jane grinned. Merrily said, ‘We’ll see.’

Ted vanished into Church Street, Merrily wondering when she would get to meet his widow. Jane disappeared eagerly into the vicarage. Merrily was about to follow her, somewhat less eagerly, when Gomer Parry appeared in the drive, blinking through his glasses, unlit cigarette wagging in his teeth. For a pensioner, Gomer had a surprising amount of half-suppressed energy.

‘Removals, Vicar. What you got planned?’

‘Erm ...’ She’d given more thought to how they were going to spread the stuff around to make the vicarage look less like a derelict sixteenth-century warehouse than the method of actually getting it here.

‘Only, if you en’t made arrangements, see, you don’t wanner go botherin’ with no expensive removals firm when I got a very clean truck entirely at your disposal.’

When you thought about it, it was going to be a bit complicated. ‘It’s all around Cheltenham, you see. All over the place. Some bits in store, some at my mother’s house, some at—’

‘No problem, Vicar. Couple hours’ round trip. Piece o’ piss-cake. ‘Sides which’ – Gomer leaned closer, taking out his cigarette, confidential – ‘keeps the ole truck in business, know what I mean? Minnie, her says the place looks like a bloody scrapyard, I says you never know what you’re gonner need in life.’

‘How many vehicles have you got there, Gomer?’

‘Oh, no more’n four now. And Gwynneth, the digger.’

The mind boggled; it was only a bungalow with a garden.

‘Her’s given me three months to get ’em out, see. But Minnie’s a bit more, like, you know, religious than what I am. So I tells her, if this yere plant-hire equipment is in the service of the Lord ... Get my point?’

‘Understood. Bless, you, Gomer. Look, I’ll pay you in advance—’

Gomer backed off, outraged.

‘All right, the petrol, at least the petrol. Diesel. Whatever. How many gallons – ten, twelve?’

‘Full tank in there already, Vicar.’ He looked up at the house. ‘Three floors, eh? Gonner take a bit o’ manoeuvring about. What I’ll do, I’ll get my nephew, Nev. Big lad. What day you want us? Any day but Thursday, which is Nev’s day for the cesspits. Oh, and tomorrow. Inquest tomorrow, see.’

‘Inquest?’

‘Edgar Powell. Opened back in January then adjourned. Took ’em long enough to get it sorted. Ole Edgar’ll be compost by now.’

‘You’re a witness, Gomer?’

‘Oh hell, aye. Me and about half a dozen others. Prob’ly drag on till flamin’ teatime. ‘Specially if it’s true Rod’s gonner get Doc Asprey to stand in the box and tell ’em his dad was halfway round the twist.’

‘Why would Rod want him to do that?’

‘Stigma, Vicar. No way do he want his ole man put down as a suicide. So if they got evidence of Edgar bein’ three bales short of a full stack, it’s more likely he done it by accident, see?’

‘Right.’ She did, come to think of it, remember Alf saying Garrod Powell was insisting his father hadn’t taken his own life. ‘And what are you going to tell the coroner, Gomer?’

“Pends what they ask me. All I can say is what I seen. Which is not a lot, on account my glasses got all bloodied up. But before that, I do recall as when the others put up their guns, Edgar, he just didn’t. Now make of that what you like.’

‘I suppose it’ll be a question of whether he just had a funny turn and got all confused, or ...’

‘Or he had it all worked out. Gotter say that don’t ring true to me. He wasn’t no kind of show-off, farmers en’t, as a rule. You’d think if he wanted to do away with hisself, he’d do it in the barn. Yet ... I dunno ... He weren’t daft in any respect, ole Edgar. How ‘bout Wednesday?’

‘That would be brilliant. This is above and beyond, Gomer.’

Gomer slipped his cigarette into his grin. ‘You don’t owe me nothing, Vicar, never think that. But there may be one small thing one day, just one ... How’s the kiddie, now?’

‘Oh God, does everybody know?’

‘Hell, Vicar, don’t go worryin’ about that. They all knows what that Cassidy girl’s like. Too promiscuous by half, Minnie reckons.’

‘I just hope she means precocious,’ Merrily said.

‘Aye,’ Gomer said. ‘That was prob’ly it.’

Jane stood on the first landing, looking up.

‘Hey, listen. Why don’t we just move in? Like tonight.’

Her voice echoing in the emptiness. She was still in her school uniform, the dark blue blazer, the pleated skirt. Merrily, at the foot of the stairs, felt a heart-pang of love and fear that she wouldn’t have been able to explain.

‘How can we do that? Even with Gomer’s help, it’ll be nearly the weekend before we can get all the stuff in and sorted out. Besides, with the Diocese paying for the hotel, it means we can get everything right, for once. Instead of being in the usual chaos.’

Going to be a disaster, she was thinking. You could get all their stuff, beds included, into two rooms; they’d be rattling around like two peas in a coffee tin.

‘We’ve got sleeping bags, Mum. We could spread them out in the drawing room. Get the feel of the place. Go on. It’d be fun.’

‘On those flags? Jane, you are joking.’

Jane stared down the stairs at her. ‘You don’t really want to move in at all, do you?’

‘That’s stupid,’ Merrily said uncomfortably.

All around her, doors. Above her, doors. All of them half open, to signify empty rooms. She wanted to rush from door to door, shepherding Jane before her, banging each one shut and then finally the front door, behind them, as they ran into the square and the sanctuary of the Black Swan.

‘I can tell by the way you talk about it,’ Jane said. ‘Always going on about how big it is. At the Swan it’s kind of temporary, like a holiday. In here you’ve got to face what you’re taking on. Like the full burden.’

God, the perceptiveness of this kid was frightening.

‘Come on, Mum, there’s no shame in admitting it.’

‘I just want to do it efficiently, I ...’

Did it remind her of moving from the flat into the four-bedroomed – it seemed enormous at the time – suburban villa that Sean had suddenly acquired, at an amazingly modest price, from A Client? Somewhere for her to organize, decorate. Somewhere to keep her occupied while ...

‘... I just want it all to be, you know, right,’ Merrily said.

Which, right now, seemed an impossible dream.

‘For a major-league Christian,’ Jane said, ‘you don’t half lie a lot.’

Merrily felt her face darken. The doorbell saved them both.

‘Heard you were finally taking up occupancy. Called to see if I could be of any help.’

No, you didn’t.

‘That’s kind,’ Merrily said. ‘But we’re just giving the place the once-over. We won’t be actually moving in for a couple of days yet.’

James Bull-Davies looked around the empty, dusty hall. Sniffed once, like a pointer on a heath. He’d obviously waited until Gomer Parry had gone. Damn. She’d as good as told him to leave it for a while; he was either dense or simply didn’t believe his family was obliged to bow to the wishes of anyone in Ledwardine.

‘Interesting sermon of yours, yesterday, Mrs Watkins. Wrote that after the meeting, I suppose.’

‘Didn’t write it at all,’ Merrily said brusquely. ‘Came off the top of my head, more or less. Sometimes you have to busk it.’

‘Really. Don’t recall Hayden “busking”.’

‘Perhaps he was just better at it than me,’ she said sweetly. ‘Er, I think I can cobble together a mug of tea, if you have the time. Can’t do any better than that at the moment.’

He looked down at her with suspicion. Perhaps wondering if she’d heard about him being rolling drunk in the square on Saturday night, offering to lay his concubine on the cobbles. She walked through to the kitchen, which had fitted units now but still some of the old formicaed shelves and white tiles. She wrinkled her nose. Not yet her kind of kitchen.

James Bull-Davies shuffled awkwardly in the middle of the flagged floor. She was clearly not his kind of vicar. He didn’t know what to do with her. He wasn’t even happy looking at her, preferred the ceiling.

‘Used to be two rooms, this, as I recall. When I was a boy. That section over there used to be a pantry or buttery or something.’

‘Did you come here often?’ Someone had left a tiny kettle for the Aga; Merrily filled it over the open sink, with all the pipework visible underneath. ‘I mean recently.’

‘Only when there was business to deal with. Parish business.’

Don’t offend anyone called Bull-Davies, Ted had said. The church would be rubble but for them. Strange how things changed; from what she’d heard, Upper Hall was closer to rubble these days. Not a great deal left from the old days. His divorce, presumably, had not helped. Were there children, or was that another source of pressure, the inheritance factor?

Perhaps, after the parish business had been dealt with, he’d have discussed some of his problems with Alf. As his priest, his padre. The way a man like James would never be able to do with a woman because women were mothers or aunts or sisters or you fucked them.

Merrily set the kettle on the stove. Perhaps she was wrong. ‘Sorry, there’s nowhere to sit. We’ll have to lean on the Aga.’

It occurred to her that this was the first time they’d been alone together, the squire and the parsoness he didn’t want in his village. She hoped Jane would stay out.

James Bull-Davies propped himself stiffly against one end of the big stove’s chromium bar, leaving a good two feet between them. A woman in a cassock? Perverse, surely.

Or did it secretly turn him on, like, say, the matron at his public school? Merrily suspected she would never know.

‘That sermon ...’ She squeezed the warm bar. ‘I suppose I was just stalling for time.’

‘Message seemed to be that you were going to lay the whole vexed issue before the Almighty, let him sort it out.’

‘If you want to look at it that way, yes, I suppose that’s what I’m going to do. In the end.’

‘Way I look at it,’ he said, ‘it has bugger-all to do with God. Question of honour. And responsibility.’

‘Meaning your honour, my responsibility?’

Merrily looked sideways at him, but he wouldn’t meet her eyes, stared across the kitchen, his full lips in a kind of pout. A surprisingly powerful shaft of evening sunlight brutally exposed his bald patch and put a shine on his tightly shaven jaw – he’d shaved again, before coming here?

‘Why did you walk out the other night, Mr Davies? I’d’ve thought you’d have wanted to stay and confront the enemy.’

He lowered his gaze to the stained flags. ‘Perhaps I couldn’t trust myself not to smash his smug face in.’

‘Oh, I think you could. Disciplined, military chap like you.’

He exhaled a short laugh.

‘I mean, I can see your point,’ Merrily said. ‘If he’s got to make a statement about the treatment of gay people, why use a real character who might not, in fact, have been—’

‘It’s personal. It’s political’

‘Yes. Obviously.’

‘Oh, I don’t mean poo/politics. Though obviously that’s the other chip on his shoulder. Coffey fell in love, if you like, with the village, the area. Wanted the keeper’s lodge, bottom of my drive. Wasn’t for sale, but it was empty – had to dispense with the keeper’s services year or two ago, matter of cash flow. But that’s the nearest dwelling to Upper Hall and I wasn’t letting it go for peanuts. Made him pay. Made him pay.

‘And he resents that, does he?’

‘Look ...’ Bull-Davies levered himself from the stove. ‘He wanted the lodge. I wasn’t touting. Never told him he wouldn’t have to spend a substantial amount of money on the place.’

‘Oh.’

‘Didn’t need that much to make it perfectly habitable. Of course, to turn it into the kind of perfumed brothel he wanted – I mean, the water supply was perfectly fine – nobody has to have a ... a whirlpool bath.

Merrily tried not to smile. His father would probably have said the same about hot water. ‘So it’s a personal vendetta because of what you’ve cost him. That’s what you’re saying?’

‘I think it’s a probability you should consider.’

‘That he’s written a whole play to get back at you?’

‘Hardly a whole play ... Vicar.’

‘I’m a bit lost here,’ Merrily said. ‘I don’t even know for sure why this would hurt you so much. I know your family’s well-embedded in the village, but, I mean, was one of your ancestors seriously involved in the persecution of Williams?’

Bull-Davies didn’t answer. He looked down at the flagstones and bit his upper lip with his lower teeth, which made him look momentarily feral, and it was at that moment that dear little Jane decided to stroll airily in.

‘Mum, I ...’ As if she hadn’t been listening outside the door. As if she’d had no idea there was a visitor. ‘Oh, hello.’

Bull-Davies looked at the kid and nodded. Merrily said, thinking fast, ‘Jane, if we’re going to spend the evening here, we need to eat. Why don’t you get some money out of my bag and pop over to the chip shop?’

‘They won’t be open.’

‘Yes,’ Merrily said grimly. ‘They will.’

Jane’s eyes had the mutinous look of one who’d been stitched up; she shrugged. ‘OK, then. Can I have a pickled egg?’

‘Get two.’

When the front door slammed, with a vaultlike echo, Merrily turned and faced the Squire. ‘I think we have enough time before she gets back for you to tell me what all this is really about.’

The wooden clock in the fish-and-chip shop window indicated that it wouldn’t be open for another quarter of an hour, so she’d lied again. Mum lied all the time. Like vicars had some kind of special dispensation.

The chip shop was on the corner of Old Barn Lane and the Hereford road. On the edge of the village and therefore outside the main conservation area, which probably explained why it was allowed to exist. It was still a dull-looking joint, denied the brilliantly greasy illuminated signs you found on chippies in Liverpool. Jane turned away and strolled back towards the village centre, wondering if there’d be time to nip into the Black Swan and ditch the uniform.

Circumstances dictated otherwise. As she emerged into Church Street, Colette Cassidy was walking down from the square.

Colette seemed to be studying the texture of the cobbles, and neither of them acknowledged the other until they were about to collide.

‘Hi,’ Jane said, kind of throwaway.

‘How’s it going?’ Colette wore jeans and a black scoop-necked top under a studded leather jacket. But no make-up, no nose-stud. She carried a small brown-paper bag.

‘OK,’ Jane said. ‘I suppose.’

‘Get much hassle?’

‘Bit. You?’

‘They do the motions. Uh ...’ Colette proffered the bag. ‘I got you this.’

‘Oh.’ She took the bag, surprised. It felt like a CD.

‘You were asking about Lol Robinson. That’s his last album, reissued. Well, his band, from way back. One of the guys at school bought one after she read in some magazine how this guy out of Radiohead likes them. When I saw what it was called, I thought you’d ... Anyway, it was the last copy.’

‘Oh. Wow.’ This was unexpectedly touching. ‘That’s amazing. I mean ... thanks.’

‘It was only mid-price,’ Colette said. ‘Don’t take it out of the bag, or people’ll think we’re really sad. Listen, I’m having this kind of a birthday party. My sixteenth. Friday after next. Just guys from school and one or two marginally cool people. And Dr Samedi – this DJ, who’s like really cool. Dr Samedi’s Mojomix? Heavy voodoo, Taney.’

‘Sounds excellent,’ Jane said. ‘Where’s it going to be?’

‘They’re letting me have the restaurant. Big gesture. They’ve promised to go out and stay out.’

‘Are they mad?’

‘Well, Barry the manager’ll be in charge, but he’s relatively OK. Also, it’s got to be invitation only, no riffraff, no lowlife.’ Colette smiled cynically.

‘Cool,’ Jane said. ‘If I tell Mum it’s at the Country Kitchen, no problem.’

‘Good,’ Colette said. ‘Listen. I mean, thanks for not grassing me up about what happened. Like, it was pretty shitty of me, all that Edgar Powell stuff. I was feeling moderately pissed off by then, with those tossers and everything. So, like, thanks.’

‘No problem.’

‘So you gonna tell me?’

‘Huh?’

‘What happened. Weird scenes, Janey. I thought you’d gone.’

‘Gone where?’

‘Like dead. Then suddenly opening your eyes, rambling about these kind of little lights. And then you’ve like, gone again. Coma-stuff.’

Jane felt strange. She looked behind Colette and along Old Barn Street. There was a couple of women with a pram heading down from the Market Cross, no one else in sight. She felt strange, like she wasn’t here at all.

Colette’s eyes flashed. ‘Oh, come on, Janey. Don’t tell me you don’t remember. Don’t shit me.’

‘I don’t.’

‘What did Devenish say then?’

‘She just brought me back. She was just like ... cool about it. I don’t even know how she came to be there.’

‘Lol phoned her. Any crisis, he calls Lucy. She’s like his therapist, poor little sod. He was really shit scared. Wouldn’t go in that big, old orchard in the dark without Lucy to protect him. Well, he wouldn’t go in with me. I think he’s even scared of me. You imagine that?’

Jane didn’t say anything. Colette was trying to recapture ground, saying Lol was scared of her. She decided not to tell Colette about what she’d heard under Lol’s window. Maybe the person to tell was Miss Devenish. Really needed to see the old girl, like soon.

‘I don’t know why the fuck I bothered,’ Colette said bitterly.

On the way back to the chip shop, Jane took the CD out of its paper bag. When she saw what it was called, she gasped.

‘People don’t understand. Think we’re simply stuff-shirted shits. Hunting, shooting and fishing, lording it over the peasants.’

James Bull-Davies stood up straight and still very much the army officer.

‘We merely serve,’ he said. ‘We serve our country. We serve the countryside. Wasn’t for us, the traditional landowners, place just wouldn’t look the same, wouldn’t have the same atmosphere, the same beauty, the same harmony. We’re the stewards. The custodians. We don’t have power. We have responsibility.’

It sounded very noble. It didn’t, however, sound like the man who liked to call his mistress a slinky whore while she called him My Lord. Unless, of course, that was all down to Alison and her feminine wiles, bringing out the feudalist in him.

‘I’m an army man. Understand the army. Well-oiled machine. Puts human relations, dealing with people, into some form of order. You know who you are, what you are. Most chaps like me, when they come out, go on calling themselves Colonel, as though they still have some sort of authority, as though the commoners should salute. Look in the local phone book: Colonel this, Colonel that. Pointless. Meaningless affectation. No time for it. I’m Mr Bull-Davies, now. James, to chaps I wish I’d had in the army, knock off some of the damn pretentions.’

Like Terrence Cassidy, presumably. Merrily smiled to herself.

‘I’ve no illusions.’ James paced the kitchen. ‘Wasn’t expecting it to happen when it did, wasn’t expecting the old man to keel over for another twenty years. But no getting out of it. When the time comes, you have to shoulder the responsibility and that’s that. No arguments. And you become someone else. In the army you’re what you are. No complications. Here – no getting away from it – you’re what your family is. What your family was. You have a responsibility not only to the living – the living people, the living countryside – but also to the dead. You see where I’m heading, Mrs Watkins?’

Merrily stirred the tea in the pot. ‘Army-strength?’

‘Not too strong. Civilian now. Do you know what Cassidy said to me? Came to see me yesterday. Dithering. “But, James,” he said, “this was a long time ago.” You credit that? Man’s an arsehole. Shows the state of Britain that the rural economy’s now increasingly reliant on specimens like this – bloody caterers.’

His eyes met Merrily’s for the first time. They were pale blue and showed a surprising insecurity.

‘I’m sorry if I speak crudely. You’re ... Well. Never minced words with Hayden.’

‘My last parish was in a rundown part of Liverpool,’ Merrily said. ‘The only soldiers were squaddies back from Iraq. They tended to be the more refined parishioners.’

James barked a laugh.

‘I do understand,’ Merrily said, ‘that three centuries, in the history of a rural family like yours, is not so very long.’

‘I said to him’ – James’s lower lip jutted and curled – ‘Cassidy, I said, you’ve been here about two minutes. In the past three centuries, your family – what anyone can trace of it – has probably lived in a couple of dozen different houses in God knows how many different towns. However many generations it goes back, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, this is my family. In my village. How could I possibly condone some fatuous little pageant’ – he spat out the word like a pip – ‘which seeks to demean and ridicule my heritage? Yes, the local magistrate was Thomas Bull. Yes, he was one of the party who confronted Wil Williams. Yes, he was there when they found the body. And yes, he believed the evidence. Yes, he was convinced Williams was in league with the devil and should die for it. He was a man of his time. Homosexuality doesn’t come into it, and I won’t have his memory soiled by some sordid little queer in the name of so-called art and a few dozen visiting trendies paying London prices for fancy fodder at Cassidy’s Country bloody Kitchen.’

He came up to Merrily. The stove was hot against her bottom, but she didn’t move.

‘Went along with the wassailing fiasco last winter because that was at least an attempt at reinstating a tradition. But this festival’s in danger of going the wrong way and dragging my village along with it. Realize there’s going to be some change. Even if I disagree with it. Recognize that your presence here’s part of that change.’

‘And naturally you’re opposed to the ordination of women.’

James backed off a little. ‘There are some who say it strengthens the Church. Have my doubts about that, but there’s nothing I can do now. You’re here, and you at least seem like a reasonable sort of woman, head screwed on.’

‘Thank you very much,’ Merrily said acidly.

‘But you must understand my position, Mrs Watkins. Where my family stands. We have a role. That role, regardless of how we may feel as individuals, is to resist change. It’s what we do. We defend. And so I opposed your appointment, made no secret of it. Well, all right, that battle’s lost, it’s over. You’re here. Generally speaking, under most circumstances, you can now count on my support.’

Merrily said nothing.

‘So long,’ he said, ‘as you remain sensitive to the best interests of this village.’

‘I see. And if’ – Merrily prised herself painfully from the Aga – ‘on some significant and controversial issue, we don’t agree on what those best interests might be?’

‘I really don’t think,’ said James Bull-Davies, ‘that you would ever be so short-sighted.’

‘But say there was. Say there was an issue on which your idea of what was in the best interests of the village was in conflict with what I considered to be morally and spiritually right.’

He sighed. ‘You make it hard for me, Mrs Watkins. And perhaps for yourself.’

Merrily took a deep breath. ‘You haven’t answered my question. How would you react in a situation where we found it impossible to work out our differences?’

‘All right. Depending on the seriousness of the, er, matter under discussion, I should be obliged to use what influence I have. To get you out of the parish.’

Like your wretched ancestor did with Wil Williams? Merrily didn’t say it.

She didn’t say it.

‘Thank you for your honesty,’ she said.

He nodded to her and left before she could pour his tea.

When Jane came back with the fish and chips, she found her mother white-faced and furious, hands wrapped around the chrome bar of the Aga and twisting.

‘Mum ...?’ Jane stood in the doorway, holding the hot paper package. ‘What ...?’

‘Put them in the warming oven.’ Mum’s voice was a small, curled-up thing. ‘We’ll go and get the car.’

‘Car?’

‘And the sleeping bags, if you want.’

‘We’re staying the night?’

‘Yeah. We bloody are.’

‘Oh. What changed your mind? Something he said?’

‘We’re getting our feet under the bloody table. We’re letting the good folk of Ledwardine know we’ve arrived.’

Mum’s hands had stopped twisting on the bar. She was very, very still now.

‘No more shit.’ She’d never used that word to Jane before. ‘No more shit.

14

Grown Women, or What?

TRUST NOBODY.

OK, not a very Christian maxim, but ...

Merrily dragged a bulging suitcase through the Black Swan’s porch and out on to the steps.

Remembering being in this very spot on Saturday night, in the frozen moments before the James Bull-Davies drama, when Dermot Child had so confidently slipped an arm around her waist, shortly after explaining to her how Cassidy and Powell, politicians both, had nominated her for the role of parish scapegoat.

Stitched up, sexually patronized ... and now, openly threatened.

Stuff them all.

Even less Christian. What was this place doing to her? Were all rural parishes this stifling?

Jane had already carried down a bag full of toiletries and overnight stuff, a few clothes. Merrily had stopped at reception to leave a message for Roland, the manager, who, with the approach of the real tourist season, had been mildly indicating that he could use their rooms more profitably. As a tourist venue, Ledwardine was finally taking off.

Just at the moment, and for the first time, Merrily felt like taking off too. They’d been in Ledwardine over a month, and the only resident she’d felt entirely relaxed with had been Miss Devenish. Of whom the cautious Ted Clowes had once said, Delightful old girl, may be some sort of witch. Don’t be tempted to get too close.

Plaintive music drifted across the residents’ car park, in the yard behind the inn. It was coming from the Volvo, their onetime ‘family car later spurned by Sean for something smaller and faster and, as it turned out, less resistant to impact. The Volvo still had the eight-speaker stereo with built-in CD-autochanger presented to Sean, as such items often had been, by A Client. As Merrily got in, a wispy male voice sang low and breathy over an acoustic wash.

Walked her up and down the garden in the rain.

I called her name.

She didn’t know it ...

‘Turn it down, huh, Jane.’

‘Isn’t it great? It’s like really moving. His girlfriend’s a junkie and he doesn’t—’

‘It’s OK. Sounds like, what’s his name? He killed himself – Nick Drake?’

‘Nick Drake killed himself?’

‘We had all his albums when I was a kid, courtesy of your Uncle Jonathan in his morose phase. Listen, I said we wouldn’t be back tonight, but we’d get the rooms cleaned out by tomorrow night, so that Roland can charge twice as much for them. So don’t make any other arrangements, all right?’

‘Would I?’

‘No, flower,’ Merrily said. ‘You wouldn’t. You’re my very best friend.’

‘Oh please!’ Jane made a vomiting sound. ‘You can’t be that sad!’

Merrily turned on the engine for the first time in days. All she had to do was drive out of the yard, across the square and about thirty yards down Church Street to where the vicarage drive was overhung by a weeping birch. Although she didn’t even get out of second gear, it felt like driving across some distant frontier into another country. A foreign country where no one could be trusted.

‘Oh, I can, flower,’ Merrily said.

Through the eight speakers – on the dashboard, the rear parcel shelf and all four doors – the same voice sang another song, its muted chorus concluding,

... and it’s always on the sunny days

you feel you can’t go on.

Jane picked up the CD box from the dash, running her finger down the track list as the Volvo wobbled over the cobbles. The track was called Sunny Days, and it was followed by one called Song for Nick.

By nightfall, they must have walked all over the vicarage about four times, trying to make it seem smaller. And failing, as Merrily always knew they would.

Yeah, sure, it was a big mistake, coming to camp here – a futile gesture of defiance from Merrily, a silly adventure for Jane.

They were both overwhelmed. Even small houses looked enormous without furniture. Even small, new houses. This place – without a TV set, a microwave, even a bookcase full of paperbacks – was oppressive with age. In the light of naked bulbs, the walls looked grey and damp. Upstairs, where wardrobes had stood, there were great meshes of cobwebs, big as fishermen’s nets.

‘Before ...’ Jane said. ‘Before ... it just looked big. You know what I mean?’

Merrily nodded. Freshly vacated, the house was huge and naked and dead, its skeleton of woodwormed oak exposed – the shrunken remains of trees, killed half a millennium ago, embalmed and mummified in the walls. How, with their minimal furniture, their token pots and pans, could they possibly get its blood flowing again?

‘I wonder if I’m allowed to take in lodgers,’ Merrily said gloomily. ‘Maybe one of those guys who sit in the middle of Hereford with a penny whistle and a dog.’

‘Or four of them,’ Jane said. ‘All with dogs. Barking.’

Because it was so quiet. Whether it was the trees all around or whatever, you wouldn’t know you were near the centre of the village.

After Sean’s death, before she’d gone to college, she’d sold all the fancy new furniture, the rich-lawyer toys. This is tragic, her mother had said, all these nice things ...you may find you regret it one day when you have a big house again.

I’m never going to have a big house again, Merrily had said very calmly.

‘Still,’ Jane said. ‘We’re seeing it at its very worst. It can only get better and better, can’t it?’

‘It can, flower. And it will. Look, let’s forget this idea. Mrs Peat’s coming tomorrow, the cleaner. Why don’t we let her have a go at it first? Come on, let’s go back to the pub.’

Jane hesitated. She was standing by the window in the drawing room made mauve by dull twilight through the surrounding trees. Across the room the inglenook yawned like an open tomb, its lintel two feet thick. There’d been an archaic, coal-effect electric fire in there when the Haydens were here; now it was just blackened stone, and you couldn’t light a fire because the wide chimney had been sealed off for insulation.

‘Buy you dinner, OK?’ Merrily said. ‘We could extend to that. Not in the bar. I mean in the restaurant. Those chips’ll be all stuck together by now, anyway.’

It was just stone flags underfoot, like the ones in the church but without the memorials and carved-out skulls. You could spend a year’s stipend just carpeting the downstairs.

‘What do you say, flower?’

‘No.’ Jane stamped a foot on the stone. ‘We should stay. It’s stupid to be scared of your house. Are we grown women, or what?’

In the end, they slept in the bedroom Merrily had used that first night. At least it had a wooden floor. They spread out the red and blue sleeping bags bought for a camping holiday in the Lake District, a holiday which never happened, the summer after Sean died.

It was still cold at night, especially in here. The sleeping bags were a couple of feet apart, up against the wall with the door in it. Two kids in a haunted house.

‘Isn’t it funny,’ Jane said into the darkness, ‘how, when you finally get to bed on a cold night, you always want to go to the loo?’

‘All in the mind. Which means I’m not going with you.’

‘Did I ask you to?’

‘Think of something else,’ Merrily said. ‘It’ll go away.’

‘OK.’

Silence. Odd, really; a place this old, you expected creaks and groans. Didn’t timber-frame houses kind of settle down for the night?

‘Mum ...’

‘Mm-mm.’

‘You ever know anybody who committed suicide?’

The kid had always been good at choosing her moments.

‘I can’t think,’ Merrily said. ‘Nobody close, anyway.’

There was Edgar Powell, of course, whose inquest was to be concluded tomorrow. But she hadn’t really known him, only seen him. In the last hour of the last night of his life. Go to sleep, Jane.

‘What happened to Nick Drake?’

Merrily sighed. ‘I don’t know if that was suicide or not.’

‘You said he killed himself.’

‘Well, he died of an overdose of antidepressants, so he must have taken them himself. Whether he actually intended to take an overdose seems to be questionable. He was just a sad, withdrawn young guy whose career wasn’t taking off, that’s all. It was before you were born, anyway.’

Before you were born. Another lifetime. Before Jane was born, Merrily had been almost a child. In a few years’ time, Jane would be older than Merrily had been then. Was probably already, in some ways, more mature. Over the congealed chips, she’d explained how James Bull-Davies had made her so angry, and Jane had said, If he’s so sensitive to the best interests of the village, what’s he doing shacking up with that woman?

What indeed? Merrily rolled on to her side.

‘Mum.’

‘What?’

‘If Dad hadn’t been killed, would he have gone to jail?’

God almighty. Dark Night of the Soul, or what?

‘I don’t know. It’s possible. He might just have been struck off. Wasn’t a criminal. As such. He was just frustrated and he could see people around him making lots of money in unorthodox ways. And they became his clients. You know all this.’

‘When did you find out?’

‘When it was too late to stop him.’

‘Why didn’t you leave him then?’

‘I expect I would have.’

‘And would you have still got into theological college?’

‘Sure.’

‘But would you still have been acceptable as a vicar?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Did you feel sort of ... soiled? Because we’d benefited from dirty money.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Did that make you all the keener to get into the Church? To throw yourself into it?’

‘You make it sound like a canal.’

‘Did you love him? Even when you found out he was bent?’

‘You don’t stop loving people just like ...’

‘What about when you found out about his affair?’

‘I don’t know. I hated him then, I suppose. I thought I hated him. I mean, I’m not Jesus, am I?’

‘You forgiven him now?’

‘I like to think so.’

‘If he hadn’t been killed, would you have?’

I don’t know. Would have depended on what he did next.’

‘If he was sorry.’

‘Yeah. If he was sorry. Jane, what’s all this about?’

Jane’s thin, white arm came out of the sleeping bag. ‘I just keep going back over things. Everything seems ... not real. Like a dream. I have to keep working out how we got here. Just in case this is a dream. I don’t really like it.’

Merrily didn’t know how to respond.

‘Is it because I got drunk? Is it the cider? Does it go on affecting you for days?’

Merrily had to smile. ‘No.’ She reached out and took the small, cold hand. ‘And I’m afraid this is not a dream. Janey, love, is all this anything to do with that record? The CD you had in the car. Where’d it come from?’

‘Oh. A friend gave it to me.’

‘Right.’

Merrily closed her eyes. She was determined they weren’t going to do this again tomorrow. She’d make a deal with Roland for another couple of nights, until they had their own beds in here.

‘I told you about Lol,’ Jane said. ‘It’s his old band. He was apparently very influenced by Nick Drake.’

‘Only musically, one hopes.’

Jane didn’t reply. Merrily opened her eyes and lay on her back, gazing through the long window, pondering on this Lol, about whom Jane seemed to know a little too much. A small, yellow light, as from a candle or a child’s nightlight, shone between the thickening trees from a window across the street.

Later, much later, when she awoke to a tugging on her hand, the only light through the window was from a misty quarter moon, which turned the room grey.

Damn. Why can’t she hold out till morning?

Merrily squirmed, not half-awake, out of the warm sleeping bag into the damp air. The bedroom door was already ajar and she slid cautiously through the gap. She didn’t need to do this, of course; but she knew that Jane, for all her bravado, would not like wandering alone around the not even half-known rooms of the big, empty house.

Outside, there was the passage with doors and doors and doors, and one must be the bathroom, she couldn’t remember which, only that it was a stark, sixties bathroom with a black, plastic lavatory seat and cracked tiles everywhere.

She’d left her dressing gown at the Black Swan, and it was pre-dawn cold out here in just a short nightdress, bare feet on oak boards. Across the stairs, the landing window was an oblong of flat aluminium.

‘Jane?’

The house was absolutely still. Why can’t you creak? Have you no personality?

‘Ja-ane?’

Which one was the bathroom? She opened a door; space and silence sucked at her and she shut it quickly.

A pace along the passage and she lost the moonlight. Now, there was only the faint, green spot of a smoke-alarm on a ceiling beam and the deeper darkness of doorways. She put a hand into a recess, found a cold doorknob and then drew back.

‘Jane!’

Shouting this time, but the passage swallowed it; she could almost see the short, bright name narrowing like a light down a tunnel, vanishing in no time. She was aware of a slow panic, like a dark train coming, and she grabbed the handle and turned it and the door didn’t open; perhaps this was the bathroom and the kid had locked it. ‘Jane ...

A sudden yielding, and she stumbled, the oak door rolling away into the vastness of a long, long bedroom, empty as an open field, and Merrily grabbed at the handle and hauled the door closed, turning away and finding herself facing another door and she opened that, and there was the lavatory with its seat up and caught in a frail moonbeam, making an apologetic O.

As in NO. No Jane ...

No, no, no, no, no ... She fled along the passage, all the doors closed and blank. She felt she’d been out here for hours, trying door after door, and in that time Jane must have finished in the bathroom and gone back to bed, so which one was the bedroom?

Which one was the bloody bedroom?

All the doors were closed, and she’d surely left the bedroom door open, hadn’t she? But maybe Jane had closed it, shut her out. Jane had shut her out. ‘Jane!!!’ she screamed, and ran wildly from door to door, all the same, all black oak and all shut.

And spun round and round and found herself facing stairs. Where was she now? Had she gone downstairs? Had she gone down to the dreadful kitchen or the drawing room with its chimney blocked; she couldn’t have.

No. These were the other stairs. The next stairs. Oh, Jesus, there were more stairs.

The extra floor. A third and empty floor of doors and doors and doors.

She stood at the bottom of the stairs and couldn’t look up. She hugged herself, and felt sweat cold on her shoulders.

She knew, of course, that she would have to go up there.

In all her dreams of being in a house and suddenly discovering it had a third storey, she had accepted that, sooner or later, she was going to have to climb those final stairs. Because of the presence. Because there was someone up there waiting for her. In the best dreams, it was herself; if she climbed the stairs, she would find her true self, discover her hidden potential. This, said the analysts she had read over the years, was the true meaning of this dream. It was about reaching for the higher dimension. Or, in a spiritual sense, carrying the lantern of faith along the dark corridors to the foot of the last stairs, at the top of which was the greater light.

But in the worst dreams, the presence at the top of the stairs, along the final passage, behind the final doors, was neither her higher self nor the light of lights. For a while, after his death, it had been Sean, still greedily grinning through the torn metal, through his blood.

So, which one was this: the good dream or the bad dream?

No.

It wasn’t a dream. This was the promised reality, the culmination. She had obeyed her calling, given herself up to the Holy Spirit. And moved at last into the house with three floors. Oh God, the tugging on the hand ...

Jane?

No.

All right. So be it. Merrily relaxed the grip on her cold shoulders, let her arms fall to her side.

She looked up.

Couldn’t breathe.

‘Mum?’

Oh my God, my God, my God, my God, my God, I can’t breathe.

‘Mum!’

Her chest was rigid, as though there was a tourniquet around it, winding tighter and tighter, squashing her breasts. She rolled over, gasping.

‘Mummy!’ Her eyes blinked open and the breath gushed into her, and she sat up, coughing. Jane had hold of her shoulders. Big, frightened eyes, dark hair fluffed up and haloed by the pinky-orange light of dawn.

‘You’re back,’ Merrily croaked.

‘Mum, I haven’t been anywhere.’

‘You went to the bathroom.’

‘No ...’

Merrily turned to the door. It was closed.

‘You were having a dream,’ Jane said.

‘It couldn’t have been a dream. I followed you out.’

Jane shook her head wryly and skipped to the window. ‘Oh, look, you can see the hills. You can see right over the houses across the road. I bet it’s brilliant from upstairs, on the top floor. In my apartment.’

She turned back to Merrily and grinned.

‘I’ll go and make some tea.’

Merrily closed her eyes. When she opened them, Jane was gone, the door slamming behind her. Merrily’s hair felt cold and damp around the numbness of her face, and her chest felt like it had been sat on. She was exhausted.

15

Hazey Jane

OF COURSE, SHE’D had this kind of nightmare before. Everybody had. The point about dreams was that your reactions were often intensified because you were so helpless. Apprehension, mild fear, turned very quickly into terror; small, disquieting things were sometimes loaded with a bloated menace, which gradually deflated when you awoke.

Well. Usually.

Very occasionally, the essence of it remained draped over you like dusty, moth-eaten rags, for most of the day. Merrily knelt under the pink-washed window, hoping to rinse her spirits with prayer. But it was mechanical, she couldn’t find the level. It was as though the nightmare had blocked her spiritual pores.

And something else was blocked. What did I see? she kept asking herself. What did I see when I looked up those stairs? And something cold crept up her vertebrae and left behind it a formless, drifting dread.

She stood up and shook herself. Found a towel and some shampoo in the overnight bag, went for a bath but nearly chickened out: the sight of the cold, tiled bathroom made clammy skin and sweat-stiffened hair seem rather less offensive, and she had to dismiss sinful images of the warm, creamy comforts of the en-suite at the Black Swan, the urge to slip back there for one last, glorious soak.

Anyway, it was only about five-thirty. Too early even to get into the Swan. Oh, come on. Are we grown women, or what? She helped a big spider to freedom and turned on the flaking, chromium taps, noticing that the oak floorboards had been concealed, probably for the past thirty years, under well-worn, well-cracked black and white lino tiles.

During Alf Hayden’s lengthy tenure, the nouveau riche village of Ledwardine had managed to leave its vicarage a long way behind.

‘You,’ her daughter said, looking thoughtful, ‘are looking pretty rough.’

They’d bought a loaf last night from the Late store, and Jane was trying to make the Aga make toast.

‘Why don’t you just go back to bed?’

What bloody bed?’ Merrily leaned over the stove with a cigarette in her mouth, wondering if there was somewhere to ignite it; evidently there wasn’t.

‘I’m quite sure,’ Jane said primly, ‘that your God wouldn’t want you to smoke like a chimney.’

‘Listen, flower, if you can find the bit in the Bible where it says that ...

‘All right, sorry. Just because I had a decent night’s sleep and you didn’t.’

‘That’s because you’re a child. An innocent. Look, I don’t suppose, if I were to mind your toast, you could run upstairs and fetch my Zippo from the bathroom?’

Jane raised her eyes cynically to the ceiling and trotted off. Merrily stood resting her forehead on folded arms on the plate rack over the stove.

Stress? Hell, she’d only been here a month. It hadn’t started yet. She wasn’t even official until the end of the week, and people were still not sure where to find her. There were communion classes to organize, visits to the primary school, the senior citizens’ social club, an invitation to address the WI ...

And there’d be more, much more. Domestic situations where, as she’d learned in Liverpool, a clergyman would never have been approached. Failing marriages. Problem kids. Spiteful, invalid mothers who declined to die. Any one of which would make something like the Wil Williams controversy seem precious and fatuous.

She needed to get it all into perspective. She’d wander over to the church after breakfast, when Jane had gone to school, and she wouldn’t come out until she felt purged.

Although it was more than an hour before the school bus was due, Jane didn’t see much point in hanging around an empty house with a grouchy parent. Besides, it was good walking about the village before most people were up and about. It sparkled, as though the air itself were alive. Strange.

And she might see Miss Devenish.

The need to see Miss Devenish was, in fact, pretty urgent. Firstly, she had to thank her for whatever she did on Saturday night. Secondly, there was the question of Lol Robinson. The way that guy Karl had been winding him up, the talk of suicide and Kurt Cobain and Nick Drake ... and then Colette implying that Lol was already wound so tight he couldn’t go out in the dark without Miss Devenish to hold his hand.

Karl was obviously the Karl Windling (bass, backing vocals) mentioned on the back of the CD. Karl was offering to kickstart Lol’s career again. And on the evidence of the album, for which Lol had written all the songs, Lol was good, Lol was brilliant. But for some reason he didn’t want to go back, and it wasn’t just a case of playing hard to get. He hadn’t even wanted to see Karl; he’d been afraid to see Karl. So why was he in this state? Why was he hiding himself away in Ledwardine? Why was he alone? Why had the cool, beautiful Alison left him for the horrible and grotesquely old James Bull-Davies?

Money and status probably. Actually, what was even more strange was how someone as sensitive as Lol had ever got involved with someone as glossy and superficial as Alison.

It all made Jane feel anxious, in a rather thrilling way. And protective, because Karl Windling was such a bully. She tried to feel the state of mind you’d have to be in to want to just end your life. Where you didn’t want to do anything else in the world ever again, or go anywhere, or love anyone. Or write another sad song.

She couldn’t imagine it. She was probably emotionally backward. Though, perhaps, in some cases, it was just kind of an impulse thing. Especially if you were already more than a bit unstable.

She wondered where Miss Devenish lived. No point in going to the shop this early. But Miss Devenish and Jane, they needed to talk.

It was going to be another warm day. She walked up to the square, school books in a canvas airline bag over one shoulder, school blazer over the other. Nearly forty-five minutes to kill before the bus was due. School: French and economics and maths, then double games. She looked up into a tide of flawless blue coming in over a smooth sandbank of early cloud. What, really, was the point of going to sodding school today when there was so much she needed to learn here in the village? Schoolwork, essays and stuff, you could always get over that with a bit of effort. Real life ... not so easy.

A snatch of one of Lol’s songs kept coming back to her.

... and it’s always on the sunny days

you feel you can’t go on.

That album was sending her signals. She just knew that the girls Karl Windling had seen in Andy’s Records in Hereford had been the friends of Colette’s who’d bought the album.

It was all fated: Jane Watkins was somehow destined to rescue the tragic Lol Robinson. The cobbles glittered in affirmation. Strange.

It wasn’t a schoolgirl crush, of course. Nothing so immature. Anyway, he was old enough to be her father. No, this was on an altogether higher level.

She’d known last night, when she’d first opened the brown-paper bag and seen the name of the band on the front of the CD. The band formed by Lol Robinson over fifteen years ago, before she was born. Or perhaps ... perhaps exactly at the time she was born.

Some kind of omen; it had to be. The name so exactly summing up the way she was feeling. Had been feeling since ... well, Saturday night.

Lol’s old band had been called – eerily – Hazey Jane.

Hardly even thinking about what she was doing, Jane wandered past the market cross and into the cool, secretive shade of Blackberry Lane, the trees overhead throbbing and pulsing with spring. Spring like she’d never felt it before.

A grey van was parked outside the church. Who could that be? The main door was still shut, so Merrily went round the back with her fat bunch of jailer’s keys.

However, the small, south-east door, leading in by the Bull Chapel, was already ajar. As she slipped inside, there was a vast discordant wail from the organ, and she jumped, alarmed. An organ in an empty church was a spooky sound.

‘See?’ Dermot Child’s voice called out. ‘It’s sticking. I’ve tried working it up and down.’

‘Hmm. May need replacing. You can’t keep on bodging these things for ever.’

Midlands accent. Obviously Mr Gerald Watts, the organ repair man from Bromsgrove. Ted had mentioned him; his phone number was in the book of essential parish contacts. And Dermot had remarked the other week that the organ would soon need some attention.

‘Problem is, Dermot, I’d have to make one to fit. Can you manage like this for a couple of weeks?’

‘Sounds like I haven’t got a choice.’

Merrily slid into the Bull Chapel. It was separated from the organ by an eighteenth-century wooden screen, so they couldn’t see each other, she and Dermot and Mr Watts, the organ man. She stood with her back to the screen, didn’t want to interrupt them.

‘So what’s the damage, Gerry? Roughly. If it’s over fifty, I’ll need to check it with the vicar.’

Sunlight fanned in through the chapel’s leaded window and pooled in the eyes of Thomas Bull. They were fully open. She hadn’t really noticed that before. It was disturbing, abnormal. His lids surely should be lowered, displaying for eternity the familiar and usually false humility of the wealthy dead.

‘All right, what I’ll do, Dermot, if it’s looking a bit heavy I’ll send a copy of the estimate to Hayden, but I’ll give you a ring first, so you’ll know.’

‘It isn’t Hayden any more.’

‘Lord, no, I’d forgotten. Saw her picture in the Hereford Times. Looked like a pretty fair swap to me, unless it was an unusually flattering photo.’

‘Didn’t do her justice, Gerry. Didn’t do her justice. Absolute little cracker. I tell you, it’s bloody hard to concentrate on your playing sometimes.’

Merrily was aware of smiling. What, in the end, could you say?

‘Must be a new experience for you,’ Mr Watts said. ‘Fancying the vicar. Least, I hope it is.’

‘It’s a funny thing, Gerry. It’s a bit like nurses. The uniform gives it an added something. She’s being very traditional – I suppose she’s a bit insecure – and she wears this long, supposedly shapeless black cassock. Only on her it’s not shapeless at all. You get bumps in all the right places. And it’s got about a hundred buttons down the front, and you imagine yourself undoing them all, very slowly, one by one. Oh God.’

Merrily’s face began to burn.

Mr Watts said, ‘What d’you reckon they wear underneath?’

‘Exactly. What do they wear underneath? You could go mad thinking about it. Could be nothing, couldn’t it? I mean, it could be nothing at all.

‘In your dreams.’

‘In my dreams, Gerald, she’s wearing nothing but the bloody dog collar. Imagine that: white collar, pink body, brown nipples.’

Merrily wasn’t smiling any more. Her eyes found the wide-open dead eyes of Thomas Bull. He was clothed in what, for those frilly Cavalier times, must have been a rather severe jacket, with a high collar. A sword, unsheathed, was lying by his side. Thomas was carved out of local stone, worn smooth now, his eyes wide open to face his God without fear, without excuses, in the year 1696 – a quarter of a century after his pivotal role in the hounding of Wil Williams. Bull’s face was stern, but, as she watched, the angle of the sun created the illusion of a supercilious smirk on the full, beard-fringed lips.

Mr Watts said, ‘You’ll go to hell, Dermot.’

‘Yes,’ said Dermot Child. ‘And it might even be worth it. Don’t forget your cap.’

They were coming out and there wasn’t time for her to reach the door without being seen.

Lol’s cottage was really rather lonely, the last one in the lane before it narrowed into a cart track. On each side, the Powell Orchard was starting to shimmer with new blossom.

Jane walked up the path between the front lawn that needed mowing and the fence bordering the orchard, and found herself knocking on the white-painted door around which red and orange early roses grew.

There was no answer. A small black cat watched her from a fence post.

She peered through the window into the room where Lol had talked with Karl Windling. It was so sparsely furnished it gave you the impression the cottage was not really occupied. As though someone had dumped a few things there in advance of moving in.

What if I’m too late? In her mind was an image of Lol lying limply across his bed, one arm outstretched, the fingers just parted from a small brown pill bottle. A variation, she realized, of a famous painting about a dead, young poet. But oh God ... She had to stop herself banging on the window. When she stepped away from it, she could hear faint music from the rear of the cottage.

There was a small gate hanging from one rusty hinge, and the path continued round the back. Jane carefully lifted open the gate and went, half-fearfully, through. In the small back garden were about four apple trees, all of them bending away from the cottage, as if the garden were trying to join the orchard. Or the orchard was trying to draw in the garden. Sunlight was sprinkled through the fragile white blossom.

... and it’s always on the sunny days

you feel you can’t go on.

Trembling a little, Jane went to the back door and was about to knock gently when she became aware of the music again. It was behind her now and so not coming from inside the cottage but from the garden itself, or the orchard, separated from it by the narrow path she knew was a bridleway.

She wandered among the apple trees, and the music came and went in snatches. It sounded a little like the music on the album, Hazey Jane, far away and melancholy.

There was another old garden gate, leading to the bridleway and the orchard. Jane drifted towards it.

The side of the tomb was cold on her face. She crouched there in her cassock, furious – hiding in her own church! – as Dermot Child and Mr Watts walked out. The cassock felt soiled, as though Child’s fingers had already been up and down the buttons. She wanted to have another bath, to scrub herself like she’d done once, late at night, to remove the blood of Edgar Powell.

Dermot’s key turned in the lock, but she didn’t move from behind the tomb, in case they came back.

Silence in the chapel. Only inches between her and Tom Bull’s bones. She saw, with a twinge of unease, that part of the tomb, below the feet of the effigy, had been repaired, as though Tom Bull had stretched out in death and pushed out a couple of the sandstone bricks to make more room for himself. You could feel quite resentful at the way influential local families thought they could buy into Paradise with a fancy tomb.

Traherne had a lot to say about that. Tom Bull must have known Traherne. But Traherne had left for London by the time they were laying their accusations at the door of his friend, Wil Williams.

How did James know about his ancestor’s role in the persecution and his feelings at the time? Were there family documents?

How, in fact, had the Williams story been passed down? She was reluctant to ask the old guy who did the All Our Yesterdays bit for the parish mag. He was sentimental and unreliable, and he’d keep her talking all day. And, anyway, he would never have been given access to the Bull-Davies family records.

Merrily stood up, brushed herself down. ‘Smug bastards,’ she muttered to Tom Bull and his absent descendant. ‘Nothing changes, does it?’

‘Well, that’s true,’ a woman murmured behind her. ‘In this family, anyway.’

Merrily spun round.

She wore an ankle-length skirt, the colour of Ledwardine soil, and possibly the same black, cotton shirt she’d worn on the square that night, open to the gold pendant in the cleft of her breasts. She also wore a knowing smile.

‘You drop something?’

‘Just a key,’ Merrily lied. She hadn’t heard the porch door open, or footsteps. ‘Sorry. Have you been here long?’

‘Just this minute walked in.’ She had glazed, Marilyn Monroe lips, but the resemblance ended there, before the steep, regal nose, before the slanting, dark blue eyes. ‘Alison Kinnersley. I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced.’

‘Probably because I’ve never seen you here before. Merrily Watkins.’

‘I do come here sometimes,’ Alison said. ‘To look around. And think. But never with James.’ Her voice dropped into the Bull-Davies bark. ‘Not seemly, you know.’

Merrily raised an eyebrow. ‘Anyone care about seemly any more?’

Twenty-five, even fifteen years ago, Alison Kinnersley would have been a scarlet woman. Today, the villagers still gossiped, but not many would be scandalized.

‘James cares,’ Alison said.

‘Yes.’ Merrily walked away from the tomb. ‘I expect he would.’

Then why? she wanted to ask. Remembering Alison’s hands inside James’s sheepskin on the night of the wassailing. Why does he let you flaunt him in public and yet, when you’re not there, behave as if you don’t exist?

‘Poor guy ...’ Alison moved into Merrily’s place at the tomb-side. ‘Poor guy came home in a bit of a state last night. He’s convinced you’re going to shaft him over that play.’

‘That’s rich. He threatened to shaft me.

Alison laughed. ‘James is full of shit. OK? I just thought I should tell you that.’ She looked down dispassionately at the effigy. ‘He’s gone to Hereford today. For the Powell inquest. Gone to do his duty and help Rod Powell convince the coroner his old man didn’t top himself. He’ll be gone most of the day. And so, I ...’

The dark blue eyes focused directly on Merrily, as though this was very important.

‘... I just got the feeling you’d had this horrendous scene with him and you might be feeling intimidated. So I thought I’d tell you he was full of shit and whatever he said you should disregard. I’m relying, of course, on your discretion. As a woman of the cloth.’

Merrily didn’t know how to react. As a woman of the cloth or, indeed, as a woman.

‘I really wouldn’t mind seeing that play,’ Alison said. ‘I think it could be quite interesting.’

There was the faint hint of a rural vowel there – quoit interesting – which showed she didn’t exactly share James’s background.

‘I’ll tell you one thing.’ She touched, with a pink, ovalled fingernail, the sandstone lips of Tom Bull. ‘There was more to this old bastard than James is prepared to admit.’

‘Like what?’

‘Frankly, I don’t know.’ Alison’s lips turned down. ‘If I knew that ...’ She pulled her hand away from the effigy. ‘Anyway.’

‘Excuse me,’ Merrily said. ‘I’m a bit baffled. You’re James’s ...’

‘Mistress,’ Alison said softly. ‘Mistress. Old-fashioned word, old-fashioned guy.’

‘I had that impression.’

‘So why would I want to do this to him?’

‘Something like that.’

‘Hmm.’ Alison nodded. ‘Well, you’ve met him. You’ve been exposed to the archaic, paternalistic balls.’

‘I’m still baffled,’ Merrily said.

‘Well, fine,’ Alison said lightly. ‘That’s all right. So long as you’re not unsettled about it.’

She began to walk away, half turned, wryly raised a hand and brought the fingers down twice, like a bird pecking.

‘See you, Vicar.’

Merrily went directly to the Black Swan. She had some pleading to do; couldn’t face another night in a sleeping bag.

‘Well, I’m sorry, Mrs Watkins,’ Roland said. ‘I was only going by your instructions. I’ve got a theatre director and his partner arriving for lunch tomorrow, and they’ll be taking the Woolhope Suite until the weekend.’

‘One more night?’

‘I’m so sorry. No reflection on you, of course, but it’ll require the full works tonight. We were allowing for you having all your things out by ... seven? Oh, and this came for you. Somebody dropped it through the letterbox.’

A white envelope addressed to The Vicar, The Black Swan.

‘OK,’ Merrily said wearily. ‘I’ll go up and get everything sorted out and when Jane comes home we’ll get it all moved.’

Up in the suite, she thought, sod it, and ran a bath in the creamy bathroom. Got out of the cassock, rolled it into a ball and threw it into a corner. So much for tradition. As the bath filled up, she went to the wardrobe and found a plain black sweater and a charcoal-grey jersey skirt. Too hot but probably less appealing to the fetishist. Pity about the cassock; it was comfortable, like a kaftan, but it wasn’t coming back.

After her last, luxurious bath, Merrily lay down on the bed and tore open the letter. Looked like an invitation, a mixed blessing for vicars.

It was a card. A funeral card, with a black border. It said,

WIL WILLIAMS

WAS THE DEVIL’S MINISTER.

LET HIM LIE. BE WARNED.

Merrily let it fall to the floor.

She should take it to the police. It was a threat, wasn’t it?

And what would the police do? Fingerprint it? Then fingerprint the entire village?

She sat up and looked again at the card. The message had been printed on a slip of paper, which had been pasted inside the black rectangle. Anyone with access to a computer could have done it. And anyone could have access to a computer; for a very small fee you could use the one in Marches Media.

Waste of time. Some crank. On impulse, she took the card to the window, set light to it with her Zippo and let the air take the ashes.

Crank, maybe, but someone had spent some time on it. Another indication that something in this Wil Williams business went very deep in Ledwardine. Alison Kinnersley and Lucy Devenish both thought Coffey’s play would open up the can of worms and that would be no bad thing. But here was proof that Bull-Davies was clearly not alone in wanting to keep the lid on.

She shut the window and went back and lay on the bed, her whole body shaking with anger and what she suspected, after last night, was nervous exhaustion.

16

Like Lace

THIS WAS A secret place, an old place.

To begin with, it existed only as warmth and a sense-sapping humidity. Then she was aware of lustrous, wet stone walls on every side, like some Middle Eastern dungeon. But the atmosphere was dense and dark and syrupy with a sour-sweet aroma, fruitier and earthier than wine: a heavy drenching of deepest rural England.

His face went in and out of focus, sweat rippling down his cheeks like wax down a candle. His eyes were sly, his hands were busy. The lower half of him was lost in steam but it was moving. Squirming.

She, however, was lying helplessly still in what felt like damp hay. She couldn’t move at all; her muscles were heavy and sagging, like balloons full of water. She kept trying to concentrate, make out details, but her vision was all fuzzy and her self-control just drifted away into the thick, cloying, musted air.

She didn’t know where this was; it might be underground, at England’s core, it was hot enough. Above her, no sun, only oaken rafters, pickled in centuries of juice.

Hot enough to be hell. And his face ...

His mad, moist face had split into a wide grin, the way a crisp apple splits. But it was rotten inside, oozing brown pulp, and the pips dropped from his stained teeth and, behind, she saw his fat buttocks rising out of the vapour, glossy orbs, rosy apples.

He took in a slow, wheezing breath. Eyes popping in his friar’s face as his buttocks tensed, and she realized, with terror tightening inside, that he was fully on top of her.

And she was wearing the tattered remnants of the black cassock, ripped down the front and stained with stinking apple pulp. And her collar was tightening like a shackle, like a stiff, white noose.

White collar. He began to gasp. Pink body. Brown nipples. Absolute little cracker.

There was the squeak and grind of an ancient mechanism, the sense of an enormous, waiting weight, before a lunge and a squeezing and a second of silence like a crack in the universe until – accompanied by a long, liquid gush – Dermot Child snarled out, his enormous voice echoing through caverns of time as her own throat constricted.

Auld ... ciderrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr ...

Bastards!

Merrily hurled clothes, unfolded, into the open suitcase. The cassock last, but the lid wouldn’t close, and in a rage she seized the cassock and tore it down the back and threw it into the bin liner with the rubbish.

Look at the time, look at the time. Four-fifteen! She’d slept for nearly five hours. God almighty.

Calm down.

She sat on a corner of the bed, settled her breathing, gave herself a good talking-to. Alf Hayden would have chuckled and let it all pass over him – Child, Bull-Davies and his mistress, the funeral card. Nothing would intrude into Alf’s placid dreams.

But would any of it have happened to Alf? Merrily didn’t somehow think it would.

When she’d awakened – the dream-Child’s ghastly orgasmic cry biting into her brain like an alarm clock – she’d stripped at once in front of the bathroom washbasin, throwing angry handfuls of cold tap water at herself and then drinking half a pint of tepid spring water from a plastic bottle and brushing her teeth with a violence that made her gums bleed.

Just calm down. Jane’ll be getting off the bus in about ten minutes; you can’t let her see you like this.

In the bedroom, she dressed in the quietly secular black jumper and skirt, slotted her clerical collar under her dark-brown curls. Pink skin, brown nipples, white—

Stop it!

Before the open window overlooking the mellowed, red-cobbled village square, she knelt to pray. Pressing her palms flat together, sandwiching the heat between them. Stilling her mind, entering the inner temple, before whispering into the Silence.

O God, I know you’re testing me. As you will, no doubt, test all women who dare to don the cloth ...

Stop. You’re sounding resentful. You’re whingeing.

She knelt in silence for several minutes, waiting for the right tone, the right level. Waiting for the calm. But, to her anguish, her senses began to fill up with the pulpy essence of the foetid cider cellar, the organist’s sweating face. Sweat and rotting apples; how was she ever going to bring herself to talk to that bloody man again?

You pompous cow. He’s just a normal guy. If you’re not responsible for your dreams, Dermot Child certainly isn’t!

Sure. Reluctantly, she stood up. The odd thing was, she’d never seen a cider mill at work, only the static exhibits at the Bulmer’s Museum in Hereford. She’d never smelt the powerful aroma, although she’d read about it. Never experienced the moment when the press came down on the cloth-rolled pulp and the first juice burst out like—

A bus juddered to a stop on the edge of the square; through the open window she heard chattering and laughter.

Jane’s bus.

Merrily stood the suitcase in the centre of the room together with the bin liner and three cardboard wine boxes from Sainsbury’s to put the rest of the stuff in. She dashed into the bathroom, started to drag a comb through her tangled hair, but it snagged and she gave up and ran out of the Woolhope Suite, down the stairs and into the square, to grab hold of Jane before she tramped back to an empty vicarage.

And what have you been doing today, Mum? Well, I slept most of it, actually, flower, then I had a pornographic dream.

Help!

The kids on the square were separating slowly, school shirts and blouses pulled out of waistbands, gestures of slovenly cool. No sign of Jane. One of the older boys spotted Merrily and nudged his mate and they smiled slyly, and Merrily thought, Jesus, is there no end to this?

When she walked up to them, retrieving her breath, the tall, thin one went gratifyingly red. Merrily didn’t smile at him.

‘You seen Jane Watkins anywhere?’

‘Yeah,’ the other boy said. ‘I seen her a few times. Nice-looking. Bit like you.’ Smothering a giggle with his hand, cocky little sod.

‘And do you know,’ Merrily said patiently, ‘where she is?’

‘Hang on,’ the tall one said, ‘I never seen her on the bus. You see her, Dean?’

‘She weren’t on the bus. She weren’t on the bus this morning neither, I’m pretty sure.’

Merrily frowned.

‘No, honestly.’ Dean was overweight and beady-eyed. ‘There’s six of us gets on at this stop, right? And she’s always there when I gets yere. Last minute, me. Matter of pride. Jane wasn’t there, Vicar.’ He grinned in her face. ‘Swear to God.’

‘Thanks,’ Merrily said tightly.

‘Looks like ’er bunked off, dunnit? Naughty, naughty.’

The square swam before her. She couldn’t believe it. Not for one minute. Whatever she said about school, most of it disparaging, Jane did not bunk off. Jane had never missed a day except through illness and family tragedy. The youth was lying. Why was he lying to her?

Dean nonchalantly pulled from his schoolbag a can of Woodpecker cider, ripped off the tab. Merrily was sure she could smell it. Sweat and apples. She turned away in disgust. The kids were separating, going off in different directions. Maybe Jane had missed the bus. But if she wasn’t there this morning?

Merrily went cold. She turned round and round, the square blurring into the Black Swan, the Country Kitchen alleyway, the Late Shop, Church Street, the vicarage behind its trees. Not again. Jane, please God, not again, don’t do this to me.

Calm down. It’s broad daylight. She’s fifteen years old, she’s smart, she’s been around. She’s probably at the vicarage. Up in her Apartment with a tape-measure.

I’ll kill her.

In his last, morose months, Nick Drake, aged twenty-six, would get into his car and drive and drive until he ran out of petrol, because he hadn’t the confidence to stop at a garage. Often, his father would have to travel about seventy miles to bring him home.

When he was not out in his car, Nick would sit with his guitar in his room at his parents’ home and play the same chord sequence over and over again, like some sad mantra. There had been a time, not so many years ago, when all this had made terrifying sense to Lol.

He sat on the chair arm with the dented Washburn on his knee. His fingers found A-minor and then F and then E-minor, stroking the strings with nails ruined by a winter of collecting and chopping logs for the stove. Conceding that Nick’s chord-sequence, even in those faded days, was probably a good deal more complex. Never could work out his tunings.

On the table was a letter which had arrived this morning from the record company, TMM. It was pleased to inform Lol Robinson that the compilers of a new mass-market collection, to be called Acoustic Echoes, would be interested in including his song ‘Dandelion Dreams’ from the third and last Hazey Jane album.

Money for nothing. Backed by TV-advertising, these compilation albums sold by the vanload and also generated new interest in your old records. This was the fourth in two years to include one of his songs; it was how he lived. And it was a living; it paid the mortgage on the cottage, it put food on Lol’s table and Ethel’s dish. It was enough. Wasn’t it?

He struck the doleful E-minor. He wanted to write again, sure he did, but when you lost it you lost it. You were supposed to be more inspired when you were unhappy, when your woman had gone and left you all alone. How come he could just about cobble lyrics together for Gary Kennedy’s adequate tunes and that was it?

The phone rang. It would be Karl. Karl had rung twice since the weekend. The second time, he’d said, I’m going to come and see you again. I’ve got some ideas for songs. As if Lol had never said, No way, no I’m not doing it, I can’t do it. Got some ideas for songs, Karl had said, voice absolutely bland, no hint of menace. I’m going to come and see you again.

He put down the guitar, picked up the phone.

‘Lol? It’s, er, it’s Dennis. Dennis Clarke.’

‘Hello,’ Lol said, relieved. ‘How are you doing? Thanks for the album.’

‘No, er, no problem.’ Dennis coughed. ‘So you saw Karl, then.’

‘He came over.’

‘Yeah,’ Dennis said. ‘Right. He came back to see me again. We had a talk.’

‘He tell you about this gig he did with this band in America and all the girls afterwards and how he could’ve gone on all night despite being twice their age?’

‘No,’ Dennis said. ‘Gillian was there. He told me about how much money we could make if we did another album.’

‘And were you impressed?’

Dennis went quiet.

Lol said, ‘Was Gillian impressed?’

‘Lol, OK, look, I ... Well, I said ... I said yes. I said I would.’

‘Would what?’

‘Do another album.’

This time Lol went quiet.

‘It’s just a record, Lol. It won’t mean touring. I mean ... I can fit it in. Karl says they’ll organize a studio at Chipping Camden or somewhere, so I travel up, come home at night. Gillian’s ... Gill says she doesn’t mind.’

‘What about your wrist?’

‘Elbow. I suppose, if I take a couple of pain-killers ...’

‘Right,’ Lol said. ‘Well, good luck. I’ll look out for it.’

‘No, hang on. I mean ... I mean, you have to be in the band, obviously.’

‘That’s funny, Dennis, because I told Karl I wasn’t going to do it.’

‘Lol, you’ve got to do it.’

‘Oh. I see,’ Lol said. ‘He kind of threatened you, did he? What was it, plain violence, or something Gillian doesn’t know about? I have to say, it was the violence used to work with me. But that was nearly twenty years ago. Not now, I don’t think. What he did finally was worse.’

‘Lol, listen—’

‘He says, Dennis, you persuade that little bastard, or—?’

‘No! No, he didn’t! It was nothing like that.’

Lol felt sorry for him. He felt sorry for himself too, but maybe Dennis, the safe, Chippenham accountant, was more vulnerable right now.

‘Dennis, if he ever asks, I’ll tell him you did your best.’

‘Lol, for Christ’s sake ...’ He sensed Dennis was near to tears. ‘Oh, come on, man, you know it’s you he needs. You know he can’t write a fucking song to save his life.’

‘Dennis.’ Lol was surprised how firm his own voice sounded. ‘Just tell him to leave me alone. Tell him not to come near me.’

Outside the window, there was white blossom on the apple trees. Why did white blossom depress him so much? Maybe the memory of white flowers on his mother’s coffin. His father turning his back on Lol at the graveside. On a luminously still May afternoon much like this one.

‘I won’t tell him that,’ Dennis said. ‘Not yet. Jesus Christ, it’s only an album, Lol. Just the one.’

‘Vicar!’

She turned impatiently at the vicarage gate. ‘Oh. Gomer. Oh dear, I’m sorry, I’m—’

‘You got some addresses for me, Vicar?’ He was wearing a dark suit and a black tie with what had to be a twenty-year-old knot.

‘Sorry?’

‘In Cheltenham. Figured I’d set off early, like.’

‘Oh. Of course. I’m really sorry, Gomer, things have been ... Would you mind if I were to call you with the stuff tonight? It’s just—’

‘Whenever you like, Vicar. The ole inquest’s over and done now.’

‘Oh.’ She’d have to ask. ‘How did it go?’

‘Death’ – Gomer snatched out his cigarette in disgust – ‘by misadventure.’

‘Accident, then. Councillor Powell must be pleased.’

‘Ah. Bloody ole whitewash, Vicar. Bull-Davies, he give evidence of how he couldn’t get no sense out of Edgar all night and how he was a bit worried about the ole feller havin’ charge of a shotgun and how he wishes he’d taken some action when he had the chance. Well, load of ole sheepshit, sure t’be, ‘scuse my language. But you puts a Bull-Davies in the witness box they all thinks it’s bloody gospel. Something botherin’ you, Vicar?’

‘Sorry, I was just looking out for Jane. So you think he really did kill himself deliberately?’

‘Ah ...’ Gomer rubbed at his glasses, as though this would clarify things. ‘Call me a cynic, but it was the way they was all tryin’ to convince the whats-his-name, the judge ...’

‘Coroner.’

‘Aye. The way they was all bangin’ on about Edgar not bein’ his ole self, acting confused-like all day, like. Doc Asprey – wouldn’t trust that young bugger to the end o’ the yard – he says Edgar had a bit o’ trouble comin in the arteries as could give ‘im funny turns. Well, see, I could understand Rod not wantin’ his ole feller buried the wrong side o’ the churchyard—’

‘We don’t actually do that any more, Gomer.’

‘I was speaking metaphysically, Vicar. It’s still the stigma, see. You don’t want a reputation as a suicide family. So you could understand Rod perjurin’ his bollocks off, but Bull-Davies ... Big guns, Vicar. Big guns. Course, the Bulls, they been relyin’ on the Powells for generations.’

‘You think Edgar wasn’t actually confused? I wasn’t really taking much notice.’

‘He weren’t confused in the Ox earlier on, is all I can say. And he weren’t drunk neither, though he’d had a few, all paid for by other folk as usual. Crafty ole bugger, Edgar Powell. I been thinkin’ a lot about this, see – got plenty bloody time to think nowadays, more’s the pity – and I reckon, whether he done isself by accident or deliberate, summat put the wind up Edgar that night. If you gets time to think back on it, Vicar, I’d be interested in your opinion. As an outsider like.’

‘I think I was just trying to keep warm at the time. But perhaps we could discuss it tomorrow over a cup of—’

‘I’m delayin’ you, Vicar.’ Gomer threw up his hands. ‘Gettin’ an ole woman, see. What bloody retirement does for you. Useless bastard of a thing retirement, ’scuse my language.’

It was only when she was halfway up the vicarage drive that Merrily realized Jane couldn’t possibly be inside. Because she hadn’t yet got a key.

She looked up in despair at the beautiful, old, oak-framed pile, the oldest three-storey house in Ledwardine, and felt it repelling her. The highest, smallest windows seemed remote; even the trees didn’t reach them. The unwindowed oak door looked like the door of some old jail.

She didn’t go in. ‘Jane ...’ She hurried around the side of the house, under a wooden arch and on to the big, square lawn overhung with willow and birch. ‘Jane!’

She walked right round the house. The Volvo was still parked under the trees. She’d had it nicked four times in Liverpool, and she was always ridiculously grateful to see it. Why couldn’t they have stayed in cosy old Liverpool, where you only worried about your car getting nicked?

Jane’s CD case was still on the dash, with its photo of four men in a forest clearing watching a blurred girl-shape, and the words Hazey Jane. Merrily smiled. No wonder the kid was infatuated. Tears pricking.

‘Jane!’

Brushing at her eyes, she found her face was glazed with sweat. She ran back to the gate. No schoolkids left on the square now. Just two women with prams and toddlers. It was nearly five o’clock. Oh my God.

No. Stop. Think.

All right ... She wasn’t on the bus tonight, she probably didn’t catch it this morning. She’d made a point of leaving early. To take a stroll around the village. Well, OK. Merrily hadn’t questioned that; Jane was a curious kid, liked to get to know places. On the other hand, Ledwardine wasn’t a place that took that much getting to know, not when you’d already lived here for several weeks.

She’d arranged to meet someone? A boyfriend? Merrily thought of the overweight youth slurping his cider. Please not.

Cider.

Her mouth tightened. She strode across the square towards Cassidy’s Country Kitchen.

I’ll kill her.

Oh God, please let her be out with that little bitch on some unholy binge.

Lol walked out into the garden. White blossom. Spring. Always the most depressing time of year. All those long, empty summer days ahead. In winter, on your own, you could spend whole hours of dwindling daylight chopping logs to stay warm through the evenings.

Blossom all over the orchard. Even though it began at the bottom of his garden, Lol had hardly ever been in there. It was someone else’s property. It was also unwelcoming, overgrown and gloomy – nothing picturesque about neglected apple trees.

It was Alison who’d really liked this place. Alison who’d said how much she would love it here, watching Lol rebuild himself. Turned to him with that look of longing and then the coy smile, with eyes downcast that always worked for the late Princess of Wales. Turning Lol like the right key in a rusted lock.

Scattered with clusters of tiny flowers the orchard was no longer clawed and sinister. But still eerie, the old, gnarled fingers white-gloved.

He wondered if it would have made a difference if he’d been here with Alison at the wassailing on Twelfth Night. The truth was he hadn’t wanted to go, be among all those strangers. Partly why he’d agreed to go over to Oxford to work on the songs with the fading legend Gary Kennedy. (Lol felt safer with people who were fading.) Thinking Alison would go with him, but she’d said she was sure she had a cold coming on and it was better if she stayed here, kept warm.

There’d been no cold, but she’d kept warm. Perhaps she and Bull-Davies had come back to the cottage afterwards to shower away bits of the old man.

Old man Powell. This made it two suicides, if you included the hanged minister, Wil Williams. At least two. A place to stay out of, if you were that way inclined. He’d been amazed to find himself following Colette Cassidy into the heart of it last Saturday night. He hadn’t had time to think.

But he was thinking now. Thinking hard. Thinking, You have to do this. You have to keep fighting back.

Against Karl. Dennis behind him now – reluctantly, of course. Dennis was a nice guy. Karl Windling wasn’t. Karl wouldn’t give up. He’d come again to the cottage. And when Karl had finally exhausted his limited powers of persuasion, when he realized there was nothing else to be done, nothing to lose, nothing to gain, he would become destructive. His pride would demand it.

Lol walked on, becoming increasingly depressed. All this blossom, promising apples. The only harvest last year had been logs from dead and dying trees. Last winter, he and Alison had bought a trailer-load of apple logs from the Powells. On the wood-burner, with the doors open, it had perfumed the whole room. No logs like apple logs for perfume; if traditional Christmas cards were scented, this was how they’d smell.

Lol had wanted to make love with Alison on the rug beside the stove at Christmas, but it had never happened.

How she’d changed. How classy she looked in her dark-blue riding gear, very point-to-point. Classy, but not sexy. Too militaristic.

When he turned round, the cottage had vanished into a tangle of white-dusted trees. Soon, he’d reach the so-called Apple Tree Man, where he and Colette had found Jane. It would be today’s test to get that far on his own, to touch the Man’s scabby bark. And then he’d turn and go back.

Clouds had gathered and the sky was nearly white, with holes of wet sunlight and veins like cheese mould. The trees closer packed, their blossom exploding around him, like a flour bomb; whichever way he turned it was the same, and even though there was no breeze, the whiteness seemed to swirl. He felt disoriented, but he wouldn’t stop. A battle against himself. He moved on through the warm, windless snowstorm. When he looked up, the blossom and sky absorbed each other and floated down around him like a crinkling shroud; he didn’t like that, looked down at the ground.

Where he saw, God help him, the girl lying across the path. Apple blossom around her face, like lace.

17

Whiteout

‘OH, HI,’ COLETTE Cassidy said without enthusiasm. ‘You want to talk to my father?’

Merrily’s heart plunged. The girl shouldn’t be here. She should be somewhere – anywhere – forbidden. With Jane Watkins.

‘Because he’s out,’ Colette said.

She had a luscious, sulky mouth, which seemed to be all there was under heavy, mid-brown hair. She had in abundance what you could only call Attitude. Merrily saw in Colette a lot of things she’d never seen in Jane. Yet.

The girl leaned inside the doorway of Cassidy’s Country Kitchen, arms folded, long denim legs straight. It was a wide doorway, built into what had evidently been the bay of a barn. Colette hardly barred the way, but there was a certain type of customer her presence would deter. And probably another type it would attract.

‘Colette, where’s Jane?’

Colette shrugged. ‘I should know?’

‘I hoped you would, yeah.’

‘Well, I don’t,’ Colette said. ‘Sorry.’

Through the flower transfers on the high, glass doors, Merrily saw Caroline Cassidy scurrying across the delicatessen. Caroline spotted her and changed direction.

‘You’re sure?’ Merrily said.

‘I wouldn’t lie to you, Vicar,’ Colette gave her a Nutra-sweet smile as Caroline came out. Tipping a glance at her mother that said, At least, not like I lie to her.

‘Merrily!’ Caroline wore a kind of milkmaid dress with gingham sleeves; only true townies dressed like this. ‘We’ve been dying for you to come ...’

‘Hello, Caroline.’

‘... but I said to Terrence, for God’s sake don’t pressure the girl, she’s far too much on her plate to worry about our little festival.’

Throwing her all into a smile of sympathy and true compassion. Right now, it almost helped.

‘I was just asking your daughter if she’d seen Jane.’

Caroline’s face hardened. ‘Colette?’

‘No, I haven’t.’ Colette levered herself upright. ‘I really haven’t, OK? I mean, like, what is this, for Christ’s sake? Just because we went out once and got a tiny bit pissed, everybody thinks we’re on some kind of permanent pub crawl. I saw Jane for a few minutes last night and I haven’t seen her since, OK?’

‘Colette, two coffees. Go.’ Caroline pushed her daughter through the doors, turned back to Merrily. ‘Is there a problem here? When did you last see her?’

‘This morning. When she left for school.’

‘Oh, yes, she goes to that ... comprehensive. Isn’t there a special bus?’

‘She wasn’t on it.’

Caroline shook her head with a jingle of earrings. ‘Teenage girls are so utterly thoughtless. She’s probably stayed behind to play tennis or something.’

‘You think so?’ For a moment, Merrily clutched at it. Caroline Cassidy was perhaps twelve years older, she had a very difficult daughter; this must have taught her something. She took Merrily by an arm.

‘Come and have that coffee. You’ve been very lucky with Jane if this is the first time she’s done this to you. Look, why don’t you ring the school from here? There’s always someone around these places for hours.’

‘No, it ...’ It came down on Merrily that, according to the cider-swigging youth, Jane hadn’t even taken the bus this morning. How long, she wondered despairingly, were you supposed to wait before you called the police?

Caroline Cassidy propelled her inside, sat her at one of three empty tables in the deli, went back to the door and turned over the laminated closed sign.

‘You know, teenagers, much more than children, have a problem moving to a new place.’

‘She’s done it several times,’ Merrily said. ‘OK, she was unhappy about it at first, but lately she’s been fine. More or less.’

‘Is there anyone she knows, locally, apart from Colette?’

‘Nobody ...’ She thought of this man, Lol. She’d been remiss; she ought to have checked him out. ‘Nobody special. Look, I’m sorry, I’m probably worrying about nothing, but didn’t a girl go missing from Kingsland or somewhere a few months ago: Petra ...?’

‘Good, I think. Petra Good. But that was back in the winter. Look, Merrily—’

‘And they haven’t found her, have they?’

‘My dear, you won’t find many parts of the country where there isn’t a girl missing. That doesn’t mean— Colette, isn’t that coffee ready yet?’

Merrily said, ‘Do you know Lol Robinson?’

Caroline sniffed. ‘Works for her, sometimes. Miss Devenish. Odd little man. Alison Kinnersley, James Bull-Davies’s ... partner ... she used to live with Robinson. They bought the Timlins’ cottage in Blackberry Lane – old couple, he died, she went into a home. Hadn’t been there more than a few months and Alison’d taken up with James. One suspects there could be a drug problem.’

What?’ Merrily’s fingers tightened on the seat of the rustic, wooden chair.

Caroline’s look was penetrating. ‘Jane knows him?’

‘She had one of his records, that’s all.’

‘Aw, look ...’ Colette dumped two coffees, with cartons of cream. ‘He’s harmless. He’s just screwed up is all’

Her mother looked up sharply.

‘Look,’ Colette said, ‘we’ve all been round there. At first, you think like, wow, a rock musician, and you’re expecting him to have his own studio and cool people around, but he’s like ... like he could be a bank clerk or something. One old guitar. Anyway, he’s all messed up over Alison. He won’t stay around here. Or, if he does, he’ll like OD or something.’

‘I have to go.’

Merrily stood up. She was thinking of that album. The track called ‘Song for Nick’. Jane asking her, as they lay in their sleeping bags, You ever know anybody who committed suicide?

‘You’ve been very kind. But what if she’s come back to the vicarage or the inn? I’m sorry—’

‘Drink your coffee, Merrily, please. Colette, go to the vicarage, go to the Black Swan, ask around and be discreet.

Colette went without a word and Caroline gently pressed Merrily back into her chair, sat down opposite her.

‘I can assure you she’ll leave no stone unturned. My daughter is being ultra cooperative – at least until after the party.’

‘Sorry. Party?’

‘Didn’t Jane tell you? She’s certainly invited.’

‘Well, I—’ There was obviously a whole lot Jane hadn’t told her. Merrily drank some coffee, although she was starting to feel sick. ‘She probably mentioned it and I forgot. Things have been ... you know.’

Caroline slid a hand over Merrily’s, squeezed it. ‘You’re taking on too much. You really ought to let us help. Alfred delegated. He’d learned, you see. No, the party ... Oh dear, it’s her sixteenth. People say we must be absolutely mad to let her have it in the restaurant. But what I say is, better our own premises here in the village than some awful disco-club in Hereford. We’ve promised to go out, but Barry will be in charge. Our restaurant manager. Barry’s awfully capable.’

Merrily was only half-listening. She was thinking of suicide. Mass suicides of once-rational people, like the Heaven’s Gate thing. Suicide was contagious. God, you really thought you knew your own child. You thought your generation was going to be different. There was going to be nothing you wouldn’t be able to talk about, that you couldn’t iron out between you. But every generation, there was something new growing in their heads, something terrifying.

‘Terrence has gone to see Richard Coffey,’ Caroline said brightly ‘They were hoping to catch up with you over the weekend. Richard’s got some friends down from London, a theatre director whose name I ought to know but I’ve forgotten. They were hoping to put their proposals to you ... for the church?’

Maybe it was the Church. God. God had come between them, made Merrily into a remote figure. Or even an embarrassment. The way Jane looked at her when she went to pray. She’d thought that was just going to be a phase.

Caroline said, ‘They want to show you they can present Wil in a way that would cause absolutely minimal disruption to normal services and things. Hasn’t Richard been to see you yet? With his friend? One has to say he totes that young man around like a trophy wife.’

‘I ... I’ve been putting people off. Until we got settled into the vicarage. Well, not settled, exactly, that could take years. But, you know, in. Oh my God, we’re supposed to be moving tomorrow.’

‘We’ll help. Of course we will. Everything will be absolutely fine, you’ll see.’ Caroline paused, eyes narrowing. ‘We, er, we heard James came to see you.’

‘Yes.’

‘I don’t know what’s got into that man. He was always so enthusiastic about developing the village economy and restoring a degree of self-sufficiency. Suddenly, he’s become a positive millstone, and Terrence is terribly scared that Richard will simply turn his back on us and the whole festival will be a disaster. It’s all so worrying.’

‘You seem to be ... treading on old corns.’ Merrily drank some more coffee; most of her mind was out on the square with Colette.

Caroline scowled. ‘That illustrates precisely what we have to overcome if we’re going to get this place buzzing. The past is over. It can’t harm us. But we can use it. Do you see? We’re lucky enough to have these wonderful old buildings, set in such beautiful countryside, and an absolute wealth of traditions. But, Lord, we mustn’t let them hold us back.’

Merrily suspected Caroline Cassidy had just said something deeply flawed, but her anxiety wouldn’t let her concentrate.

There was a tapping on the glass.

‘We’re closed!’ Caroline called out. Then she said, ‘Oh, no.’ Pushed her coffee cup aside. ‘Bloody woman. Now she really does make you think you’re trapped in some ghastly timewarp.’

Caroline opened one of the double glass doors.

‘Is that the vicar I see with you, Mrs Cassidy?’

Merrily stood up, heart thumping.

Miss Devenish was hatless. She wore a shapeless dress with a geranium pattern. Her hair was in two plaits which looked as strong as anchor chains. Her face was grave.

‘Ah. Mrs Watkins. Yes. Could I talk to you, please? In my shop?’

Lol was shivering in the dark. Hunched into a corner of the loft, hugging his knees; he felt like a priest in a priest’s hole. Hunted.

Filtered through a tiny, mossed-over skylight, the only light in here was green. It was unearthly, it made his fingers look like corpse fingers; he shuffled to squeeze himself into shadow.

Although his eyes were fixed on the green skylight, the pictures rolling in were all white. The warm blizzard of blossom in the orchard. The disorientation.

The whiteout. And the girl. Her features indistinct, a corpse under a pale catafalque of blossom.

Oh God, the girl.

The mews was deserted. The shops had closed, the afternoon clouded over. Lucy Devenish didn’t speak until the double doors were between them and the face of Caroline Cassidy, puckered with resentment.

‘Appalling woman. Never tell her anything you don’t want the entire county to know.’

Merrily said, ‘Lucy, unless this is really important, could we perhaps talk tomorrow? I’m honestly not thinking too well at the moment.’

But it clearly was important. ‘Come to the shop.’ Lucy Devenish took her arm and led her into the mews. ‘Please.’

From even a few yards away, Ledwardine Lore looked like an old-fashioned fruit shop. Then you saw that none of the apples in the window were real and small butterfly creatures were all over them. Merrily experienced a momentary illusion of being outside herself, as though nothing at all here was real, as though this was an enchanted village in a child’s dream. It was a moment of strange relief.

‘Come in, Merrily.’

The door was unlocked, but the shop had closed, the lights were out. It was dim inside. The smell of apples was overwhelming.

‘Hello, Mum,’ Jane said softly.

Lucy Devenish didn’t put on the lights. As though she didn’t want Merrily to see Jane too clearly.

The kid was on a stool up against the counter. Her features were indistinct. There was a couple of yards between them, so Merrily couldn’t tell whether she was smiling or serious. All around her, things shaped like apples. Mugs, candles, ornaments. Pot fruit, wax fruit, fluffy fruits.

Breath bolted into Merrily. Her anxiety swelled for an instant and then burst, like a boil. Relief, but a discoloured relief.

‘Oh Jesus,’ she croaked finally. ‘Where the hell have you been?’

Jane said nothing. Merrily saw that she was holding an apple-shaped mug, faintly steaming, between her hands, as if for warmth.

Lucy Devenish shut the door.

‘She’s been with me,’ she said.

Merrily turned on her angrily. ‘For how long?’

‘Oh,’ Lucy said. ‘All ... all day.’

‘I don’t understand.’ Her vision adjusting to the dimness, she saw that Jane still wore her school uniform, even the blazer, even the tie. ‘She should have been at school, for heaven’s sake. What’s going on? What’s happened to her?’

‘It was me,’ Lucy said quickly. ‘I went for my early-morning walk and I’m afraid I collapsed. In Blackberry Lane. Stupid of me, I thought the fresh air would make me feel better.’

She had her back to the door, her face almost entirely in shadow.

‘It’s ... it’s a blood pressure problem. One forgets one’s age. All I can say is thank God for Jane. I was lying in the hedge when she found me. Somehow, she got me home. And then she made me some tea. And she insisted on staying with me. I kept telling her to leave, but she wouldn’t. Of course, she missed the bus.’

Jane didn’t move, her hands still clasping the steaming orb of the apple mug.

‘I wanted to drive her to school, but she said I wasn’t fit to drive in my condition. A bossy child.’

‘You could have sent her to find me,’ Merrily said cautiously. ‘I could’ve taken her.’

‘Oh. Well. If I’m being truthful – I’m sorry, Jane – that was why she didn’t want to find you. Because she said you would only have insisted on taking her to school and she told me she didn’t want to have to explain to everybody.’

Merrily sighed. ‘I’ve been worried sick. When she didn’t get off the school bus ...’

‘She’s been helping me in the shop. We rather lost track of time. I’m so sorry, Merrily.’

‘I just wish somebody had told me. How are you feeling now, Miss Devenish?’

‘Much better, thank you.’

‘Have you seen the doctor?’

‘That twerp Asprey? No, thank you. And indeed, Merrily, I’d be very grateful if you wouldn’t mention this to anybody. Tell the Cassidy woman to mind her own damn business.’

‘Is there anything I can do for you?’

‘Your daughter’s done everything. Take her home.’

Caroline Cassidy’s gossip-greedy gaze alighted on them as soon as they emerged into the mews.

‘Oh, Merrily, I’m so glad!’

Perhaps she noticed Jane’s vacant eyes, because she backed off a little, with a meaningful glance towards the door of Ledwardine Lore.

‘She, er, she was helping Miss Devenish,’ Merrily said.

‘All day?

‘No, that was ... a mistake on my part. I got a little confused. Everything got kind of criss-crossed. I’m sorry to have caused such a fuss.’

Caroline’s tilted smile showed she believed not a word, and who could blame her.

Jane was silent. Crossing the market place. Merrily kept glancing at her, sure she was a little pale. In curious contrast, as it happened, to Miss Lucy Devenish, who’d looked as ripe and ruddy as one of the apples in her damned shop window. Blood-pressure – balls.

They crossed the square to the church and the vicarage shoulder to shoulder, but there was distance between them.

Into the silence came a long, low rumble from the church. Merrily could see through the lych-gate that the porch doors were wide open, like amplifying hands. The sound was like the rising drone of an enormous vacuum cleaner.

‘Again!’ sang a man’s voice. ‘Come on, again! Fill those lungs!’

Dermot Child, rehearsing his choral work, the male voices like mud in the bottom of a deep pond.

Aulllllllld ciderrrrrrrrr.

Jane didn’t look up, but Merrily thought she saw the kid shiver.

Lol came down from the loft. He stumbled.

‘This is a nightmare, Lucy.’

‘Perhaps.’ Lucy’s face was gaunt in the gloom. ‘If her mother doesn’t start to realize a few things soon, I’m going to have to talk to the child in greater depth.’

All the apple colours and the translucence in the wings of the fairies had dulled like a stained-glass window at night. The shop seemed heavy around Lucy. It seemed to be not so much a diversion for her as a symbol of responsibility. For the first time it occurred to him that she was probably quite an old woman.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘She was just lying there. She was all white. At first, I thought she was dead. When she moved, it ... I just wanted to run away from it. But I couldn’t. You know? I couldn’t move. What was she doing there, Lucy? Again.’

‘Laurence,’ Lucy said, ‘you’re living on your own, too near the orchard. At the wrong time. If you have a weakness, some things will play to that weakness. When you’re prepared to tell me what the weakness is, we can take it from there.’

‘I’m all weakness,’ Lol said.

‘You’re not helping yourself.’ Lucy’s face darkened. ‘I can’t help you if I don’t know the root of the problem.’

‘Can I think about this?’

‘It seems to me,’ Lucy said severely, ‘that you’ve already been thinking about it rather too long.’

18

The Little Green Orchard

IT WAS, MERRILY thought in dismay, like still living in a hotel. One without any guests or staff. A hotel in winter.

‘Sure this is the lot, Vicar?’ Gomer Parry had asked her, about three times.

‘I’m afraid it is.’

This is awful, she was still thinking, after two days of moving things around. She’d forgotten quite how much furniture she’d sold or given away over the past three years. What it meant was that they had about enough for a decent-sized flat with one living room and a couple of bedrooms.

Gomer Parry had done it in one trip. Bloody sight easier, he said, than when he and Minnie moved in from the Radnor Valley, with all Minnie’s clutter from nearly forty years of marriage to the late Frank. Gomer and his nephew, Nev, took no more than half an hour to get all the stuff in. But, until such time as the property market improved to a point where the Diocese could make a killing on Ledwardine Vicarage, Merrily was stuck with it.

Behind the door, she’d found a letter from the North Herefordshire Gay and Lesbian Collective expressing support for Richard Coffey’s ‘brave reappraisal of an historic injustice’ and urging her to ‘do the right thing’. She filed it for a future non-committal reply and returned to practical problems.

So. OK. There were two ways they could handle this situation. They could scatter the bits and pieces around, so that the whole place had the air of somewhere partly moved-into. Or they could furnish a couple of rooms reasonably well, which made it seem as though you were the live-in caretakers in some kind of hostel.

‘I’m told there’s a couple of reasonable secondhand shops in Hereford. If we spent say two hundred pounds fairly wisely, we might make a bit of a difference.’

‘Yeah,’ Jane said. ‘Whatever.’

It didn’t help that the kid was still into the idea of this third-floor flat arrangement. More into it than ever, in fact. She’d charmed Gomer and Nev into taking her bed to the top floor, into one of the smaller bedrooms, while the biggest one up there, which she insisted on keeping locked until she’d finished painting the walls, had her stereo, her albums, her books.

Merrily felt guilty as well as intimidated. Acres – literally, probably – of wasted space.

‘But, my dear, virtually all country vicarages are like this,’ Caroline Cassidy said, when she and Terrence arrived to assist. ‘That’s why so many vicars end up having enormous families. Of course, you’ll marry again one day. Oh yes, you will!’

‘Perhaps I could offer a home to some refugees,’ Merrily had said, and Caroline had looked quite appalled. Almost as appalled as she’d been when she first saw their miserable collection of worthless furniture, making Merrily scared that they were going to be regarded as a charity case and all kinds of appalling junk would get dumped on them. ‘Actually,’ she’d lied, ‘there’s quite a bit more over in Cheltenham, but we wanted to do a bit of decorating first.’ Caroline had looked sceptical.

As, in fact, she had over the issue of Jane’s disappearance, which Merrily had tried to gloss over. Fairly sure she hadn’t mentioned to Caroline that the kid had failed to catch the bus in the morning, she’d said Jane had simply missed the one home and had to get a lift from a friend’s father.

All right then, flower, what really happened?

She never seemed to get a chance to ask the question – one for a long night in front of a log fire. But it was getting too close to summer for log fires and they never seemed to get a full night in together. Now people knew where to find the vicar, the doorbell and the phone rarely stopped.

Which was good. In a way. It was good to deal with day-to-day stuff: planning weddings and christenings, agonizing over whether to buy new prayer books. And putting off decisions on more contentious issues.

On Friday night, Richard Coffey invited her to dinner at the Black Swan. He had with him a man called Martin Creighton, a theatre director, and Creighton’s earnest girlfriend Mira Wickham, a set designer.

‘I happened to run into the bishop,’ Coffey said.

‘Oh.’ Merrily fingered her napkin. ‘I wondered if you might.’

‘He’s thrilled, of course, about our idea for staging Wil in the church. He’s very keen to encourage the wider use of ecclesiastical premises. For the church to be the centre of the community again.’

‘Well, me too, obviously, it’s just ... Well, I’d like to have some time to look into the Wil Williams story. I feel it’s important we get him right.’

‘Get him right?’ Coffey’s map-like face pulsed in the candlelight. Merrily blinked wearily; she was too tired for all this.

‘If you were doing it in a theatre, that would be one thing. But in the church where he ... preached ... I just think we all have a responsibility to get as close to the truth as we can.’

‘Ah, the truth. What an adaptable little word that is. The truth. A truth. The literal truth. A universal truth. Where do we begin?’

Martin Creighton laughed. Mira Wickham smiled.

‘I think we have to begin,’ Merrily said, ‘with whether Wil Williams really was a witch.’ She took a quick sip of wine. ‘And whether he really was gay.’

Coffey leaned back. He wore a black leather jacket and a white shirt and a sort of chamois-leather bow tie. He was not accompanied by Stefan Alder, his partner. There was no humour in his smile.

‘Mrs Watkins, if you were to substitute the word “heterosexual” – as in “whether he was heterosexual” – you would perhaps appreciate the degree of offence implicit in the line you’re taking.’

‘Oh, now, look, obviously I intended no offence at all. I have absolutely nothing against—’

‘Woofters? Queers?’ Tilting his head, playing with her.

‘All I’m saying, Mr Coffey’ – Merrily gripped her napkin – ‘is that if we’re talking about causing offence—’

‘I know what you’re saying. I gather you’ve already had a state visit from a certain descendant of the tyrannical Thomas Bull. Who thinks I’ve developed a grudge against his entire lineage because the bastard capitalized so ruthlessly on my friend Stefan’s desire to live in his lodge.’

‘Something like that,’ Merrily admitted.

‘All right, let me explain something to you. I’m an exhaustive researcher. I like to know every minute detail of the background against which I am working. Correct, Martin?’

‘Richard’s compulsion to know is legendary,’ Creighton said obsequiously.

‘I have read, therefore, everything extant on the Williams case. Which, I have to say, is not a tremendous amount. It’s very sparse. But perhaps my use of the word extant is a misuse. Available would be a better word. Because there are other documents in existence. Several sources, for instance, make mention of the Journal of Thomas Bull, parts of which have been published – the ones relating to the Civil War, for instance, and the Siege of Hereford. Bull’s interesting to historians because, although a supporter of the Crown, he was, in his private life, a puritan.’

Merrily thought of Bull’s effigy in the church, the rustic simplicity of his clothing.

‘Now. As Justice of the Peace, it was Bull’s job to initiate a prosecution of Williams, if he was convinced there was sufficient evidence. Do you know how this began, Mrs Watkins?’

‘You mean, the chap who saw him dancing with devilish sprites?’

‘No, no, before that; the poor man was accused by one John Rudge, a wealthy, independent farmer, of bringing down a blight on his orchard and destroying his crop of cider apples. Williams, it seems, had good reason to be opposed to the ready availability of cider, having been assaulted by a drunk who wandered into his church. Now ...’

Coffey angled forward, the tabletop candles reflected in his eyes.

‘... we know that, as a puritan – with, if you like, a small p – Thomas Bull also was very much opposed to drink and drunkenness and would not allow cider apples to be grown by any of his tenants. Therefore, he might have been expected, might he not, to take the side of Wil Williams in his crusade for sobriety?’

Merrily nodded slowly.

‘Instead of which,’ Coffey said, ‘Bull appears to have seized on the accusation with a kind of sorrowful glee. This suggests he was already harbouring a certain prejudice against Wil Williams?’

‘I suppose it might. But how will we ever know?’

‘Only’ – Coffey spread his hand delicately – ‘by obtaining access to the unpublished journals of Thomas Bull. Which our friend James Bull-Davies keeps, no doubt, in the deepest of bank vaults. So, the next time he tries to lean on you, Mrs Watkins, I suggest you invite him to resolve the issue by producing them.’

‘Do you have any proof that he’s got them?’

‘I’d be astonished if he hadn’t. And, given his recent, ah, cash-flow difficulty, do you not think he wouldn’t have attempted to sell the journals for publication? I’m not suggesting Tom Bull was any kind of rural Pepys. But his Civil War memoirs are surprisingly erudite. Be worth a good few thousand, I suspect. Certainly well worth putting on the market. Unless of course they contained material which, in the current climate, might be considered highly damaging to the family’s reputation.’

All this made a certain sense.

‘Oh dear,’ Merrily said. ‘It gets complicated, doesn’t it?’

‘So ...’ Coffey said, ‘would you object if Martin and Mira were to have a look at the church over the weekend?’

Of course they already would have done. He was just testing her.

‘Sure,’ Merrily said, resignedly. ‘Go ahead.’

The next day, Jane announced that she was to be manager of Ledwardine Lore for the afternoon. Lol Robinson, who usually conquered his shyness to take care of things while Lucy had a half-day off, had gone to a place near Oxford for a few days, to work on some new songs with Gary Kennedy, leaving Lucy to feed his cat, so ...

The Gary Kennedy?’

‘Oh, Mum, how unutterably sad. The Gary Kennedy!’

‘Listen, when I was your age—’

‘Yeah, yeah, he was huge. Personally, I find it unbelievable that someone like Lol should be reduced to writing lyrics for someone as tragically awful as Gary Kennedy but there you are.’

Merrily watched from the window as Jane crossed the square and entered the mews, to make sure she really was going to Ledwardine Lore. It was wrong to be so suspicious, but she couldn’t dispel the feeling that the kid and Lucy Devenish had come to some kind of arrangement.

When Jane had not emerged from the mews after five minutes, Merrily went into the hall, where Alf had left a few books of local interest on a shelf under the cupboard housing the electric meters. She pulled out a well-thumbed soft-covered book entitled The Black and White Villages of Herefordshire: A short history and carried it into the kitchen, where they’d temporarily placed two easy chairs and the TV, neither of them feeling quite up to the drawing room.

OK. Index. Williams, Wil. p 98.

Merrily pushed the chair on its castors to a spot side-on to the Aga and threw herself down. She wasn’t going to get much out of this, but it would be a start.

‘You’ve been avoiding me.’

Colette was standing right in the centre of the mews, so no chance of avoiding her this time. Short, red plastic windcheater with probably nothing underneath.

‘No, I haven’t.’

‘You fucking have, Janey. I get sent off to scour the village for the vicar’s precious child – and believe me the Reverend Mumsy was in a big, big fret – and the next thing I hear is you’ve turned up in Devenish’s den in like seriously mysterious circumstances.’

‘That’s bollocks. There was nothing mysterious at all, there—’

She stopped talking, spotting the slow-growing smile and knowing she’d blown it, because if there was genuinely nothing to hide then she’d have played along, pretending there was, wouldn’t she?

‘Oh, Janey, what are we getting into? I mean, are we like talking, erm ... we talking orchard?’

‘No way.’

‘See, like, there’s two possibles where that orchard’s concerned. One is that you’ve actually got a secret guy.

‘Bitch,’ said Jane. ‘How did you find out?’

‘Or it goes back to that night when the cider did things for you it ain’t never done for me, and you know how I really hate it when that happens.’

‘Well, obviously it did things to me it didn’t do to you, on account of you’ve been getting regularly pissed out of your mind for years.’

‘Not good enough. Plus there’s the Devenish angle. That creepy, tacky little shop you can’t turn round in without horrible little fairies dropping down your front. You’re going there now, yeah? Again?’

‘So? It’s a weekend job, all right? We’re not all seriously rich, like on the Cassidy scale.’

‘I’ll find out,’ Colette said menacingly. ‘You can frigging count on it.’

By the mid-1600s, prosecutions for witchcraft were rare in the western half of the country. A notable exception was the case of Wil Williams, of Ledwardine, the second English vicar in this period to be accused of consorting with the devil. About twenty-five years earlier, the Reverend John Lowes, vicar of Brandeston in Suffolk, had been brought to justice by the notorious Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. Lowes, who was over eighty when he was ducked in the moat of Framlingham Castle, was alleged to have caused the death of a child and a number of cattle by witchcraft as well as employing a familiar spirit to sink a ship off Harwich.

By comparison, Williams’s alleged crime was minor: he was accused by a local farmer of ruining his crop of cider apples. However, other witnesses were said to be ready to testify that the vicar had been seen dancing with shining spirits in the orchard which, at that time, almost surrounded the church.

Whether these charges would have been proved in court will ever remain a mystery as, when warned of his impending arrest, Williams hanged himself in the very orchard he had been accused of bewitching. This was naturally taken as proof of his guilt, and he was buried in unhallowed ground, with only an apple tree to mark his resting place. It was said that neither this tree nor any others planted on the spot ever yielded an apple. The farmer who had laid the charge died soon afterwards and his family was quick to dispose of the orchard, dividing it into sections which were sold off separately. Ledwardine would never again be quite true to its reputation as The Village in the Orchard.

Merrily laid the book on the pine table – which looked like a footstool in this barn of a kitchen – and made herself some tea. Certainly this account backed up Coffey’s argument that Williams had been framed, and this surely could only have been done with the approval of the local JP, Thomas Bull. But it was still a big leap to the idea that Wil was gay.

There was something missing.

Jane was embarrassed. She thought hurting anyone’s feelings was the worst thing you could do to them. Sticks and stones might break your bones, but bones usually healed.

‘I feel awful,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Lucy Devenish. ‘I wouldn’t have expected you to. You’re not old enough.’

The book before Jane on the counter in Ledwardine Lore was quite slim and clearly for children. Its cover was this splodgy watercolour, all green. A small girl, done in pen and ink, was sitting in a clearing in a wood surrounded by trees which were not big but, with their tangled branches making the vague shapes of faces, were very sinister. The girl was looking, half-fearfully, over her shoulder.

The book was called The Little Green Orchard.

It was by Lucy Devenish.

‘Title came from Walter de la Mare’s poem,’ Lucy said. ‘Do you know it?’

Oh yes, Jane remembered that poem from way back in primary school, when it had frightened her a lot. It was about someone you couldn’t see but who was always waiting there in this little green orchard. Always watching you.

‘It used to scare me.’

‘Good,’ Lucy snapped. ‘Children today are not scared nearly often enough. A child that grows up without fear grows up to be a danger to us all.’

Jane opened the book. Its dust jacket was quite dry and brittle and its price was seven shillings and sixpence.

‘Nineteen sixty-four,’ Lucy said. ‘They stopped wanting to publish me about seven years later. Fairy stories? Oh dear me, no. They wanted tales about robots and space ships. Old Dahl kept getting away with it, the bastard, and Blyton lives for ever. But I accept I wasn’t such a wonderful writer that I could do what I wanted, so I stopped doing it. Jumble-sale fodder before you were born, so it’s hardly surprising you’d never heard of me.’

There was another book underneath the first. This one was larger format and had a more cheerful cover, with a happy-looking landscape of smiley flowers, friendly-looking shady trees and sunny hills. And another small girl, this one wandering down a long path and looking kind of blissed-out. In fact the whole package looked a bit like one of those album-covers from the sixties, when bands first discovered mind-altering drugs. Lucy seemed a bit old to have been involved in all that; perhaps it was just the artist. This book was called The Other Voices.

‘Did you never think of reprinting them and selling them here in the shop?’

‘Heavens,’ Lucy said. ‘That would have been desperate, wouldn’t it? Oh, one might do a spot of squirming at the efforts of the dreadful Duchess of York, but at the end of the day ... well, at the end of the day, it’s the end of the bloody day, isn’t it?’

‘Don’t say that!’

‘Jane.’ Lucy leaned over her folded arms. ‘Watch my lips. I don’t care. Don’t give a flying fart. I got the book out because I wanted you to read it. Now. At once. Look, I brought you a stool. Be a good girl, sit down over there and read the books. Take you about twenty minutes each. They’re only children’s stories, but they might make some things clearer. Read The Other Voices first, then ask any questions you like.’

At which point, Lucy seemed to lose all interest in Jane, took down a row of apple mugs and set about them with a duster.

Jane had no alternative but to sit down and get into The Other Voices, which was probably intended for nine-year-olds, max.

It was about a little girl called Rosemary whose mother was ill, and so she went to stay with her grandparents in Herefordshire, natch, on a farm so remote that there were no other children to play with for miles. For a while, Rosemary was very sad, and wandered the fields and paths talking to the flowers and the trees because there was no one else. Pretty soon, she was imagining that the flowers and trees were talking back (which seemed, psychologically, reasonable enough to Jane), each with a distinctive voice. Like the dandelions had these high, pealing yellow voices. The bluebells, because there were so many of them so close together, spoke in a soft, blue harmonious chorus, watched over by the oak trees who, of course, had very deep, powerful brown voices. Soon, in the background, Rosemary could hear other sounds and realized that the hills themselves were breathing. In fact, if she looked hard, she could even see them breathing, their misty sides going in and out, very slowly, far more slowly than human breathing.

This went on for some days, Rosemary waking earlier and earlier because she couldn’t wait to get outside to be with her friends. One morning, she awoke especially early, for this was midsummer, and her friends were putting on a special concert. The birds started them off, the dawn chorus activating everything. And then, as the sun rose, the flowers began to open and as they opened they started to sing, and the trees joined in with their bass notes and the hills amplified their heartbeats like drums and by the time the sun was fully up, Rosemary could no longer hear separate voices, but only musical tones, which blended together until the whole of nature became one huge, magnificent orchestra.

And Rosemary started to wonder about the orchestra’s conductor. Who had composed the music, who had arranged it.

Of course, Rosemary’s mother came out of hospital, which she was very glad about, except that she had to go home to the city, which kind of mortified her. She at once caught a cold which turned into flu, and she was very miserable. One day, when she was a little better, to give her some air, her mother took her out to the dreary old park she’d been to a thousand times ... and, on the way there, Rosemary spotted a single dandelion growing out of a patch of earth around a street lamp, and the dandelion beamed up at her in recognition and she looked up over the rooftops to distant hills and could feel them ... breathing, inside her, and by the time they got to the park, well ...

And Rosemary realized everything had changed, for ever.

Jane looked up. ‘She’d changed, of course. But you never say that.’

‘First rule of writing for children. Never lecture. Never let them think it’s a parable. Which of course’ – Lucy put down her duster – ‘you know it isn’t.’

‘Shame there aren’t books like that for adults.’

‘Adults,’ said Lucy, ‘can read Traherne.’

‘Oh,’ Jane said. ‘Right.’ Not a single customer had been in while she was reading; she wondered how Lucy kept this place going.

‘The story you’ve just read is, of course, an introduction to Traherne’s world. Traherne showed how higher consciousness is there for us all. I’ll give you some of his work to take home. Leave it lying about and hope your mother reads it. There’s so much she needs to know, if she’s going to surv— succeed here.’ Lucy snatched up her duster. ‘Now read the other one.’

In the little green orchard, there was an awesome hush.

In the little green orchard, it all became serious.

Rosemary again. A little older.

Her grandfather had died and she was spending the holidays with her grandmother, helping out on the farm, where it would soon be time to harvest the apples.

Rosemary had never been into the orchard before.

She was to discover that the orchard was the heart of everything.

19

The Nighthouse

LUCY SENT JANE to the village stores to buy a pound of apples. Any apples would do. Jane returned with three large Bramleys. The apples lay on the counter, the only living fruit in a shop devoted to artificial representations of it.

Lucy talked about apples. As the highest and purest and most magical of fruits. She talked of the golden apples of Greek myth. Of the mystical Avalon, the orchard where King Arthur had passed over. Of Eve.

And of the apple as the mystic heart of Herefordshire. The seventeenth-century diarist, John Evelyn, had written that ‘all Herefordshire has become, in a manner, but one entire orchard’, praising Lord Scudamore, who had improved and refined the cider apple, developing the famous Redstreak, from which the Ledwardine apple, the Pharisees Red, had been, in turn, created.

‘Why’s it called that?’ Jane asked.

Lucy smiled. When she did that, her cheeks seemed to take on the ruddier colours of the apples on the counter. She was wearing a long, green dress, her hair in this complicated bun. She must have really quite long hair, Jane realized. You could imagine her, in years gone by, striding the land with her hair blowing out parallel to the ground. Listening to the hills breathe. Believing everything was possible. Like some ancient, Celtic enchantress.

Jane was just blown away. Lucy was just, like, the coolest person she’d ever met.

‘Pay attention, Jane!’ Lucy snapped.

‘Sorry.’

‘Now.’ Lucy plucked a souvenir penknife from a rack. She selected an apple, laid it on a square of plain wrapping paper. ‘I’m going to cut it sideways. Have you ever done this before?’

Jane shook her head and Lucy pushed the point of the knife into the apple and sliced it in half.

‘There.’ She held out a half in the palm of each hand. ‘What do you see?’

Jane leaned over the counter. The green-white pulp was veined with thin green lines and dots which made a kind of wheel.

‘Count the spokes,’ Lucy said.

‘Five.’

‘It makes a five-pointed star, you see? Inside a circle. A pentagram.’

‘Oh, wow.’ Jane had read enough weird books involving pentagrams in her time.

‘Forget all this black magic nonsense. The pentagram’s a very ancient symbol of purification and of protection. And there’s one at the heart of every apple. That says something, doesn’t it?’

‘That’s like really amazing.’ She couldn’t stop looking at the little green veins. ‘Something really ordinary, like an apple.’

Nothing is ordinary! Read Traherne.’

‘I’m going to.’

‘Least of all the apple,’ Lucy said sternly. ‘Let no one talk of the humble apple to me.

Jane looked around the shop and saw it with different eyes, like the storybook child, Rosemary, in the park. It was more than a little souvenir shop, it was a shrine. A temple. A temple to the apple.

‘You were going to tell me why it was called the Pharisees Red.’

‘No, I wasn’t,’ Lucy said.

‘All right, well, I asked you, didn’t I?’

‘That’s not the same thing.’

'Will you tell me? Like in the scribes and pharisees, all that stuff?’

‘Jane, you’re so ill-read.’ Lucy came out from behind the counter, pulled down a large, fat, soft-backed book. ‘Here, find out for yourself. Page forty-three.’

It was The Folklore of Herefordshire by Ella Mary Leather.

‘Published in 1912,’ Lucy said. ‘A formidable work of research and scholarship.’

On page forty-three, Jane found a sub-heading.

(5) Fairies

Although there are now but few persons living in

Herefordshire who believe in fairies, faith in their existence

must have been common enough with the folk of the last

generation. All the old people who can tell anything about

fairies do not call them fairies at all, but farises’; the word is

pronounced almost like Pharisees.

‘So you see, Jane, nothing too biblical about that.’

‘Oh, wow.’

‘Don’t keep saying that. It’s most annoying. Of course, people deny today that it’s anything to do with fairies, but people always deny fairies because the word itself has become such a term of ridicule.’

Jane looked at the matchstick-limbed, gossamer-winged things clinging to the rims of cups and plaques, perched on the tops of shelves, the edges of picture frames.

‘Nothing like those, Jane, I’m afraid. Those are the traditional forms that everybody knows, and if one is to create an impression of the spirit in nature, that’s the one people are normally prepared to accept, even as a joke. If one were to create an effigy of a real tree spirit, as they’re more often perceived by those able to, the customers would be disturbed and I’d have a reputation as something a good deal worse than a lunatic crone.’

‘Tree spirits?’

‘For want of a more credible term. Essences, whatever you want to call them. They are, in fact, more perceptible in and around fruit-bearing trees. The female trees. That’s why I was so outraged by all this nonsensical talk of the oldest tree in the orchard as the Apple Tree Man. Not a feminist thing, simply the way it is.’

‘But I still don’t understand why the apples were called Farises Red. Were they supposed to belong to the fairies?’

‘What you have,’ said Lucy, ‘is a belief in some supernatural intervention in the creation of this particular apple. It’s a not-so-rare blending of paganism, as we’re forced to call it, and Christianity. The church being, for much of its history, in the very centre of the orchard. Which came first, I wouldn’t like to say, though I suspect the orchard. Perhaps there was a pre-Christian shrine where the church now stands, we can’t say, we can but speculate.’

‘Oh, w—’ Jane swallowed. Waited. Lucy detached one of the tiny fairies from a shelf edge, held it up to the light.

‘Translucence, you see. That’s the essence of it. As fine as air. Spirits of the air. The spirits of the earth, goblins and things, are denser. The tree elves are brown and green. They’re the protective and motivating forces in nature. Some of them are of limited intelligence but, like us, they evolve. I find it impossible to explain the phenomenon of life without them.’

‘Mum might not be sympathetic’

Lucy thought for a moment, her lips becoming a tight bud.

After a while she said, ‘The great mystery of life can be approached in terms of pure physics – the electronic soup of atoms and particles. And also in religious terms. Terms, that’s all it is, Jane. Traherne never speaks of elves or devas, but he refers all the time to angels. Cherubim and seraphim and cupids who pass through the air bringing love. Traherne is full of coded references – we know of his interest in the ancient occult philosophy of Hermes Trismegistus, we know from the writings of John Aubrey that Traherne was psychic.

But in those days, as you know, one had to be extremely cautious.’

‘Or you ended up like Wil Williams?’

‘Precisely, Jane. Williams, we know, was Traherne’s protege as well as his neighbour. I think Wil was a little too incautious in his attempts to walk with the angels.’

Jane said, ‘Mum doesn’t have much to say about angels. Angels are not cool in today’s streetwise Church. I mean ...’

‘Angelic forces correspond to what are called devic presences. The devas are the prime movers, if you like, in the structure. A deva may control a whole area, a whole sphere of activity, or an ecosystem.’

‘Like an orchard?’ Jane said automatically.

Lucy positively purred with pleasure. ‘You’re making the leaps. You’re receiving help. The channel was opened – you know when.’

‘I thought it was just the cider.’

‘Oh, the cider’s very much a part of it. The cider’s the blood of the orchard. It’s in your blood now. I felt at once that it had to be one or both of you.’

‘Us?’

‘You and Merrily.’

‘She won’t want to know,’ Jane said.

Jane returned just before six. She said trade had not been exactly brisk, but a nice Brummie couple with a corgi had bought a set of four hand-painted apple-shaped cups and saucers for sixty-four pounds.

‘Thank heavens for people with no taste,’ Jane said.

Merrily noticed she had with her a copy of the Penguin edition of selected poems and prose by Thomas Traherne.

‘You bought that with your wages?’

‘Lucy gave it to me. I refused to take any wages. It’s fun playing shop.’

‘You going to actually read it?’

‘Of course I’m going to read it. Traherne’s cool’

‘Oh. Right. Should’ve realized. Why is he cool?’

‘Because he could see that we were surrounded by all this beauty, but we didn’t appreciate it, and we were quite likely to destroy it. Which was pretty prophetic thinking back in the mid-seventeenth century, when there was no industry and no insecticides and things.’

‘Fair enough,’ Merrily said.

‘And he said we should enjoy the world. Get a buzz out of it. Get high on nature. Like, God wanted us to be happy.’

‘Like have parties and things?’

‘You know,’ Jane said, ‘you kind of make me sick sometimes. You’re so smug.’

Merrily said nothing. Oh, dear. One of those moods.

And yet – thinking about it – she hadn’t been at all sullen or sulky of late. Just distant, more self-contained. As if there was something going on inside her. Which, of course, there would be at her age, all kinds of volatile chemicals sloshing about.

A boy?

Possibly. But why would she hide that? She’d never hidden it in the past. No, this was something to do with Miss Devenish. Twice Jane had disappeared, twice she’d turned up with Lucy Devenish.

But I rather like Lucy Devenish.

Merrily lit a cigarette. Should she go and talk to the old girl?

Jane went up to her apartment to work on her Mondrian walls. This apparently involved painting the irregular rectangles between the oak beams in blue, black, red and white. The Listed Buildings inspector would probably come out in the same colours if he ever saw it. Still, as even Merrily wasn’t allowed to see it ...

What the hell ... Sometimes kids should be allowed – even encouraged – to behave bizarrely. Merrily finished her cigarette then went to put some supper together.

When Jane came down to eat, she dropped the big one.

‘I’ll probably go to church tomorrow.’

‘Sorry?’ Merrily turned from the Aga, dropping a slice of hot focaccia in shock. ‘What did you just say?’

‘I think you heard.’

‘All right, flower,’ Merrily said calmly, ‘you go and lie down, I’ll call the doctor.’

‘Very funny.’

Jane walked over to the kitchen window. There was a sunset blush on the lawn. Merrily gazed out, a little bewildered, unsure how to handle this development. She’d made a point of never exerting any pressure to get the kid into a service. Admittedly, it would be politic for the minister’s daughter to be present at her mother’s official installation ceremony with the bishop next Friday, and to persuade Jane to come, she’d planned a small deal – after the service, she could go on to Colette Cassidy’s birthday party, no restrictions.

It looked as if no deal would be needed. Who was the influence? Thomas Traherne? Miss Devenish, more like. She should be delighted, but somehow she felt rather offended.

She took in a big breath. ‘Jane.’

‘Huh?’

‘What happened the day you didn’t go to school?’

Jane looked at her, almost through her. The dark blue eyes were completely blank. She’d seen eyes like that on kids a year or two older than Jane, up in Liverpool; they were usually on drugs.

Merrily tried not to panic. ‘Tell me what happened, Jane.’

‘She told you,’ Jane said almost wildly. ‘Lucy told you.’

‘I want to hear it from you.’

‘You don’t believe me.’

‘You haven’t told me anything not to believe.’

A shadow seemed to pass between them. She remembered how, as a small child, Jane would conceal small things – an old tennis ball, once, that she’d found in the garden – for fear they would be taken away from her if her mother found out. At the age of ten, she’d got hold of a thick paperback by Jilly Cooper, hiding it under a panel in the floor of her wardrobe like it was real hard porn.

‘You’re all the same.’ The kid’s face suddenly crumpled like a tissue. ‘You think you know everything.’

‘What ...’ Merrily moved towards her. ‘What’s wrong, flower?’

‘You ...’ Jane backed away, something inflamed about her eyes. ‘You stand up there in your pulpit, Mrs sodding Holier-than-thou, and you drivel on about the Virgin Birth and the Holy bloody Ghost, the same stuff, over and over and over again, and—’

‘Jane? What’s all this about?’

‘What’s the fucking use? I don’t think I’ll bother with any supper. I’ll just go to bed.’

‘You’re not making a word of sense, do you know that? What’s brought this on? Can we talk about it?’

Jane just stamped past her, gripping the copy of Traherne.

It must be ... what? Three a.m.?

The alarm clock ticking, very loud in the big bedroom with hardly any furniture. The clock – an old-fashioned one with twin bells, none of your cell-battery bleepers in this house – set for five-thirty because there was Holy Communion at eight. Only about half a dozen people last week, mainly pensioners, including Uncle Ted out of familial loyalty.

She thought about Jane, then, and her mind flooded with anxiety. Once again, the kid had a secret she was afraid might be taken away from her. This time it would not be so innocuous.

She drifted away again, with the ticking of the alarm clock. A night breeze ruffled the trees. And the sounds overhead. Footsteps. Very soft. Bare feet, slithering.

Merrily was icily awake.

The room – one pine wardrobe, one small table, one bed – was grey-washed by the moon behind clouds like smoke. She lifted up an arm, and that also was grey, as though her skin was transparent and her body was filled with moon gases which made it very light, and so she didn’t even remember getting out of bed and moving to the door. I’m dreaming, she told herself. This is a dream. But she didn’t wake up.

Outside were the doors, concealing mournful, derelict rooms that would never be filled. Rooms where even the memories were stale. She was alone on the first floor of Ledwardine Vicarage. A bathroom, a toilet and four bedrooms, only one slept in. She was alone on this level, while Jane paced overhead, angrily painting her walls by night. Was this part of her secret? Was the secret simply that she had to have secrets, a private life?

Merrily shivered; it would soon be summer and the night-house was November-cold.

The nighthouse. A different place, a colder place.

The noises overhead had stopped. Well, all right, if Jane wanted to paint in the night, that was up to her. It was the weekend; she could keep her own hours in her own apartment. Merrily, on the other hand, needed her sleep if she was going to be up and bathed and breakfasted in time for Holy Communion.

She found herself standing by the stairs, a hand on the oak rail, a foot on the first step to the third storey. She looked up quickly and thought she saw a light glowing, and then she turned away, took a step back. It was Jane’s storey, Jane’s apartment, none of her business. But in the moment she turned away, she felt an aching sense of impending loss.

She would go back to bed, try for two more hours’ sleep. She turned to her door and realized she didn’t know which it was.

She trembled, hugged herself, arms bubbled with goose-bumps. Doors. Moonlight turning their brass knobs into silver balls. She lunged at the nearest, grabbed it, turned it. Stumbled in with her eyes closed, slammed the door behind her. In dreams, you could make as much noise as you liked. When I open my eyes, I’ll awaken in my own bed. It will be nearly morning.

Cold moonlight soaked an empty room, a room she hardly recognized, been inside it no more than a couple of times. A long, narrow room, uncarpeted, its floorboards black and bumpy and ending in a long and leaded window, unseasonally running with condensation.

A figure stood by the window, its back to her.

‘Jane? What are you doing down here?’

There was a vibration in the room, running like a mouse along the floorboard from the window to where she stood; she could feel it through the soles of her bare feet, and it ran up the backs of her legs, under her nightdress to her spine.

It wasn’t Jane.

She backed up to the door, her fingers feeling behind her for the knob and gripping it and turning it. The brass knob turned and turned again, but the door did not open.

Merrily turned it harder and faster, in a panic now. The figure at the window began to shift, and she saw the head in profile and the face was a man’s.

The knob loosened, began to spin in the lock until it just came out in her hand in the very instant that the figure turned from the window to face her, and it needed no moon, it carried its own pale light.

‘Oh, please,’ Merrily whispered. ‘Please, not here.’

Sean glided towards her. He could not speak for the blood in his mouth.

Jane didn’t make it to church after all. There was no explanation. After the morning service, two parishioners commented on there being only two hymns, and Uncle Ted had told Merrily she wasn’t looking at all well. It must have been a wearing few weeks, getting used to everything and now moving into a new house. She ought to think about having a few days away. Perhaps after her installation service, when she felt more secure, more bound to the parish.

Merrily asked, in a steady voice, if her predecessor, Alf Hayden, would be at the service. There were some things she wanted to ask him. About the vicarage.

‘Ah, yes,’ Ted said. ‘Alf.’

No, he said, Alf would not be coming, as he was rather unwilling to embarrass his successor at this difficult time.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘This is difficult,’ Ted said. ‘Alf’s received a letter signed by a number of parishioners urging him to use his influence to keep Richard Coffey’s play out of the village.’

She was dismayed. ‘Why’ve they written to him?

Ted cleared his throat, embarrassed. ‘Well, they, ah ... because they don’t feel they know you well enough yet to approach you on such a ... contentious issue.’

‘And because they think that as a trendy woman priest, I’m bound to support it! Is that right? Which of my parishioners are we talking about here, Ted?’

‘It’s causing considerable anxiety in certain areas,’ Ted said. ‘It’s only a few people, of course.’

‘But influential people, right? I suppose they know the bishop’s supporting Coffey?’

‘I shall attempt to acquaint the bishop with the way local opinion seems to be moving,’ Ted said, ‘during a dinner party to which I understand we are both invited.’

Merrily was beginning to be aware of the levels of local society she was unlikely to penetrate. Even if she wanted to. She found she was shaking with anger. It was marginally more acceptable than fear.

When she got home, Jane wasn’t there. This was no surprise.

She searched her conscience, as a parent. Then, as a parent, she walked up two flights to Jane’s apartment. Stood outside the doors on the third floor.

Went into Jane’s bedroom, where she found the bed neatly made and clothes neatly on hangers in the wardrobe. The copy of the collected poems of Thomas Traherne was on the floor beside the bed, opened spine-up. She turned it over. It was open to a poem entitled ‘The Vision’, which began,

Flight is but the preparative: the sight

Is deep and infinite.

She put the book down where she’d found it, went out and closed the door. The next door was to the so-called sitting-room/study, where Jane had been painting the Mondrian walls.

It was locked. She turned away, not entirely surprised, and went down the stairs to the first floor. A weak sun sent halfhearted beams through the landing window and through the oak balusters.

Merrily went into her own room to change into a skirt and jumper. The thought struck her that Jane, on the third floor, had risen above her. As if the third floor represented something Merrily couldn’t reach. She was on the halfway floor with her anxieties and trepidations, her earthly ties, her clinging past, her sick dreams of Sean.

She came out of the bedroom and, instead of going directly to the stairs, turned left, trying to remember which had been the door in her dream. The passage didn’t look the same at all. She opened a door at random, into a square, bare room with two small, irregular windows. Would they ever be familiar, these rooms? She tried another. The bathroom, of course. God, this was so stupid. You couldn’t control your dreams, but you must never give into them, let yourself be ruled by a runaway subconscious. Angrily, almost absently, she threw open another door.

Found herself in a long, narrow room with black bumpy floorboards and a long, leaded window.

It all came back at her then. The vague, sun-stroked morning was kicked aside by jagged memories of the night. She couldn’t stand it. With a tiny cry, she sprang back out of the room, pulling the door behind her.

As it slammed shut, she heard the handle fall out on the other side.

20

Hysterical Women

MUCH OF THE time, over the next week, Jane was fine.

She’d do nice things, like get up early, have Merrily’s breakfast made. Bring her a mug of tea when she was working on the admin stuff or her piece for the parish mag. Be pleasant to the parishioners and church wardens. Be sympathetic when Merrily got letters like,

Dear Mrs Watkins,

As you may have noticed, my wife is an excellent singer who used to perform regularly at concerts. Sadly, the village concert as we used to know it is no longer a part of community life and as church is her only opportunity to exercise her undoubted vocal talents in public, both my wife and I have been dismayed by the recent unexplained reduction in the number of hymns at our Sunday services. I trust this is only a temporary aberration and that we can expect a return to the three or four hymns we were used to during the ministry of the Reverend Hayden ...

‘Don’t back down,’ Jane said, efficiently clearing away the breakfast things. ‘From what I’ve heard, old Hayden only had lots of hymns so there’d be less for him to do. His sermons were notoriously crap, apparently.’

‘And who’ve you heard that from, flower?’

‘Oh, you know ... people.’

‘Miss Devenish?’

‘People.’

‘I see. Jane, what do you think of modern hymns?’

‘They’re still hymns, aren’t they? People don’t actually think about them. It’s like being at primary school. Like that alternative prayer book. It’s not really alternative at all, is it? You might as well stick to the old one, it’s more ...’

‘Resonant?’

‘Yeah. How far have you got with that idea for getting the punters to talk back?’

‘I’m kind of working up to it. I don’t know. Maybe I’d just be doing an Alf Hayden because I’m insecure about preaching and can’t accept that my views can be more significant than theirs.’

‘But you’re the middleman, Mum. God speaks through you.’

‘You don’t have to be sarcastic’

‘I’m not sure I was,’ Jane said.

Merrily had not told her about the six letters she’d received, four of them anonymous, urging her to not on any account allow the church to be used for the performance of a play variously described as ‘blasphemous’, ‘satanic’, ‘obscene’ and, most amusingly, ‘typical of a man who writes plays for Channel Four’.

On Wednesday, her mother phoned from Cheltenham to say she’d developed flu and seemed unlikely to make it to this induction service or whatever it was called.

Oh, sure. Nothing to do with her finding the idea of Merrily being a priest a little embarrassing. I just don’t understand. We’ve never had one of those in the family before. I mean, you never showed any interest in religion as a child.

She’d never been able to talk in any kind of depth to her mother, and she never saw her father, who’d moved to Canada after the divorce. Oh yes, had a few of those in the family, haven’t we, Mummy?

‘I gather Ted will be involved in this installation business,’ her mother said. ‘I suppose he’ll look after you.’

Service for the licensing and installation of

THE REVEREND MERRILY WATKINS

as Priest-in-Charge of the parish of Ledwardine.

7.30 p.m.

ALL WELCOME.

‘Expect a full house,’ Ted said when he turned up with the printed leaflets. ‘We haven’t had one of these for over thirty years ... and a woman, too. You’ll enjoy it. You’ll sparkle, I know you will.’

Merrily rubbed tired eyes. ‘How about if I just smoulder?’

Ted smiled. ‘By the way, was it something important you wanted to ask Alf? Because the old bugger won’t be coming. He’s in the Algarve. Timeshare villa.’

‘Easier to maintain than this place.’ Merrily noticed that the kitchen’s smallest window had been reduced, by a rampant Russian vine, to the size of one of those arrow-slits you found in castles.

‘Ah,’ Ted said. ‘It’s this house, isn’t it? You really shouldn’t have to tire yourself out trying to make the place habitable.’ He paused. ‘Look, I’ve been making a few enquiries. If you can hang on for a year, I think we’ll be able to find you something more manageable. Plans’ve gone in for a small development down by the Hereford road. Executive housing, aimed at the kind of people who’d eat at Cassidy’s, so he won’t be objecting, for once.’

Merrily said carefully, ‘Was Alf Hayden glad to get away?’

‘He was glad to retire. Even more time for golf and fishing. I don’t know about get away from the village.’

‘I meant from this house.’

‘Well, it was different for him, as I say, with that big family. He always seemed fond of this pile, even if he didn’t take care of it’

‘He actually found it a good ... atmosphere?’

‘Atmosphere?’ The lawyer’s eyes narrowing in the florid farmer’s face.

Drop it, Merrily thought. Let it go.

‘Sorry.’ She carried his cup and saucer to the sink. ‘It’s just a bit dreary, that’s all.’

‘You’ll brighten it up. And Jane. How’s her apartment coming along?’

‘I don’t really know. She’s keeping it under wraps.’

Jane had bought her own paints and brushes to do her Mondrian thing. Coming out once to meet Merrily halfway up the second stairs, arms spread wide. ‘No – stay out. You’ll only say I’m making a mess.’ Knowing her mum was far too honourable to sneak up there while she was at school.

Separate lives. My God, Merrily thought, we’re starting to lead separate lives, meeting at mealtimes like hotel guests.

On Thursday night, the night before the installation service, she was awoken by a sound from above.

A single, tentative footstep. As though someone was testing the floor, to be sure the boards were firm between the joists. Like one of those ball-bearings in a gaming machine, the sound must have been rolling around her head for an inordinately long time.

Wake up. Come on. Don’t rise to this. Wake up now.

Because she wasn’t really awake at all, was she? Every time something like this happened, she dreamed she was waking up and she got out of bed ... and there were always more doors than there really were in that passage. Doors which should never be opened. Doors to the past. The image of Sean formed again behind her eyes. Sean turning from the window, eyes full of blood, hands feeling the air like the hands of someone newly blind. Merrily remembered shrinking back against the door, knowing that if his hands had found her, he wouldn’t let go and he would always be in that room. She couldn’t remember getting out of there, only awakening, in this bed, in her terror, to the morning.

Merrily opened one eye, with some difficulty. It had been a sticky, sucking sleep, like treacle. She pulled her head from the pillow, looking for the window. A strange, terracotta moon hung low and sultry between the trees. She sat up, blinking. Pushed her hands through her hair. It was damp with sweat. Her nightdress was pasted to her skin. There was a tightness around her chest.

Another footfall. And then another, closer. And then a flurry of them before two final, emphatic steps, like someone taking up a position directly over her bed.

And then silence. What the hell’s she doing up there?

‘No. I slept really well, thank you. Didn’t get up once.’ Wrapped in her yellow towelling robe, Jane spread sunflower marge on crispbread. ‘I don’t get up in the night unless I’m ill, you know that. What time was this?’

‘I don’t know.’ Merrily carried bread to the toaster; she didn’t want any toast, just a night’s sleep. ‘After midnight, before dawn.’

‘Oh, Mum, do you remember me ever getting up in the night?’

‘Well yes, as a matter of fact, the first night we spent here you got up to go to the loo.’

‘I didn’t.’

‘Jane, I’m trying to be patient. You did.’

‘No, I said I wanted to go when I first got into the sleeping bag, and you said forget about it, it’ll go away and so I did and it did.’

‘You got up in the night, flower,’ Merrily said through her teeth. ‘You wanted me to go with you. You were tugging on my hand.’

‘Bloody hell!’ Jane threw down the butter knife. ‘Where do you get this crap from? You were dreaming, for God’s sake! All right. Look. I should’ve told you. I was throwing this wild party last night. Yeah, we had this all-night binge with masses of booze and hard drugs. I’d’ve invited you, but I knew you wanted a good night’s sleep before your initiation ceremony. Christ, Mother!’

‘So you’re saying you didn’t hear anything at all last night,’ Merrily said in a small voice, bent over the toaster, her back to Jane. There was a dull ache far behind her eyes.

Jane made a clicking noise, beyond exasperation. ‘I sleep, as you used to keep pointing out, the sleep of the innocent. Perhaps it was a ghost.’

Merrily dropped hot toast.

Jane grinned slyly. ‘Place is old enough. Yeah, bound to have ghosts. Maybe you should do an exorcism. We have the book, we have the candles, don’t know about the bell, would a bicycle bell do? Hey, did you have, like, mock-hauntings at college to practise your technique?’

‘We didn’t do exorcism. The only ghost that ever got a mention was the Holy Ghost.’

‘I can’t believe it. They didn’t teach you anything useful at that college, did they?’ Jane crunched her crispbread thoughtfully. ‘Er, do you think it’s him?

‘What?’ Merrily shovelled her toast on to a plate and brought it to the table. She didn’t want to talk about this any more. One of them was going a little mad. What did it mean when half your night seemed to be spent in some ungodly no man’s land between reality and dreams? How could you be suffocated by a house this big?

‘Wil.’ Jane smiled wistfully.

‘Don’t be silly.’

‘Hey, if I’d known I could’ve invited him to my party. There’s no decent totty in Ledwardine these days.’

‘All right. Let it go. And talking of parties, will you be coming to mine?’

‘The initiation? That’s what you call a party, is it?’

‘I know, very sad. But the Cassidys are laying on a buffet afterwards in the church itself. Should be over by about half-nine or ten. But perhaps you could slip away, get changed and drift over to Colette’s thing, up in the restaurant?’

Jane met her eyes. The kid could always recognize a deal.

‘What makes you think I want to go to Colette’s party?’

‘Don’t you?’

Jane shrugged. ‘What time would I have to be home?’

Merrily shrugged.

‘Really?’

‘I trust you to be careful. And to remember that you’re not sixteen yet.’

‘So don’t get shagged is what you mean.’

Merrily held the kid’s brazen gaze. ‘Something like that.’

‘Well. Like I said ‘ – Jane smiled ruefully, looking suddenly and disturbingly older – ‘there’s no worthwhile totty around here these days, is there?’

When Jane had left for school, Merrily sat for a while, staring at the cold, uneaten toast, and then she dragged the phone over to the table.

An admission of defeat, but what could she do? Jane, as usual, had touched a nerve. Merrily tapped out the college number from memory.

‘Is it possible to speak to Dr Campbell?’

The switchboard said David Campbell was on the phone; Merrily said she’d wait. David was the only one of her old tutors she figured would be any help. He was a liberal, but he’d also been High Church in his time, an incense-burner.

We didn’t do exorcism. The only ghost that ever got a mention was the Holy Ghost.

She felt more than a little stupid about this. Once, in Liverpool, one of her prozzies had asked Merrily what she could do about her flat, which was haunted. The flat had been supplied by the woman’s pimp, who owned the building; Merrily had interpreted this as a cry for help, found her a room in a shelter, but she’d gone back to the flat and the pimp after a week, never made contact again.

‘Putting you through,’ the switchboard said.

‘Merrily Watkins! How are you, love?’

‘Hello, David.’

‘Installation day, right?’

‘Tonight. How did you know?’

‘Word gets around. You won’t mind if I don’t come, I hate bloody parishes, as you know.’

‘I remember. David, are you alone?’

‘One always hopes not.’

He meant God. Merrily pondered the get-out option: asking him about some aspect of installation-night protocol. But she let the silence hang too long.

‘What’s the problem, love?’ David said quietly.

‘OK. I think ... Oh, Jesus, it sounds so—’ Her head thumping away.

‘Go on.’

‘All right. I think my vicarage is haunted, and I don’t know how to handle that.’

David said, ‘I see.’ She imagined him in his office, his metal-stemmed pipe sticking out of the pen-pot on the desk.

‘I’m glad you see,’ she said, ‘because I don’t. According to my Uncle Ted, churchwarden and oracle, the last incumbent had no problems in that department. And that was over about thirty-five years.’

‘What makes you think it’s haunted?’

Was she imagining a shift in his voice, a reserve setting in?

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘usual stuff. Or what I understand is usual. Footsteps in the night. Seeing things that ... that can’t be there. It isn’t imagination, although the experiences do seem to be interwoven with dreams. What I mean ... some of it happens in actual dreams – sometimes I think I’m awake when I’m really dreaming and maybe the other way around, too. And I ... Look, I know what you’re thinking, and I have been overworking a bit and things have been very fraught, what with living out of a pub and then moving into an old house that’s far too big and ... What?’

‘Hold on. Steady.’

‘I’m perfectly steady. I mean, this morning, my daughter’s saying to me, didn’t they teach you how to do an exorcism in college, and I have to say no, we didn’t even touch on it. Why didn’t we touch on it, David?’

‘How is Jane?’

‘She’s fine.’

‘She’d be ... what? Fourteen?’

‘Fifteen. What are you saying? That most poltergeist activity is caused by adolescent children? That it’s Jane who’s doing it?’

‘I’m not qualified to say anything.’

‘But why?’ Merrily demanded. ‘Why didn’t we go into this stuff? We’re supposed to be at the cutting edge, aren’t we? We’re supposed to be dealing with the supernatural on a day-to-day basis, and yet we never talked about ghosts.’

‘True,’ David said. ‘We never once discussed the area of parapsychology, and perhaps we should have, if only to examine the demarcation lines.’

‘You’ve lost me.’

‘All right ...’ She envisaged him shifting in his old captain’s chair, leaning an elbow on the cushion over an arm, establishing a position. ‘Let me say, first of all, that I accept entirely that certain unexplained events occur. All the time.’

‘So you’re not saying I’m nuts.’

‘Certainly not. There’s far too much evidence. What I am saying, however – and I say it as a question to which I don’t really have an answer – is, do these phenomena really fit inside our field of operation?’

‘Good or evil, they’re spiritual matters.’

‘But are they? Are we not simply talking about, say, forms of energy, which are, as yet, unknown to science? Yes, certainly, this sphere of activity was absolutely central to the work of the medieval Church. Much of what priests were up to in those days would constitute what we now dismiss as magic; illusion. They’d find it expedient to produce the odd miracle out of their back pockets to maintain their ... what you might call their street cred. What we know to be perfectly natural electrical phenomena would, then, have been seen as the work of either God or Satan. Yes, I do believe in haunted houses.’

‘But you think – let me get this right – you think there’s a scientific explanation that has nothing to do with religion and therefore nothing to do with us. So all the official diocesan exorcists are just remnants of the Middle Ages.’

‘Dangerous ground, here, Merrily. Yes, some clergy feel drawn to that kind of work. But even they are increasingly seeing what they do as a form of psychology. The Church is guarded about ghosts and demons and alleged appearances of the Mother of God as damp stains in kitchen walls, and rightly so in my view. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something happening.’

Dangerous ground indeed, Merrily thought. How far was he from saying that one day science would explain God, and then they’d all be redundant?

‘So you think I should see a scientist. Or a shrink.’

‘Certainly not.’

‘Or take Jane to one?’

David Campbell sighed. ‘You’re a sensible person, Merrily. That’s why you’re in a responsible position.’

‘Even though I’m a woman.’

‘It’s still sensitive,’ David said. Now there was an unmistakable coldness in his voice.

‘You’re saying I should keep my mouth shut,’ Merrily said. ‘Or I’ll have the diocesan chauvinists twittering to the bishop – told you what happens when you let hysterical women take over. That sort of thing.’

‘I think you should give it a few more weeks. It isn’t ... harmful in any way, is it?’

She thought of Sean peering and groping through the mist of blood. The dream-Sean. That definitely was a dream. Wasn’t it? The phone felt slippery in her hand.

‘And I wouldn’t have thought,’ David said, ‘that after all the emotional traumas you’ve come through, you would find these minor paranormal fluctuations at all frightening.’

‘No.’ She paused to bring her voice down. ‘Oh no.’

‘You say you don’t know how to handle it, as if there’s a secret technique we didn’t bother to tell you about. There isn’t, I’m afraid. Sorry, love, but you have to search your own faith, your own belief system. Look, call me again in a week or two, if it’s still worrying you.’

But he was telling her not to. He was telling her that, as far as the Church was concerned, she was on her own.

21

Tears

SHE HAULED HER headache off to the church. Was it because she didn’t like being alone in the vicarage? Because the even older church, with its tombs and the fractured skulls grinning up at you from stone flags, was actually homelier?

Frightened? Frightened of a paranormal fluctuation? Frightened for her daughter’s emotional condition, her own mental state? The Priest-in-Charge? God’s handmaiden? Good God, no. Perish the thought.

Her head felt like a foundry; she’d never ring David Campbell or anyone else at that bloody college again.

She gripped the cold ring-handle of the door into the porch. Pausing there, as she tended to these days. If Dermot Child was slowly undressing her for the benefit of the bellringers she didn’t want to be a captive audience. She opened the church door just a crack. Through it echoed a torn and stricken howl.

‘... you!’

She stopped, head pulsing.

‘... you, Liza Howells ... the night you came to me with your bruises, your torn lip, mouth smashed and teeth gone ... that night your husband beat you for your dalliance with Joseph Pritchard ...’

Her first thought was that this was something to do with the pageant the Women’s Institute was organizing for the festival, a parade of Ledwardine society through the ages.

‘OK.’ Footsteps. ‘Leave it there a minute.’

But this voice she’d heard before. Martin Creighton, the theatre director.

‘So, OK, if we had this Liza sitting somewhere in the middle, and she’s wearing ... what?’

‘A fairly simple black dress.’ Mira Wickham, the designer. ‘Nothing obvious until she’s on her feet. It’s important that the members of the audience sitting all around her don’t realize she isn’t one of them until she starts to react.’

Merrily walked in, stood by the Norman font.

‘In fact, you know, I think what would be really good,’ Mira said, ‘is if Liza and one or two of the others have been chatting to people – in character – before the lights go down. A merging of present-day villagers with their ancestors. So that it seems to several people that they know Liza and the others as individuals. And this communicates itself. We get a blur. A timeslip.’

‘Spooky,’ Creighton said. ‘But that only works if you have real locals in the audience every night.’

‘So we offer free seats to regular churchgoers. Let the vicar sort that out.’

‘You might find it just a bit more complicated than that,’ Merrily said, and there was silence.

Stefan Alder spotted her from the pulpit. ‘Oh ... Hi!’ He bounded down, loped along the aisle, grabbed her hand. ‘You’re ... Merrily Watkins, right?’

‘Mr Alder.’

Creighton and Wickham came to stand either side of him. They looked uncomfortable.

‘Look,’ Creighton said. ‘I hope you don’t think we’re being presumptuous. Obviously, we’ve got to plan as if the thing is going to happen here, but if you say no ...’ He wiped the air, both hands flat. ‘That’s it. We’ll understand.’

‘And where would you go then?’

‘Oh.’ Stefan Alder flicked back his ash-blond fringe. ‘I’m sure the bishop would fix Richard up with something. Although, personally, if we couldn’t do it here I’d be inclined to knock it on the head. You see—’

Creighton was glaring at him.

‘—no, really, Martin, I want to be up-front about this whole thing. It was my idea after all. I ... Look, are you doing anything absolutely vital, Merrily? I mean, can we talk about this? The two of us?’

Really succulent totty, Jane had described him once, being provocative. Maybe this was what she saw when she thought of Wil Williams. It was understandable. In a cream-coloured sweat-top and light blue jeans, he looked as fresh and innocent as Richard Coffey seemed seasoned and corrupt. He looked like the singer with one of those boy bands Jane claimed she’d grown out of.

Down past the last of the graves, where the church bordered the orchard on one side and the vicarage garden on the other, there was an apple tree in the hedge.

‘It could have been this one,’ Stefan said. ‘Well, I mean, obviously not this particular tree, but its ancestor. I was talking to your Mr Parry, and he said this particular spot could well have been orchard in Wil’s time. You notice how all the graves at this end are relatively modern, showing where they had to extend the churchyard.’

It was true. There was even a grave of black marble, put in before the conservationists got them banned.

‘Couldn’t be this particular tree, though, could it?’ Merrily said. ‘According to the legend, no actual apples would ever grow over the place where he lay.’

Whereas the tree in the hedge was heavily talcumed with blossom.

‘They would say that, though, wouldn’t they? All these stories are supposed to have an eerie postscript.’ Stefan plucked off a sprig. ‘I remember the first time I came here I’d read an account of it and I’d thought, you know, Poor sod. There was no emotional involvement at that stage, not until I actually came here. I just thought what a bloody shame. I mean, even if he was a witch ... damaging an apple crop? Really!’

‘Perhaps, if it had gone to court, it would’ve been thrown out. That was happening, increasingly. It’s my understanding that, by 1670, people were getting a bit wise to all these witchcraft accusations. You had a neighbour you couldn’t get on with, you’d just accuse him of making your prize bull impotent or something.’

‘You’re right. There had to be more. They wanted him dead, otherwise what was the point?’

‘They wanted him dead because he was gay?’

‘Thomas Bull wanted him dead. And James Bull-Davies knows that.’

His eyes, the colour of his jeans, were shining with a very innocent kind of fervour. He looked on the edge of tears. He looked too frail and vulnerable to be living with someone as coldly manipulative as Richard Coffey. But that was none of her business.

They walked to the churchyard wall – yes, this part was newer, some of the stone wasn’t even local – and stood leaning against it, looking back at the church whose stones, if they could speak, would be able to answer all their questions.

‘Let’s look at it objectively,’ Merrily said. ‘You’re saying, I think, that because Bull was a puritan he’d be absolutely shattered to discover his parish priest was homosexual. Now I can’t quite remember what percentage of today’s Anglican ministers are gay, but it’s a substantial one, and if they all got fired a few hundred churches would have to close overnight. Now, how different was it then, in a country area where people’s attitude to all matters sexual would have been ... well ... tolerant. Down-to-earth, shall we say?’

‘Look, I don’t know ...’ He fingered his fringe. ‘I don’t know where you stand. As a woman.’

‘For what it’s worth,’ Merrily said, ‘I think gays have always been drawn to the priesthood because it’s something they do rather well. It being a job that often calls for feminine qualities. I suppose, as we weren’t allowed in for so long, gay men have helped to hold it all together. They’ve given the Church a breadth of compassion without which it might not even have survived. That make any sense?’

Stefan Alder stepped back, striking an unselfconsciously camp pose, with one hand on a hip. She was sure she’d seen him before, not just in the village. Must have been on television, maybe a victim in The Bill or a casualty in Casualty.

‘That’s beautiful’ He smiled radiantly and handed her the sprig of apple blossom. ‘That’s a really beautiful thing to say, you know? I feel I can trust you now, I really do.’

‘Oh, well ... It was just Richard seemed to think I was prejudiced in some way. And I’m not. That’s all’

‘Look,’ he said. ‘Look, I want to explain to you ... At first – I mean, he’s committed to it, it’s his project – but at first, Richard was only doing this for me. He wasn’t especially struck by the story, or the village. We were having a few days’ break and Richard was half-looking for a holiday cottage, and we spent a night at the Black Swan. After dinner, he was tired, and he had a headache, so he went up to bed and I sat in the lounge with some coffee, idly reading some local guidebooks. It seemed odd, coming across a mention of Ledwardine Church and looking up and seeing the steeple through the lounge window. And then I saw a brief mention of Wil ... I mean, I’d read the story but I hadn’t remembered the name of the village and it was such a shock realizing I was sitting just a short walk away from where he ... died. The next thing I knew, I was just sort of ... here.’

He looked very ethereal against the apple trees which themselves, with their heavy blossom, were like the ghosts of trees. It was a cloudy morning, a fine spring drizzle beginning.

‘It’s incredible in autumn, isn’t it?’ Stefan said. ‘The air around Hereford is so full of apple scent. It seems in the evening as if the whole county’s heavy and drunk on it. And even though this orchard was looking rather sad and neglected, I felt the way it was, back then. Huge and bountiful. The absolute core of the county. The very centre of what Traherne called the Orb.’

Merrily remembered, with an unsettling feeling, what Gomer Parry had said about the Apple Tree Man. So gnarled and barren-looking in the ice, now full of thrusting buds.

‘I just knew that Wil, even if he’d had the power, would never destroy an orchard,’ Stefan said. ‘Not the biggest orchard in Hereford. It would be like poisoning the country. More than that, it ... I mean, he was a friend of Traherne. Nature was an aspect of God. It would have been blasphemy. He wasn’t a witch at all. I suddenly felt very, very close to him. He was in the air, in the scent, the whole apple-aura of this place. And then ...’

He was close to whispering. Merrily was still holding the sprig of blossom he’d given her. She was aware of being set up, dropped into a little cameo scene, but the snowy numinescence had settled on her senses; she was softened.

‘I could suddenly see him. I could see that poor, persecuted boy hanging here. All alone. All alone among the apple trees. It was spring then, like today. I could see the blossom which had fallen on his hair like stars ...’

There were big, theatrical tears in his eyes now, but it didn’t seem like a performance; she didn’t feel, somehow, that he was that good an actor. Did he really think he’d seen Wil hanging here or was he describing an exercise in imagination? Perhaps it didn’t matter.

‘Merrily, it was the most spiritual moment of my life. I just knew I’d been brought here. Just me. But why me? Who was I? Was I him? Had I been him in a previous life? No.’ He shook his head. ‘You don’t fall in love with yourself, do you? Not like that.’

God. She didn’t know how she felt about this at all.

‘I just knew in that moment what Wil was. Why I had to be here. To be near to him. To convey the truth about him. That it could be the most important thing I would ever do. I couldn’t sleep, I was tortured. I awoke early, walked all around the village – there was nothing for sale. Not a single For Sale sign. And then I saw the lodge, empty and derelict-looking and I just knew that whatever it cost ...’

He stopped speaking, looking for some reaction.

Merrily said, ‘Did Richard know why you were so anxious to live here?’

‘Oh yes,’ Stefan said. ‘If you’ve seen some of Richard’s plays you’ll know he’s fascinated by obsession. I suppose, at that time, I’d become sort of ... his. Obsession. So he bought the lodge.’

At a price. Merrily could hear James Bull-Davies. Made him pay. Made him pay.

‘I have to play him,’ Stefan Alder said very quietly. ‘I have to feel him inside me – in the purest sense. I mean, I have to be Wil. I have to be Wil here. You do understand that, don’t you, Merrily?’

After they parted, Merrily walked around the churchyard for some time, alone.

Decision time?

Well, he was a nice guy, an honest guy. But he was in love with a dead man, with a ghost, and there’d been a certain madness in those tear-glazed eyes.

Coffey? He was in love with Stefan. He’d bought a house in the village because of it. But he hated the vendor, Bull-Davies; he had a score to settle there and he would use Stefan’s desire.

Coffey and Bull-Davies were both, in their separate ways, powerful and influential men. Stefan Alder was neither and so was vulnerable. But he was also the catalyst.

Merrily sighed and thought back to her famous Wil Williams sermon.

Collect all the information you can get, listen to all the arguments.

Yes, done that.

Seek out independent people who might have an opinion or a point of view you hadn’t thought about.

Nobody here is entirely independent. Not Lucy Devenish, nor Alison Kinnersley. They each have their own hidden agenda.

So why not put it all on Him? That’s what He’s there for. Go into a quiet place ...

‘Yes. I’m here.’

In a cushion of soft, white petals.

Put that question. Tell Him it’s urgent. Tell Him you’d like an answer as quickly as possible.

‘I wouldn’t mind an answer now, actually. If that’s all right with You.’

She looked up to where the church steeple was fingering Heaven. Focusing on the gilded weathercock on top of the steeple as if it could point her in the right direction.

Perhaps only the weathercock had changed since Williams’s day. The steeples and towers were still the tallest structures in the countryside. The churches were powerful places.

Merrily bit her lip. Was this the answer? Freedom of expression was one thing, multiple obsession and the taint of necrophilia something else?

You let obsession into a church at your peril?

When she went back into the building, the theatricals had gone, replaced by Uncle Ted, Caroline Cassidy and her restaurant manager, Barry Bloom. They were setting up tables in the space behind the pews.

‘I really don’t know about this,’ Ted was saying. ‘It is a church.’

‘Oh, but the very name of the cider, Ted!’ Caroline sang. ‘And if as many people as you say turn up, they’ll get about half a paper cupful each. Ah, Merrily! Merrily will decide.’

‘Thanks a lot,’ Merrily said without thinking. ‘What is it this time?’

Ted and Caroline both stared at her. Oh God.

‘Sorry. I’m a bit on edge. Big night.’

‘Coffee, Vicar?’ Barry Bloom said. He was squat, wide-shouldered, frizz-haired. Ex-SAS, it was rumoured, like, for some reason, quite a few people in the catering business around Hereford. Barry already had a coffee machine set up next to the font.

‘Oh, thanks. Caffeine. Wonderful’ She hadn’t had any breakfast, wasn’t likely to get any lunch. She was dying for a smoke, but maybe not. ‘So, what’s the problem?’

‘Well, as you know,’ Caroline said, ‘the Ledwardine festival officially opens on Saturday.’

‘Does it? God.’ Wrapping her hands around the hot, polystyrene coffee cup. This meant she’d be expected to announce her decision about the play.

Caroline said, ‘The idea is we open in a small way, with a ceremony in the square in the afternoon – Terrence has hired a town-crier. We’ll hold some of the lesser events and exhibitions in the first weeks, and then gradually build up to the major concerts and the pi— and whatever else we arrange. But, you see, my dear, we wanted, before the opening, to introduce our new cider, produced by the Powells to their old recipe – with a little help from Barry, of course ...’

‘I just organized the bottles,’ Barry said. ‘I gather they had to get in some extra apples to supplement the Pharisees Reds. The orchard wasn’t over-productive last year. Hadn’t been pruned hardly in years. Be a good crop this year, though, by the looks of it.’

‘We have an absolutely terrific label,’ Caroline said, ‘designed by the young man at Marches Media on his computers. It has a drawing of the church on it – Alfred approved that, before he left.’

‘How many bottles?’ Merrily asked.

‘How many, Barry, three hundred?’

‘Nearer five.’

‘It’s going to be frightfully exclusive and rather expensive. Proper champagne bottles, naturally. There was a time when good cider was valued higher than champagne, and this is an awfully good cider, isn’t it, Barry? Not the kind of beverage likely to be on sale to the village louts at the Ox. So we wondered if we might use the occasion of your induction ...’

‘Installation.’

‘Makes you sound rather like a household appliance, my dear.’ Caroline squeezed Merrily’s arm. ‘No, we wondered if we might uncork the first bottle at your reception.’

‘And give everyone a drink?’

‘Perhaps just a teensy one. The cider, you see – this was Dermot Child’s idea – will have an ecclesiastical connection, because the church was itself once in the very centre of the orchard, wasn’t it? And the name we chose – I gather this originated from—’

‘Lucy Devenish,’ said Barry.

‘Quite.’ Caroline tossed him a disapproving glance. ‘I was going to say the poet Traherne.’

‘The poet Traherne, via Miss Devenish,’ Barry said stolidly. ‘Being as none of us were that conversant with his work. It comes from a prayer Traherne’s supposed to have written with a woman over at Kington, but nobody’s quite certain about that.’

‘Well,’ Merrily said. ‘It sounds fair enough to me. As you’ve probably gathered, I’m trying to make the church less formal, more accessible, and while it might be a bit early to set up an actual bar, with beer pumps and optics and things—’

Caroline tittered shrilly.

‘—I can’t see any problem over a few glasses of cider. Do you want me to kind of bless the stuff or something?’

Caroline looked thrilled. ‘Would that be in order?’

‘I don’t know, really. Ted?’

Didn’t know why she was asking him. She was, after all, entirely on her own.

‘Merrily,’ Ted said, ‘in his time, Alf Hayden blessed everything from tractors to the microwave oven in the village hall.’

Didn’t seem to be a problem, then, even if the mention of Dermot Child in connection with cider had sent a bad ripple down her spine.

‘OK then,’ she said. ‘What’s it called?’

‘The cider?’ Barry Bloom said. ‘The Wine of Angels. You like that?’

‘That’s Traherne?’

‘The line goes “Tears are the Wine of Angels and the Delight of God, which falling from ...” what is it, Mrs Cassidy? The whole verse is printed on a label on the back.’

‘Something about them being sweet, precious and wholesome.’

‘That’s the bit. “Sweet, precious and wholesome ... and delicious indeed.” And then there’s a bit of a duff line about them being the best water works to quench the Devil’s Fires, but we’ve stopped it before that. Sweet, precious and wholesome and delicious indeed. You couldn’t get an ad agency to do a better one than that, could you, Vicar?’

‘But, I mean, he wasn’t actually talking about cider, he was talking about tears.’

‘Well ...’ Barry spread his hands. ‘If it ends in tears, at least we can all get drunk.’

Leaving the church, Merrily met James Bull-Davies coming in.

‘Ah. Mrs Watkins.’

As if the meeting was a surprise.

It was the first time they’d been face-to-face since the exchange in the vicarage kitchen.

‘Look.’ Bull-Davies shuffled slightly. ‘Glad I caught you. Fact of the matter is ... bit of a pig the other night. Tried to pressure you. Wrong of me. Want to apologize.’

Merrily said nothing. She walked out of the porch. He followed her into the churchyard.

‘Gets on top of one, the old family heritage thing. Narrows the outlook. Can’t focus. Sorry.’

‘So.’ Merrily stopped before the first grave, turned to look up at him. ‘You’ve had a think about it.’

His eyes narrowed.

‘And perhaps come to the conclusion that the idea of your family’s stature being toppled by a polemical play with an axe to grind about gay rights is something of an overreaction?’

His long face began to redden. He had not, of course, concluded any such thing.

‘Anyway,’ Merrily said, ‘on the question of the church being used, I’ve come to a decision, and I’ll probably slip it in when I say a few words at the reception tonight, OK?’

The silence lasted all of three seconds. Merrily didn’t move.

‘You have made a decision,’ Bull-Davies said heavily.

‘Yeah. Just this afternoon, actually.’

He scowled. ‘Heard you’d been talking to the actor. Alder.’

‘Sure. We had a chat.’

She wondered how he knew, who his informant was. Or perhaps he’d seen them himself.

‘Suppose he won you over. Cried on your shoulder.’

‘We had a private conversation.’

‘I don’t cry myself,’ James Bull-Davies said.

‘Well,’ Merrily said, ‘real men don’t, do they?’

‘You’re mocking me.’

Merrily thought about him in the vicarage kitchen. You make it hard for me, Mrs Watkins. And perhaps for yourself. She thought of the funeral card delivered to the Black Swan – Wil Williams was the Devil’s Minister. She thought her decision was the right decision, but, by God, some people were making it bloody hard and all her human reactions were still urging her to go the other way.

But she had to say something. So she thought what Jane would say and said that.

‘You know, James, you really are a sad bastard.’

He blinked.

‘I gave it a lot of thought. And the only decision that seemed ethically and spiritually right, in the end, was to offer Richard Coffey and Stefan Alder the village hall for their play. If that’s all right with the parish council’

‘Oh,’ he said.

‘I’m not going to explain how I decided. But I can say it had nothing to do with anything you said about the need to protect your illustrious family. And in fact ...’

She went right up to him. Looked up, a full foot, into his narrow, autocrat’s face.

‘... if you ever ... ever ... try to put the arm on me again, over anything – anything at all – I’ll ... I’ll have your balls.’

She stepped back. There was no reaction on James Bull-Davies’s face, but his back stiffened and she saw his feet come instinctively together. His eyes were focused over her right shoulder.

‘Understood,’ he said.

22

I, Merrily ...

THE FIRST PERSON Jane saw when she got off the school bus was Colette, wearing her leather jacket and a black chiffon scarf. She was with a black guy, maybe in his thirties, unloading some gear from a dirty white Transit van.

Unfortunately, Dean Wall and Danny Gittoes and a couple of their mates had spotted them too.

I’m telling you, it is,’ Danny Gittoes said. ‘I seen him in Shrewsbury. He looks different, nat’rally, with all the stuff on.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ Dean said. ‘Mr Cosmopolitan. You hear that, men? Gittoes’s been to Shrewsbury. Hang on, I’ll find out. I’ll ask the slag.’

It was a dull afternoon, a slow drizzle starting. Dean Wall waddled across the square to Colette, Jane following at an angle.

‘Party then, is it?’ Dean trying to peer into the van.

Colette didn’t look at him. ‘Might be.’

‘This a mate o’ yours?’

Dean looked down at the black guy, who was short and lithe, wore a black T-shirt and white leather trousers, Dean looking like a Land Rover next to a Porsche.

Colette still didn’t look at him.

‘This is Dr Samedi,’ she said.

‘No shit,’ Dean said, reluctantly awed.

Dr Samedi lifted a big, square vinyl case out of the van and pushed it into Dean’s barrel stomach.

‘Carry dis into de restaurant fuh me, mon?’ Dr Samedi said.

‘Right,’ Dean said. ‘Sure.’

‘Don’ drop it.’

Danny Gittoes had arched over, with his big, stupid grin, and Dr Samedi allowed him to carry an even bigger black vinyl case into Cassidy’s Country Kitchen.

‘Seen you in Shrewsbury last year,’ Danny called over his shoulder. ‘Shit hot. Man.’

‘Up de stairs,’ Dr Samedi said. ‘Leave ‘im by de restaurant door. An’ no peekin’.’

When they’d gone, Colette looked at Jane and shook her head and grinned. ‘This is Jeff. Jeff, this is Janey. Her mother’s a priest.’

‘Brilliant. Yow bringing her along, too?’ His accent was now closer to Kidderminster than Kingston, Jamaica.

‘I don’t somehow think so,’ Jane said. ‘Er ... you are Dr Samedi?’

He fixed lazy eyes on Jane’s. He growled, a low, seismic rumble.

Long night, moonbright, burnin’on a low light, everythin’you wearin’, honey, just a liddle too tight ...

‘Oh, wow,’ Jane said, impressed. She’d always found rap and drum ‘n’ bass stuff quite tedious after a while, but the idea of it happening in Ledwardine was something else.

‘... and de drummin’ begin, feel de drummin’ inside, fingers dancin’, dancin’, dancin’up an’downyo’spine ...’

Jeff killed the rap, yawned and stretched. ‘Excuse me, ladies, I better go make sure them sheep-shaggers don’t put that gear the wrong way up.’

Colette watched the little guy sashay towards the glass doors. ‘Isn’t he just like magnetic?’

‘I guess.’

‘He will blow you away, Janey. I promise. Heavy magic’

‘Seems a bit cheeky, getting Wall and Gittoes to carry all the stuff in when they aren’t invited,’ Jane said. ‘I mean, you know, cool. But ...’

‘I want them like really desperate to get in.’ Colette lightly tongued her upper lip. ‘And all their mates. I want them wetting themselves to be in there.’

Jane looked at her. There was this perverse side to Colette she didn’t quite understand.

‘They might cause trouble.’

‘Mmm-hmm,’ Colette agreed. ‘They just might. If they can find their balls.’

‘You want that?’

‘Sure.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Oh, Janey ...’ Colette sighed in despair. ‘When they do get in, I want them to feel like gatecrashers. Unwanted. Resentful, you know? My dipshit parents have naturally gone over the guest list, so we have a lot of nice boys from good families, that kind of thing, plus a few like Lloyd Powell on account of his old man’s a councillor. I mean, you tell me, where is the tension in that?’

‘Tension?’

‘A party,’ Colette said with heavy patience. ‘Ain’t a party. Without tension.’

The evening was still and heavy with the scent of apple blossom, which clung to the orchard trees like hoar frost. Made Lol shudder as he got out of the rusting Astra in the drive.

As he let himself into the cottage, the phone began to ring, and his spirits collapsed like a card-house. It’s Lucy, he thought. Something’s wrong.

Around his trainers, on the doormat, he saw a pale confetti.

On the mat inside. Oh Jesus, oh Jesus. Examining the soles of his shoes to make sure he hadn’t brought them in himself. The orchard was coming in on him. There’d be petals all over the carpets, on the table, over the bed, in the bath. Jesus. Calling out, in his panic, to the stern, unforgiving God of his parents, collecting the usual stab of guilt – he’d once, aged sixteen, dropped a cup washing up and muttered Jesus Christ, and his mother had slapped his face with some ferocity, wouldn’t speak to him for two days.

The phone kept on ringing and Lol kept staring at the petals on the mat.

Maybe they just came in through the cat door. Maybe Ethel brought them in. That was it: Ethel had been hunting in the orchard and returned with her fur full of apple blossom. That made sense, didn’t it?

The phone went on ringing. Who would know he was back, except Lucy?

Lucy. Who had sent him away after the thing with Jane Watkins. Seeing at once that he was in no fit state to go back to the cottage. Go off somewhere for a few days. I’ll feed the cat. Go to a city. Somewhere not like this, do you understand, Laurence? We’ll talk when you return. When you’re in a more receptive state.

In Oxford, over four days, he hadn’t even seen Gary Kennedy. Just walked the touristy streets and the parks and gardens and the riverside, dipping into bookshops and record shops and pubs.

And reading Thomas Traherne and getting as much sleep as he could take and reading more Traherne – the poet who’d found the whole universe in the fields and woods and hills within a few miles of Lol’s cottage and was completely knocked out by everything he experienced out there.

He has drowned our understanding in a multitude of wonders. Lucy had underlined this in his copy of Traherne’s Centuries, and written in pencil in the margin. Just because it’s something you can’t explain, it doesn’t have to be bad. It doesn’t have to be ominous. It might just be wonderful.

But the old strength, the conviction, had been missing. It was a worried Lucy who’d waved him off in the rusting Astra. When he’d come down from the loft and said this was a nightmare she hadn’t contradicted him. It had a fuzzy dreamlike quality when it happened, when he saw Jane Watkins lying in the orchard, but the implications were nightmarish.

The living-room door was always left ajar for Ethel, and when Lol went in, she was weaving in and out of his ankles. He picked her up and she purred into his chest as he grabbed the phone.

‘Hello?’

‘You little fuck.’ The rasp distorting in the earpiece. ‘What you trying to do to me?’

Karl Windling, the old Karl Windling sounding cracklingly close. He’d spoken to Dennis; it had made him angry. Lol felt cold sweat on his forehead. Windling could be at the Black Swan. He could be in his car, in the lane.

‘Don’t shit me, son. Do not shit me.’

Lol said, ‘Where are you?’

‘Close enough. Now you fucking stay there. You understand? You go anywhere, I’ll find you. You don’t move the rest of the night. I’m coming over. I’ll have a nice, simple contract with me. Which you are signing, son. You won’t—’

Very gently, Lol put down the phone. Thought for a moment then unplugged the wire from the wall. Went to the window: just the Astra in the drive. And blossom in the orchard.

He carried Ethel into the kitchen where he put out a bowl of wet food, a bowl of dry food and more water. He got out the litter tray, filled it and laid it by the door. He stroked the little black cat and put her down.

Not knowing how long he would have to be away before Karl Windling gave up.

When the kid walked in, Merrily was at the kitchen table with a pot of tea and an ashtray full of butts.

Jane dumped her schoolbag. ‘You have to be at the church by seven, don’t you?’

‘Yeah,’ Merrily said glumly. ‘Sure do.’

Jane sat down opposite her. ‘Second thoughts? Bit late for that, isn’t it?

Merrily lit another cigarette. When Jane was away at school, she couldn’t wait for the kid to come back. Fooling herself that her daughter was entirely on her wavelength. But looking at her now ... there was a distance. In her eyes. This was not paranoia, not isolation. Whether she knew it herself or not, part of Jane was somewhere else.

‘I had a chat with Stefan Alder today.’

‘Cool,’ Jane said non-committally. Even a couple of weeks ago, her eyes would have lit up and she’d have wanted to know all about it because, even if he was gay, Stefan was really heavy-duty totty.

‘He was telling me about the play and how they came up with—’

Merrily paused. She’d have to explain this sometime, because there was going to be a fuss about it, but she wondered if Jane was really mature enough to understand.

She put down her cigarette. ‘It’s because of Stefan that Richard Coffey wrote the play. Stefan’s gay, right? Stefan’s a homosexual’

‘I do know what gay means,’ Jane said sullenly. ‘And I know they think Wil Williams was persecuted because of that. Even if he wasn’t.’

‘Right.’ Merrily was encouraged by the last bit. ‘Stefan is ... I don’t know if his relationship with Coffey’s going through a bad patch or if he only stays with Coffey because of his career—’

‘That’s a bit cynical.’

‘I said I don’t know, Jane. What I do know, what I strongly feel, is that Stefan Alder believes that he’s been – I don’t want to use the word possessed, because he didn’t use it – chosen, by the spirit of Wil Williams, to recreate the circumstances of his death, to reveal the truth.’

‘Wow,’ Jane said.

‘It’s become an obsession.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Stefan’s in love with ... a ghost.’

‘It’s a bit beautiful, isn’t it?’ Jane said.

‘No! It isn’t beautiful! It’s unnatural and it’s dangerous, and Coffey’s only going along with it because he’s a very warped individual. And I think it would be very wrong for me to let it happen in the church.’

‘What?’

Merrily picked up the cigarette and drew on it. ‘I’m going to suggest they put it on in the village hall. I’ll tell everybody tonight. I thought I’d tell you first.’

‘You can’t,’ Jane said.

‘I have to, flower.’

‘Jesus!’ Jane stood up; the chair clattered to the floor behind her. ‘You sad cow. And I really thought you were smart.’

Lol drove twice around the village, looking for somewhere discreet to park the Astra. There were far more cars in the village than usual; the square was packed, a few dozen people walking about. Something on in the church?

Arriving at the square a second time, he panicked – suppose Karl’s car appeared in the mirror, a car which could go twice as fast, driven by a man ten times as hungry. He swung down Church Street and left the Astra by the kerb, at the bottom end, near the Ox, getting out and crossing to the shadowed side of the street.

Lucy Devenish lived in the middle of a small black and white terrace halfway up Church Street, doors opening to the street. He had reservations about going there for sanctuary. Visions of Windling finding out, busting in drunk, smashing things. But what could he do? No other options. He slid across the road, lifted the small, brass goblin knocker and rapped twice. It sounded very loud in the street, too loud.

No answer. Shit, what if Windling was to drive past now? He rapped again. Please, Lucy.

She wasn’t in. It occurred to him that, whatever was happening in the church, she might be there. He ran back across the road, sweating now. On the noticeboard was a small poster.

Service for the licensing and installation of

THE REVEREND MERRILY WATKINS

as Priest-in-Charge of the Parish of Ledwardine.

And a couple of dozen cars on the square. Yeah, Lucy would be in there, along with anybody who was anybody. Including – he spotted a familiar old blue Land Rover – James Bull-Davies. He stood on the cobbles staring at the Land Rover, recognizing the repairs in the canvas, each one stitched into his mind from the day it had been parked outside the cottage with all of Alison’s stuff inside.

...at 7.30 p.m. followed by refreshments in the church,

courtesy of Cassidy’s Country Kitchen.

ALL WELCOME.

Should he go in there and try to attract her attention? Hadn’t been inside a church since his mother’s funeral. The thought of it created a ball of cold in his stomach. Ominous. Wouldn’t help his state of mind going into a church, especially tonight. Besides, James Bull-Davies would be in there, and probably Alison.

No. Not Alison.

A small tremor went through him. Bull-Davies and Alison rarely appeared in the village together. Bull-Davies, with his sense of what was proper, would never bring her to church.

Lol looked up at the church clock. It was not yet seven-fifteen. How long did these things take? Couple of hours, at least.

Chances were, Alison would be alone at Upper Hall.

She felt completely wrong. She felt overdressed and under-qualified for the white surplice and the clerical scarf and the academic hood from theological college.

She should have been barefoot, in sackcloth. She was here to serve, and she wasn’t up to it. She was going to be a disaster. She looked out at all the pious, formal faces, fronting for the inveterate village gossips who’d always known she wasn’t going to fit in.

She’d fasted, at least – if unintentionally. A whole day on tea and coffee and cigs. Her head felt like it was somewhere in the rafters. She didn’t much care.

The bishop was ritually explaining a few basics to the congregation, as if they needed to know.

‘The Church of England is part of the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church worshipping the one true God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.’

The word generation making her think at once of her daughter.

Oh, Jane.

The kid had stalked out and Merrily had sat there for another twenty minutes and smoked another two cigarettes. Was she being weak, uncool, pathetic? Even homophobic, for heaven’s sake, in spite of everything she’d said to Stefan Alder? And now Jane – even if, with her famous sense of honour, she wouldn’t tell anyone why – would boycott the service.

And then, just as Merrily was rising wearily from the table to go and change into her vestments, Jane had appeared in the kitchen doorway, dressed demurely in a high-necked jumper and skirt. I said I’d go and I’ll go, Mother. I’ll go on my own. I’ll see you afterwards.

A long time afterwards. They’d agreed that the kid would leave after the service, come back and change into her party gear, all laid out, presumably, in her bedroom, in her apartment, her separate life.

Meanwhile, in public, Jane would do the honourable thing, play the dutiful daughter. Oh God.

Half an hour later, while making her lonely, sorrowful, self-conscious way to the church, the fake Barbour flung over her clerical finery, Merrily had met Lucy Devenish. Or rather Lucy had blocked her path, just short of the lych-gate, the poncho spread wide like a bullfighter’s blanket.

‘I was hoping, Merrily,’ she’d said without preamble, ‘that you would have come to me. But it’s not too late. We have to talk, you and I.’

‘Oh, you really think we should talk, do you, Miss Devenish? That’s you and me rather than you and Jane.’

‘You’re angry.’

‘Just sad.’

‘My fault. I was arrogant, as usual. I truly thought that you would come to me.’

‘You said we’d quarrel,’ Merrily reminded her.

‘Pshaw!’ – she’d actually produced that archaic sound – ‘A ploy. A challenge to which I was sure you’d rise. I suppose you’ve been too busy. But we can’t put it off. I need your help. The village needs your help. And, of course, your daughter.’

Merrily had glared at the old bat for presuming to know what her own daughter needed.

‘Meanwhile, all I would say to you tonight – directly, a personal plea – is that you should announce, without delay, your decision to permit this man Coffey to stage his play in the church. Do it now. Do it tonight. Believe me, it will clear the air and alter the focus and make your life so much less complicated.’

Merrily had felt the smoke beginning to rise between her ears. She’d made herself take a long breath before reacting, even though about a dozen parishioners were converging on them.

‘Miss Devenish, I don’t have time to discuss this right now, but you can take it that I will not be announcing my decision to let Coffey’s play go ahead in the church. Not tonight, not any night.’

Fury and anxiety nudging each other as she went in to make her vows to the bishop and to God and to blessed Ledwardine.

‘Oh shit,’ Alison said.

Standing just inside the crumbling Georgian doorway, mistress of the house.

He’d come on foot, figuring that if she saw his car wheezing up the drive, she just wouldn’t answer the door. He’d followed, with some trepidation, the route Alison took in the mornings on her horse, the old bridleway alongside the orchard. Trying not to look at the apple trees, but the image of Jane Watkins going in and out of focus in his head, the smell of spring orchard powerfully everywhere and full of a mustiness that made him think of old sepia photographs.

The bridleway had come out near a pair of huge stone gateposts topped with the blurred stumps of what might once have been lions or eagles. He’d let his anger propel him between them. It had been a long time coming, this anger, and it felt strange and cumbersome, like a stiff, new overcoat. He knew he’d always been one of life’s accepters. Like when Alison had walked out, he’d accepted it must be his fault, there must some deficiency in his character, his sexual ability, his social behaviour ...

Well, all right, there was, he knew that for a fact, he was screwed up, and yet ...

‘Don’t do this to me, Lol,’ Alison said, expressionless. Echoing Karl Windling. It was always him doing it to them.

Lol looked over his shoulder, down the hill to where the spire sprang up between the trees with the big red sun almost on its tip, like a needle about to burst a balloon. Like he wanted to burst the smug bubble around Alison.

‘Figured the colonel’d be in church, doing his squire bit. I thought this would be a good time.’

‘Lol,’ Alison said gently. ‘The good times are over.’

She looked dramatically sultry in black silk trousers, a black shirt open to the unexpected freckles between her breasts. After all this time he wanted her very badly and that made him angry and sad and ...

‘Don’t I even get to come in?’

‘I don’t think that’s very wise, do you?’

This was where he was supposed to lose his temper, break down, start asking her if Bull-Davies had a much bigger dick, that kind of hysteria.

‘When I saw his Land Rover on the square, I thought maybe I could go into the church, sit next to him, ask him a few things.’

‘That would have been embarrassing for you both.’

‘But only one of us would have anything to lose.’

Alison started to close the door. He put his foot in it. Knowing this rarely worked, that if she wanted to, with a door this size, she could probably just break his ankle. It would depend on whether she wanted to hurt him any more.

She drew the door back, for momentum. He left his puny trainer in the gap.

‘Fuck you.’ Alison let the door fall open and walked away into the house, and he followed her.

The bishop said, ‘In the declaration that you are about to make, will you affirm your loyalty ...’

When they’d met before the service, the bishop had enthused about Richard Coffey’s exciting plans. A parish church should be a Happening Environment, the bishop said. He was so glad that this beautiful, vibrant village, so full of creative people, should have a priest who was young and energetic and sensitive and, yes, dare he say it ...?

Female.

It’s still sensitive, David Campbell, at the college, had said.

Sensitive. James Bull-Davies was out there, alone in his family pew. James, who had said he would support her so long as you remain sensitive to the best interests of this village.

She hadn’t said a word to the bishop about Bull-Davies’s threat. It didn’t matter now. Bull-Davies had sworn allegiance, would be her friend for life. Coffey and Alder – and maybe the bishop himself – her enemies.

She felt dangerously light-headed. She should have eaten. She shouldn’t have drunk so much coffee.

The bishop intoned,’... in bringing the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and making him known to those in your care?’

A question? Oh God, it must be her bit now. I Merrily Rose Watkins do so affirm and accordingly declare my belief ...

The bishop waited, the bright red evening sun burnishing his high forehead and the apple in the hand of Eve in the great, west-facing stained-glass window, the one so often reproduced on postcards. A congregation of over a hundred men, women and children waiting for their new minister to speak. In a woman’s voice.

Her face lifted slowly to the light. In the vivid sunset, the sandstone walls looked redder than she’d ever known them. The red of arterial blood. The red of hellfire. The red of the Pharisees Red, the traditional cider apple of Ledwardine, the Village in the Orchard.

They waited. The congregation ... the bishop ...

...God.

And Merrily shivered as, for wild, glowing moments, the walls of the church seemed to curve together, the pews warping, the congregation coalescing, faces blending into pink pulp.

As the church itself became a swelling apple, and she found she was caressing it in her hands, and its rigid stalk was the steeple, and she heard a roaring in her head and tumbled away from it, losing all sense of where she was or why.

... an acidic smell. Breath on her face.

‘Merrily?’

The bishop leaning over her, disturbed at her silence. A heavy, very earthly, pragmatic presence, the bishop: the Administrator, the Chief Executive. She could hear his breathing, faintly puffy, smell his vaguely vinegary breath. Her own body felt very light, as though she could raise her arms in her surplice and float away like a bat among the cob webbed, oaken rafters.

I’m sorry. She couldn’t even say that.

Someone coughed. She saw the congregation below her. Caroline Cassidy in her light blue jersey suit, the sun putting a sheen on Terrence’s pointed head. At the other end of the pew, Richard Coffey – here because of the bishop, his supporter – and Stefan Alder. A respectable distance between them and the Cassidys, but the fact that they were on the same pew showing how the battle lines had been drawn.

Stefan’s eyes were shining, reflecting some erotic Wil Williams fantasy and the conviction that the priest was on his side.

But you couldn’t trust a woman could you? He’d be there at the reception afterwards, with his glass of the Wine of Angels. How was she going to face him? What was she going to say to him?

I, Merrily ...

Come on. She’d learned all the replies, practised them, testing herself, but the words wouldn’t come and a part of her didn’t care, because they wouldn’t, Oh God, be coming from the heart.

Why not? And did it matter?

She heard whispers washing through the congregation. A spreading awareness of something wrong. And it was her. She was wrong. The Reverend Merrily Rose Watkins. A mistake. They were all realizing their terrible mistake. She saw Jane for the first time, right at the back, on the end of the pew, gripping the prayer-book shelf. White-knuckled. You could sense the tension in that grip.

A tension, too, under Merrily’s arms, a friction on the skin, a burning sensation and then that sudden tightening around the chest, as though someone had grabbed her from behind, grasping both breasts, squeezing and pulling them back into her ribcage. She thought of Child, felt physically sick, rocked backwards, all the breath forced out of her.

She saw James Bull-Davies’s left arm stretched along the back of the pew, no concern on his face. Priests came, priests went; the rock on which this church was founded had Bull inscribed upon it.

She saw Jane, half out of her pew now.

I, Merrily ...

But the priest could not move. Her chest was as tight and rigid as a wooden board.

A shockingly cold thrill passed from pew to pew. The vicar can’t go through with it!

The priest saw Eve in the window, holding out the apple to her. The apple which she knew instinctively was a Pharisees Red.

No.

Try. Try to speak. Draw a breath. Let it out. I ...

I ... Merrily Rose Watkins, do so affirm and ace—’

The breath caught in her throat like phlegm. The dregs of her voice drifted away into an empty church.

The pressure was abruptly released from her chest. She swayed, taking rapid, shallow breaths. She looked around.

She was on her own. The bishop was gone, the congregation had vanished. The church was empty. The soaring red walls had faded. There were no colours in the windows. The air was chill.

Something crawled, on hands and knees, up the aisle towards her. It was naked, pale and stark as a cold candle.

Her mouth opened as it slid towards her, its head bowed, its body racked and twisted. Its anguish crawled into Merrily’s raw and empty stomach and unravelled a dark ribbon of bile. She tried to scream but her throat filled up.

The congregation rose in horror as the priest-in-charge fell forward into her own thin vomit.

23

Black-eyed Dog II

ALMOST SULKILY, ALISON said, ‘It really isn’t complicated. I give him what he needs, he gives me what I want.’

She was sprawled in an ancient, shapeless chintzy chair, stretching out her legs, inspecting her bare toes. Finding them more interesting than Lol.

The room was lofty and colourless, with a high, tiled fireplace, and no way could he believe this was what she wanted.

None of it sounded right. He’d sat here nearly an hour and she’d talked, and it was all superficial crap. How she’d always had this fantasy of living in the country since she was a kid in Swindon and helped out at this riding school. How she’d thought that, when she and Lol got here, meaningful things to do would suggest themselves: ways of making money, finding fulfilment. But when you were living, as they had, in a little cottage with a little garden you might just as well be in some suburban villa. Whereas this, this was the real thing. Country life as it was meant to be lived.

What she was saying was profound like Hello! magazine was profound. For once, Lol couldn’t let himself accept it.

‘Hang on ...’ He moved to the corner of a sagging settee, leaned towards her. ‘You chose the cottage. You said it was perfect.’

‘So I was wrong. It was small, it was shut-in. It was worse than the city. Nothing suggested itself.’

‘Except Bull-Davies, apparently.’

Alison still didn’t look at him.

‘Look,’ she said, ‘that may not be precisely what you think, OK?’

‘What do you think I think?’

The sun was sinking below the sills of the deep Georgian windows, the room fading to dusty sepia.

‘Well,’ she said. ‘I imagine you’re hurt. Wounded. You think I never really cared for you. That I just used you until someone more interesting came along.’

Took the words out of his head. It was still killing him to think she might have been this superficial all along.

‘I really didn’t want you to get hurt, Lol. I wanted you to be, you know ... angry. As in hating me. I didn’t want any of this honourable, shaking hands, let’s-still-be-friends shit.’

He stared at her.

‘I mean, that was the very last thing you needed. Aggression. You needed aggression. Bitterness. You were never bitter. I couldn’t understand that. Why were you never bitter? Dumped by your family, messed around by the system ... Where was the resentment? I wanted you to hate me, rather than ... I mean I couldn’t bear to see you just crawling away and crying into the bloody cat.’

‘How do you know I did that?’

It was not too dark to see her looking pained. He remembered how, when people started smirking at him in the shops, he thought it was because he was this really obvious townie and maybe he needed to wear a flat cap, buy a beat-up truck. Grow sideburns below the jawline.

She curled her toes at him in exasperation.

‘Somebody really should have told you. I put on a hell of a show for Miss Devenish at that Twelfth Night thing. Poor James was dreadfully embarrassed. And even she didn’t take you on one side. Jesus. Little harmless-looking guy like you and nobody has the consideration or even the bottle to tell him his woman’s screwing around.’

Lol winced. ‘Little harmless guy. Thirty-seven years old and the best I ever managed was Little Harmless Guy.’

‘And endearingly messed up. Women love men to be messed up. I really was going to sort you out. But, you know, you get a ... an opportunity ... you have to take it. I didn’t imagine it was going to come so quickly. I’m sorry.’

He felt cold. There were no visible central-heating radiators and although paper and logs were built up in the dog grate, she hadn’t attempted to light them. The message here, at least, was clear.

‘For what it’s worth,’ Alison said, ‘it was that day I went into the village and got a puncture. James was parking his Land Rover on the square. He changed the wheel for me, I said I’d buy him a drink, so we went across to the Black Swan. We talked. For ages. At one point, I said I liked riding, and he said he had horses, didn’t know why he kept them on. Just that the family always had, for hunting and things. James hates to let go of a tradition. That’s sort of admirable, isn’t it?’

‘From what I heard,’ Lol said, ‘his father seems to have kept horses so there’d always be a steady supply of stable girls.’

There was a heartbeat’s silence.

‘Where’d you hear that?’ Her voice stayed casual, he couldn’t see her expression, but he was sure he saw her toes tense.

‘A friend mentioned it.’

‘Lol, you only have one friend. What exactly did Devenish say about the old man?’

‘Does it matter? He’s dead, isn’t he?’

‘Humour me.’

‘You’ll just tell bloody James.’

‘James ...’ Alison said in a measured kind of way, ‘is the last person I’ll tell.’

‘She said disregard for the finer feelings of women was a family trait. Lucy had a friend who was one of the stable girls. Patricia somebody?’

The windows lit up.

‘Shit,’ Alison said.

Land Rover lights.

‘Get your head down,’ Alison said.

Lol didn’t move. ‘But she did suggest James was different,’ he said, more out of fairness to Lucy than consideration for Bull-Davies. ‘On account of having a conscience. Like he was the first in the family to have one, and he ought to get out of this house before—’

‘What the hell’s he doing back? He said it’d be at least half-ten.’

Maybe this was meant, Lol thought. Face-to-face in a cold triangle.

‘Listen,’ Alison hissed. ‘He finds you here, he’ll kill you. Listen to me. He’ll come in the back way, so listen ... Wait in the hall until you hear his key and then leave quietly by the front door. Just pull it to behind you.’

‘And there was me,’ Lol murmured, ‘getting all hyped up for a fight’

‘Go!’ Alison was on her feet. ‘Piss off!’

He stood up, disoriented in the gloom.

‘Please.’ Alison’s eyes glowing urgently.

‘All right.’

In the hall, he stood next to a coat stand smelling of Barbour-wax and manure. He heard a key jingling in a distant lock, but he didn’t move.

‘Utterly unbelievable,’ Bull-Davies bawled.

‘Darling?’ Her voice was pitched up the social scale. ‘Are you OK?’

‘Silly bloody bitch threw up! In the damn church!’

‘Who did?’

‘Ten minutes into the service, loses her bloody lunch. I ask you, does a real priest ever lose control of himself like that? I’ve seen Hayden in that pulpit with streaming eyes, two boxes of Kleenex for Men ...’

‘James, what are you talking about?’

‘The damn vicar. Physically sick in front of half the village. Perhaps they’ll realize their mistake when we get a notice outside the church saying All Services Postponed due to Menstrual fucking Cycle.’

Lol hung on, half-fascinated. Alison was a committed feminist; if he’d said half of that she’d be into his throat.

‘Well, darling,’ Alison said soothingly, ‘you did tell them, didn’t you?’

Lol let himself out. Stumbled down the steep drive, between the broken gateposts, the last of the sunset spread out before him like a long beach, the church spire a lighthouse without a light. Nothing left that seemed real.

They’d brought her into the vestry. She must have fainted. There was a couch in there and they’d laid her on it and someone had put a rug over her. Faces came into focus, like a surgical team around an operating table, stern and concerned and ... triumphant?

She must have passed out again and when she came round she didn’t remember whose faces those had been.

‘Stressed out, I’d say,’ Dr Kent Asprey said. ‘Overworked, neglecting herself. Mrs Watkins? Can you hear me? Merrily?’

‘I’m so sorry,’ Merrily whispered. ‘I don’t know what ... Is the bishop ...?’

‘He’s out there taking charge,’ Uncle Ted said. ‘Don’t worry about that.’

‘Where’s Jane?’

‘I’m here, Mum.’ Kid hanging back, sounding scared.

‘Oh God.’ A white, naked figure, pale as veined marble still crawled amongst her wildly flickering thoughts. ‘What have I done?’

‘You were taken ill,’ Uncle Ted said. She sensed a reserve in his voice. Not the churchwarden, now, but the old, wary lawyer.

The pale figure was inside her now, like a white worm. She tasted bile, sat up at once, clutching at her throat. Someone had removed her dog collar.

She hadn’t completed her vows.

In the church, organ chords swelled. Pause. Singing began.

Haven’t made my vows!

‘All right, Merrily,’ Dr Kent Asprey said. ‘Just relax.’

‘I’ve got to go back. I haven’t made—’

‘Someone’s going to bring you a cup of tea, and then you’re going home.’

‘No ... Please ...’ The thought of going back to the huge, empty, haunted vicarage suddenly terrified her. ‘This is my home.’

‘Just relax,’ Asprey said.

‘What am I going to do? What am I going to do?

‘You’re going home to bed and I’m going to come and see you in the morning.’

She stared at him, all crinkly eyed and caring, the stupid, fatuous sod.

‘Just get a good night’s sleep, Merrily.’

In Ledwardine vicarage? She wanted to laugh in his face. To scream in his face. To scream and scream.

Scream herself sick.

The small shadow became detached from the hedge in Blackberry Lane. Lol thought it was a rat, until it rolled on to his shoe.

When he bent down, it produced a tiny cry.

He went down on his knees, but when he touched her she hissed and slashed at him and rolled over and tried to stand up and couldn’t. He felt wet in his fingers. Blood.

‘Oh God.’

He’d left her shut in the kitchen, with food and water and a full litter tray. Hadn’t he?

She squealed when he picked her up and when he tucked her under his jacket he could feel her trembling. When he reached the gate and heard the music, she was purring, but he knew there were two kinds of purr and one was a sign of pain.

All the lights were on in the cottage. He saw the front downstairs window had been thrown open, and the music shivered out into the lane, the late Nick Drake singing ‘Black-eyed Dog’, the death song, the stereo cranked up beyond distortion level, fracturing the already tight, brittle splinters of guitar.

He could see Karl Windling’s wide-shouldered silhouette in the chair under the open window. Facing into the room. Facing the open kitchen door.

Nick sang that there was a black-eyed dog calling at his door and it was calling for more. It called for more and it knew his name. Nick’s voice was cut up and broken by the volume. Under Lol’s jacket, Ethel, the little black cat, quaked with pain. Beyond the kitchen door there was cat-litter all over the carpet, fragments of food dish.

In a high, scared, doomed voice, Nick Drake, at twenty-six, sang that he was growing old and he wanted to go home.

There was apple blossom all over the lawn, and the white petals were huge now. The song ended and Karl Windling’s shadow filled the window for a moment before the stylus was ripped across the record with a jagged whizz of puckered vinyl.

Lol saw that the white petals on the lawn were the torn and scattered pages of a book. He bent and picked one up and held it into the light from the window.

...to love all persons in all ages, all angels, all worlds, is divine and heavenly ...To love all ...

The house invaded, the book torn down the spine, the album ruined, the cat kicked half to death. Lol’s life smashed and the fragments scattered.

And there was me, getting all hyped up for a fight.

Karl would be well-stoned by now; that was his style – a satisfying surge of violence and then a nice, fat joint to make it feel doubly all right. Lol thought, I should go straight in there – it’s my house, for Christ’s sake, my own home – and ... and ...

I wanted you to hate, Alison had said, not half an hour ago.

But Karl knew Lol Robinson from way back. Knew he didn’t fight and lacked the nerve to hate. Knew that Lol’s speciality was fear.

All the lights on, the window open. Karl Windling standing in the centre of the room now, staring directly at the window, but he couldn’t see Lol in the darkness. Karl’s bearded face unsmiling.

Lol glanced at the empty drive, wondering for a second what Karl had done to the Astra before remembering he’d parked it in the village.

Under his jacket, Ethel had gone still.

He heard his own thin whimper on the air, as he turned and walked away from his home into the darkness of Blackberry Lane.

She felt like some child molester leaving court.

As the remaining congregation sang, watched over by the bishop, Merrily Watkins was escorted from the church wrapped in the rug, surrounded by Kent Asprey and Uncle Ted and Jane and Caroline Cassidy and Councillor Garrod Powell, their bodies hiding hers.

Hiding her from the eyes of villagers who’d left the congregation before the bishop had restored order but were still bunched in the darkness, like sightseers on the scene of a fatal road accident.

‘En’t a good sign,’ an old woman whispered too loudly.

Across the square, Merrily saw the softly illuminated hanging sign of the Black Swan, a beacon of stability in what was turning into an alien world. They’d been happy there. Now she was cold and confused and frightened and she didn’t know why, and none of the people with her said a word, not even Jane; it was like a funeral procession.

They took her into the vicarage. Ted still had keys, as if he’d known she was only on probation and it might not work out.

‘I’ll make some tea.’ Caroline Cassidy looked with distaste around the grim kitchen, still partly lit by unshaded, underpowered bulbs. ‘Where’s your kettle, my dear?’

‘No,’ Jane said. ‘I’ll do it.’

‘Look.’ Merrily struggled to keep her voice level. ‘You’ve done so much already and I’ve ruined it, but if you leave now you can still go ahead with your cider launch.’

‘Merrily, I wouldn’t dream—’

‘Yes, you would. You have to. Village life goes on. Anyway, I’d be less embarrassed if I thought it wasn’t all a total disaster.’

‘Well, if you’re sure ...’

‘Yes.’ She sat down at the table. ‘All of you. Please.’

‘You go to bed.’ Dr Kent Asprey gave her a shrewdly caring look. ‘I’ll call tomorrow.’

‘I’ll call you,’ Merrily said. ‘If it’s necessary. Thank you.’

‘I’ll tell the bishop you’ll be in touch,’ Ted said ponderously. ‘When you’re well.’

‘I’ll call him tomorrow.’

Thank God Dermot Child had been detained at the organ; he’d have been less easy to get rid of. Merrily let her head fall briefly into her hands as the door closed behind them and Jane came back alone. Peered through her fingers at the kid’s face, flushed with concern, or it might have been humiliation.

‘Go and change, flower. Get off to the party.’

‘You are joking,’ Jane said.

‘I need to do some thinking.’ Merrily raised her head. ‘All right?’

‘Mum, you’re ill. If you go to bed, I’ll bring you whatever you need ... hot-water bottle.’

‘I don’t need anything, and I’m not going to bed.’

‘Well, you can’t stay in here, it’s dismal. I’ll light the fire in the parlour.’

‘Just leave me, Jane.’

Jane hung on.

‘What was it? Something you ate?’

‘I didn’t eat anything all day, did I? I expect that was the problem. And getting uptight. Anyway, I feel terrible about everything, and I’m always better feeling terrible on my own.’

‘I’m going to stay,’ Jane said.

‘All right, you light a fire and we’ll sit and have a good old discussion. We’ll talk about Miss Devenish and what happened when you went to her aid that day instead of going to school and what you talk about together. All those things we’ve been meaning to discuss.’

‘I’ll get changed then,’ Jane said.

But she wasn’t too happy about it. Throwing up in church, when you were in Mum’s line of work, was not exactly a really brilliant thing to do, and since coming to Ledwardine Mum had been, for the first time, quite hot on keeping up appearances. This was going to damage her. Maybe, in the years to come, she’d be quite affectionately known as the vicar who tossed her cookies down the nave. But maybe there wouldn’t be years to come, not now.

How did she feel about that? Bad. Because coming here had put her on to like a whole new level of life. What Lucy called a new depth of Being. Whatever this meant, it wasn’t in the Bible, which was why it was unwise to even approach the subject with Mum. Particularly tonight.

In the solitude of her apartment, Jane looked up.

At what were supposed to have been the Mondrian walls. And the sloping ceiling between the beams. Into the blue and gold. Into the otherness. It was all so strange. Made her feel ... ooooh. She shook herself.

Clothes-wise, she didn’t overdo it. Black velvet trousers and silky purple top. Not a good night for making a spectacle of herself. Plus, if it turned out to be the kind of party Colette had in mind, a quick getaway might just be called for.

She’d gone ahead and lit the fire in the drawing room. Not so much because it was cold as because it might look halfway homely in there with a few flames. Before changing, she’d brought in some logs and filled up a bucket with coal. Kind of wishing she was staying in. But that invitation to a serious discussion left her no option. Jesus, Mum, she wanted to say, I don’t know what happened that day. Or that night under the apple tree. I’m not clear on it.

But I’m getting help.

Before she left, she stoked up the fire. Mum was down on the rug in a thick bottle-green polo-neck jumper and jeans, hugging her knees. It was a May night out there, but the vicarage remained in January. Except for the top floor.

‘I won’t be too late.’

‘I’ll wait up.’

‘You mustn’t. I’ll be annoyed if you do.’

‘OK, flower,’ Mum said.

With her face washed clean of make-up and her hair pushed behind her ears, she looked awfully young and vulnerable. Younger than me in some ways, Jane thought. And feeling there’s so much she doesn’t know.

24

Uh-oh ...

AT THE CORE of a bedlam of bodies, Colette Cassidy was mouthing at her.

‘What?’

‘... you been, Janey? It’s nearly midnight.’

Jane stayed where she was and let Colette come stammering towards her through the strobe storm, through a foundry of sound. The restaurant at Cassidy’s Country Kitchen was this square, attic space with irregular beams and white, bumpy walls. There was a stage area, where the Cassidys sometimes had a pianist, but tonight the piano, like most of the tables, had been taken away and the stage had become Dr Samedi’s spectacular sound-lab.

‘Sorry. Had problems.’

‘So I heard.’ Colette’s grin was lifted by the lights and put back intact. ‘Cool’

‘What?’

‘Give the Reverend Mummy my compliments. Bet the bloody bishop wasn’t expecting that.’

Gossip seemed to spread at more than the speed of sound in this village. Jane didn’t bother to explain that it hadn’t actually been all that funny at the time.

There must be eighty or ninety people here, mostly imports, Colette’s age and a year or two older. The flashing lights were reflected in a lot of sweat on faces. Jane recognized hardly anybody, suspecting she was the youngest here. Some of the dancers looked ... well ... out of it. There was nothing stronger than Coke and Dr Pepper on the tables pushed up against the walls, but she thought she’d seen the boy from her school called Mark, who seemed to be the fourth-form’s principal dealer in Es and speed.

‘All the same, Janey,’ Colette was saying, ‘you didn’t have to spend half the night with the old girl.’

‘Sorry. Something else came up.’

Colette didn’t seem to hear. Dr Samedi was squealing something over the industrial drum ‘n’ bass on tapes. He wore a top hat, with ribbons, and a black bow tie. No shirt. Jacket open to his shiny chest with a white necklace showing. It was a jacket from a morning suit, black, with tails, and strategically torn in several places like the jackets the punks used to wear in Mum’s day. It was a scarecrow’s jacket, and that was what Dr Samedi looked like, a scarecrow animated by lightning.

‘I said,’ Jane shouted, ‘something came up!’

‘You should be so lucky. Listen—’

Colette was wearing something black and shiny and daring, naturally. A gangly guy in a white shirt was hanging around behind her. Colette moved close to Jane.

‘OK, listen, that’s Quentin the Suitable.’

‘Who?’

‘Like, the parents always have to make sure there’s a Suitable One, you know what I mean? His old man’s some kind of exalted surgeon at the General. I just wish somebody would surgically remove him.

Quentin was tall and looked about seventeen.

‘He’s not bad,’ Jane said.

‘Especially if you’re into vintage tractors. His hobby. He also dances like one.’

Jane smiled. Quentin strobed unhappily about six feet away. Colette put her squashy lips against Jane’s ear.

‘Janey, I can’t unload the dim bastard. I go for a tinkle, he waits outside the fucking door.’

‘... you want me to do?’

‘Take him off my hands?’

‘You are joking ...’

‘Oh, come on, your night’s ruined anyway. You don’t have to snog him or anything, just keep him for two minutes while I melt away. The guy’s so sad if you tell him you have fantasies about having sex on a tractor, he’ll just ask you what make. Please, Janey ...’

Colette looked desperate, like life was running out on her. But then it was her party. On the stage, Dr Samedi hovered demonically over his mixers, moving in a vibrating swirl of lights, as though he was turning himself into light, into pure, bright energy. And Jane understood – hated the heartless music, understood perfectly about Dr Samedi’s need to become light. Dr Samedi was in his element. In his orb.

She felt suddenly half-separated from it all, as though the dance floor represented all human life and she was flickering on the edge of it. For an instant, she felt weightless, as though she might vanish into one of the cracks of darkness between strobes. She felt like this quite often now, but never inside a building before. Well, except for the church, for a moment, earlier on.

‘Janey?’ Colette clutched at her. ‘Christ, I thought you’d ...’

‘Sorry.’

‘Please, Janey ...’

‘Sure,’ Jane said, squeezing her hands together to bring herself down. ‘Whatever.’

When Merrily awoke on the sofa in front of the dying fire, she was happy for a moment. Frozen and stiff, but she’d been asleep for two, three hours and hadn’t dreamed about anything she could recall. A small miracle.

But this time, reality was the curse. The priest-in-charge had tonight been physically sick in her own beautiful and historic church in front of the biggest congregation she’d ever pulled.

How could she have just let that happen? Children did that, just threw up without warning. The priest-in-charge was not even in charge of her own metabolism.

Merrily rolled down from the sofa to the rough, industrial carpet. After a while, she sat up, shivering, and threw more lumps of coal onto the embers in the dog grate, thrusting in the poker, levering up some heat, inching closer, on this balmy May evening, to the miniature medieval hell of smoking cliffs and molten canyons.

Medieval hell. She was part of a medieval institution. Just that the modern Church refused to connect with its roots. Which was why the modern Church was losing it.

If you’d said that to her six months ago, she’d have flared up a whole lot faster than this coal, but there was no denying it any more: in a world where huge numbers of people were begging for spiritual sustenance from exotic gurus and mediums and clairvoyants and healers, the Church was getting sidelined.

David Campbell had actually asked the question, Do these phenomena really fit inside our field of operation? The Church still asking everyone to put their faith in a huge all-powerful supernatural being while loftily backing away from lesser phenomena.

Like a pale, naked figure, cold as a slug, crawling towards you up the aisle of your church. Obviously, a representation of her own perceived isolation as the first woman minister of Ledwardine?

Ha.

From far up in the soaring hollows of the house came a sudden, resonant bump.

There was a break in the music, the strobes were off. On the stage, Dr Samedi was guardedly allowing some of the boys to examine his mixers and tape decks and things. At a table near the door, Jane sat with Quentin the Suitable in his baggy cricket shirt.

It had been hard going at first, but so far he hadn’t mentioned tractors.

‘Actually,’ he said, ‘I didn’t really want to come tonight at all’

‘No kidding.’

‘It’s just that my parents come for dinner here quite regularly, and they’ve become fairly friendly with Colette’s parents.’

‘They must be really sad, lonely people,’ Jane said.

Quentin didn’t get it.

Jane smiled at him. ‘So tonight’s the first time you’ve actually met Colette?’

‘I tend to be away at school a lot. Only this weekend, our half-term’s started, so ... No, I’ve never actually met her before.’

Jane said airily, ‘Some bitch, huh?’

‘Pardon?’

‘Take my advice, Quentin, don’t get involved. She’s, you know, she’s kind of been around.’

Quentin looked puzzled. ‘You mean abroad?’

Jane rolled her eyes. ‘I mean been around as in eat-you-for-breakfast kind of been around.’

‘Oh,’ Quentin said. ‘I see. Well, she did seem a bit disconcerted when her father asked her to sort of ... look after me. I think she had other plans.’

‘Colette always has plans.’

‘No, I mean someone she was interested in.’

‘Oh?’ Jane sat up.

‘I may be wrong.’

‘No, go on.’ Jane looked into his soupy eyes, but he quickly averted them. ‘This is interesting. What made you think that, Quentin?’

But she didn’t find out because this quivering shadow fell across the table and she looked up into the face of a grossly sweating Dean Wall.

‘This’ll do.’ Dean pulled out a chair opposite Jane and sank into it and beamed at Jane and then at Quentin. Danny Gittoes was with him and Mark, the reputed dealer. ‘All right, are we?’

Jesus, Jane thought, who let these bozos in? She’d forgotten about Colette’s professed need for ‘tension’. Silly cow. She looked around for Barry, the manager, locating him behind the bar where a waitress was putting out things to nibble, apparently on the instructions of Colette’s mother who didn’t realize that the only things that got nibbled at parties like this were ears. To begin with.

Mark the Dealer stood by the door, hands in his pockets. Danny Gittoes sat down opposite Quentin, who seemed to be urgently wishing he was somewhere else. Like the dentist’s.

‘So, go on ...’ Dean nodded towards Dr Samedi and looked at Danny. ‘Voodoo, eh?’

‘Kind of thing,’ Danny said.

‘Where’s this then, Gittoes? Jamaica?’

‘Haiti. He was this voodoo God in Haiti. Only he was called Baron Samedi, see. God of the dead. Hung around graves. Led these tribes of zombies. And he wore that same gear – coat with tails and a top hat. Maybe a stick. Like a cane. I read this book. So that’s where he gets it from, see?’

Dean winked at Quentin, who smiled stiffly. ‘And this was, like, devil worship, right?’

‘Yeah. Well, more or less.’

“Cause Jane’s well into that, see,’ Dean said, not looking at Jane.

‘You on about?’

‘Got her ma into it now, too, from what they says.’

‘OK.’ Jane half rose. ‘Watch it.’

She saw Quentin’s hand tightening around his can of Dr Pepper’s.

‘What they’re saying,’ Dean said, ‘is that Jane’s mother, the vicar, she chucked her load in church tonight.’

Danny Gittoes said, ‘Eh?’

‘You en’t yeard? All over the village, man. ‘Er chucked up. Splatted all over the bloody bishop.’

‘Geddoff!’ Danny said theatrically. Jane smelled set-up.

‘Runs in the family, see.’ Dean’s little eyes glinting. ‘Can’t keep nothin’ down. Throws up right in the middle of’er ordination service, whatever they calls it.’

‘Never!’