The man in the moss
A cold midwinter fogbank lay on the Moss
It lay like a quilt on the black mattress of the peat, and nothing moved.
Not even the village schoolteacher standing on the promontory at the end of a ragged alley of graves where the churchyard seemed to overhang the bog's edge.
Damp January was clamped across the teacher's mouth and nose like a chloroform pad. He'd only been an hour out of bed, but the cold made him tired and the sight of the Moss only made him feel colder.
It was, as he'd explained to countless generations of pupils, the biggest surviving peatbog in the North of England, a gross product of violent death and centuries of decay… vast forests burned and torn down by the barbarian invaders… soaring greenery slashed and flattened and transformed by time into flat, black acres bounded by the hills and the moors.
The peat was dead. But, because of its acids, the peat had the power to preserve. Sometimes fragments of the ancient dead were found in there, from iron-hard limbs of trees to the arms and legs of corpses (which were taken away by the villagers and quietly buried).
Inside his long, deeply unfashionable overcoat, the teacher suddenly shivered. Not at the thought of the corpses, but because he was waiting for the piper.
The piper on the Moss.
The sad, swollen drone, the bleak keening of a lost soul, had reached him on a sudden, spiked breeze during his habitual morning walk before school.
And he'd stopped, disquieted. The air had been still, weighted by the fog; no breeze at all except for this single, quick breath. As if it had been awoken only to carry the message that the piper was on the Moss.
This worried him, for the piping was never heard in winter.
As a rule, it came on summer evenings, when the Moss was firm and springy and the sound would be serene, rippling along the air currents, mingling with bird cries… plaintive enough to soften the clouds.
But the piper did not come in winter.
Seeking reassurance, the teacher turned around, looking for the soft blue eye of the Beacon over the village. But the fog had closed the eye; he could not even make out the outline of the Norman church tower.
And while his back was turned, it began. A distant, drifting miasma of music. Notes which sounded ragged at first but seemed to reassemble somehow in the air and harmonize eerily with the atmosphere.
Cold music, then, with a razor-edge of bitterness.
And more. An anger and a seeping menace… a violence, unsuppressed, which thrust and jabbed at the fog, made it swirl and squirm.
Trembling suddenly, the schoolteacher backed away from it; it was as if the fog and the frozen stillness of winter had combined to amplify the sound. And the sound made vibrant, pulsing images in his head.
It was as though the sky had been slashed and the rain bled from the clouds.
As though the cry had been physically torn from the ruptured breast of a bird in flight.
Or the morning itself had been ripped open, exposing the black entrails of another kind of night.
And then the piper himself came out of the fog with the black bladder like a throbbing tumour under one arm, and the ground exploded around him, a sound as dark as the peat under his plodding boots.
A black noise. The piper in a black mood.
'Why can't you keep away?' the teacher whispered. 'Why do you have to haunt us?'
He pulled his hat over his ears to muffle the piping and hurried away from it, back towards the church until the beacon's ghostly disc emerged from the fog and he could see the vacant smile on the face of Our Sheila who fingered and flaunted her sex on the church porch.
He rushed past her and into the church, shutting the great oak door behind him, removing his hat and clamping it to his breast, staring up at the Winter Cross, all jagged branches, blunted thorns, holly and mistletoe.
He couldn't hear the pipes any more but felt he could taste the noise – that the oozing sound had entered his ears and been filtered down to the back of his throat where it came out tasting sourly of peat.
'Doesn't mean owt, does it?' he called out to the Winter Cross. 'We'll be all right, won't we? Nowt'll change?'
And nothing would change for more than fifteen winters of fog and damp. But fifteen years in the life of a Moss was barely a blink of the eye of God, and when the Moss revealed what it had preserved… then the changes would come, too many, too quickly and too horribly.
And the teacher, in retirement, feeling the kiss of the eternal night, would remember the first time the piper had appeared on the Moss in winter. Meanwhile, later that week, the fog would lift and there would be snow. then…
They were all around her at the stage door, like muggers in the night. She could smell the sweat and the beer… and a sour scent, like someone's rancid breath, squirting out of the darkness and straight to the back of her throat.
Coughing. Coughing at nothing. For as long as she could remember, hostility had occasionally come to her like this… like a single, piercing puff from a poisoned perfume spray.
But nothing there, really.
There were maybe twenty of them, but it was mostly OK, wasn't it? Mostly warm wishes and appreciation? Just never happened to her before. One of them had his jacket off, eyeing her. He was grinning and mumbling.
'Sign your what?' she said.
'Get used to it, lass.' Matt Castle grinning too. 'This is only the start of it. For you.'
Now the guy was rolling up a chequered shirt sleeve in the sub-zero night, handing her this thick black felt-tip pen. 'Oh, your arm.' She tried to smile, printing her name all the way up the soft, hairless underside of his forearm.
Usually it would be just a handful of enthusiasts, harmless as train-spotters, chattering learnedly about the music and mainly to Matt. Dropping away as they headed for the car park. Shouting, See you again… stuff like that, mostly to Matt.
You should be loving this, hen, she told herself. Real fans. Can you believe that? You're a star.
Willie and Eric were loading the gear into Matt's old minibus, wanting to be away – more snow on the way, apparently. Two girls in leather jackets held open the back doors for the tea chest Willie kept his hand-drums in.
She felt it again, back of her throat. Nearly choked on it.
'Ta,' Eric said. Moira saw Little Willie sizing up the girls for future reference. Tonight, she knew, he was worried he wouldn't get home across the Moss, if the snow came down.
Matt got into the driving seat, Eric slammed the back doors and climbed in on the passenger side. One of the girls in leather – buxom piece – opened a rear side door for Willie. Willie rolled his eyes at her, gave her his most seductively innocent grin. 'See you sometime, eh?'
Moira's throat was burning up.
The girl said, 'Yeah, I'll be around.' She held on to the open door. 'Gina,' she said. The wire-caged light over the backstage exit threw a grille of shadows on to her pale, puffy cheeks.
Willie, five and a bit feet tall, liked his women big. 'Gina. Right," he said, 'I'll remember.'
The first sparse snowflakes hit the wet black asphalt and dissolved. Moira, tucking her long hair down her coat collar, smiled at the girl, put out a foot to climb into the van next to Willie.
And then the moment froze, like life's big projector had jammed.
Moira turned in time to see the girl's eyes harden, glazing over like a doll's eyes as she whirled – a big, clumsy dancer – and flung the door. Like the door was a wrecking hammer and Moira was the side of a condemned building.
Snarling, 'Traitor!' Discoloured, jagged teeth exposed. 'Fucking bitch!'
Willie had seen it. With both hands, he had pushed her back. She stumbled, fell over the kerb, the door connecting with a shuddering crunch and this girl, Gina snarling, 'Bitch…', voice as deadly cold as the grinding metal.
And then the door reopened and Willie was hauling her in and snatching it shut behind her, the girl screaming, 'Go on… feather your own nest, fucking cow!' And beating on the panel into Moira's ear as Matt started the engine and pulled urgently away into the unheeding, desultory night traffic.
'Jesus,' Willie Wagstaff said. 'Could've had your fingers off.'
'Screw up ma glittering career, huh?' White face in the streetlight and a rasp of Glasgow giving it away that Moira was pretty damn shocked. 'Couldny play too well wi' a hook.'
Matt said mildly, 'Don't let it bother you. Always one or two. Just jealous.' The snow heavy enough now for him to get the wipers going.
'Wasny about envy.' Moira had her guitar in her arms. 'I'm no' exactly popular with your fans any more is the problem.'
'You're in good company,' Matt said. 'Look how the purists shunned Dylan when he went over to rock and roll.'
'Called me a traitorous cow.'
'Yeah, well,' Matt said. 'We've been over this.' So damned nonchalant about it. He seemed so determined she shouldn't feel bad that she felt a sight worse.
Eric, the mournful one who played fiddle and twelve-string, Eric, the mediator, the peacemaker, said, 'Weren't a bad gig though, were it?'
'Was a grand gig,' Moira said. Good enough, she thought, heartsick, to be the start of something, not the end.
Least her throat wasn't hurting so bad. The guitar case was warm in her arms. The snowflakes began to suck and cluster on the side windows as Matt drove first to Eric's house at Ashton Under Lyne, where Willie had left his Minivan. They switched the drum chest to the back of the little grey van, and Willie said, 'I won't mess about. If it's snowing like this down here it'll be thick as buggery over t'top.' He hung his arms around Moira's neck and gave her a big kiss just wide of the lips. 'Ta-ra, lass. Don't lose touch, eh?'
Then Eric kissed her too, mournfully, and by the time she got into the front seat next to Matt she was in tears, both arms wrapped around the guitar case for comfort.
'This is the worst thing I ever did, you know that. Matt?'
There was silence. Just the two of them now, for the last time. Time for some plain talking.
'Don't be so bloody daft.' Still his tone was curiously mild.
'She was right, that slag, I should have ma fingers chopped off.'
'Listen, kid.' He tapped at the steering-wheel. 'You made one sacrifice for this band when you threw up your degree course. That's it. No more. Don't owe us nowt. It's been nice – cracking couple of years, wouldn't've missed it. But you're not even twenty-one. We're owd men, us.'
'Aw, Matt…' Could anybody be this selfless?
'Gone as far as we're going. Think I want to be trailing me gear around the country when I'm sixty? No way. It's a good get-out, this, straight up. For all of us. Eric's got his kids, Willie's got his…'
Matt didn't finish the sentence, covering up the break by changing down to third, swinging sharp right and taking them through Manchester's Piccadilly: bright lights, couples scurrying through the snow. Snow was nice in the city, Moira thought. For a while. When it came by night.
Think about the snow. Because Matt's got to be lying through his teeth.
But the silence got too heavy. 'OK,' she said, to change the subject. 'What do you want to be doing?'
'You said you didny wanna be trailing your gear around when you were sixty. What would you like to be doing?'
Matt didn't answer for a long time, not until they were out of the city centre.
'I'm not sure,' he said eventually. 'We're all right for money, me and Lottie. Thanks to you.'
'Matt…' I can't stand this.
'All right. I don't know. I don't know what I want to do. But I'll tell you this much… I know where I want to be.'
Moira waited. The snow was heavy now, but they were not too far from Whalley Range, where she lived, and it wouldn't take Matt long to get to his bit of Cheshire and Lottie.
'What I want,' he said, 'is to be out of these sodding suburbs. Want to go home.'
'Across the Moss?' The words feeling strange in Moira's mouth.
'Yeah,' Matt said.
Across the Moss. Willie and Matt would often slip the phrase to each other, surreptitiously, like a joint. Across the Moss was Over the Rainbow. Utopia. The Elysian Fields.
'Lottie likes it fine where we are. All the shops and the galleries and that. But it's not me, never was. Don't belong. No… echoes. So. Yeah. I'm going home. Might take a year, might take ten. But that's where I'm ending up.'
Which didn't make her feel any better. Twenty years older than her and here he was, talking about ending up. Did this happen to everybody when they turned forty?
'This is Willie's village, up in the moors?'
'Yeah. And Willie stayed. Willie's got family there. My lot moved to town when I was a lad. You never get rich up there, not even the farmers. But we were happy. We were part of it. Willie's still part of it. Drops down to town to play a gig or two, get his leg…go out with a woman.'
Moira smiled. Matt tended to be kind of proper, like a father, when they were alone.
'But he keeps going back. And his mother… she's never spent a night away, his ma, the whole of her life.'
'Some place, huh?'
'Special place.' He was staring unblinking through the windscreen and the snow. 'It's quite lonely and primitive in its way. And the Moss – biggest peatbog in the North.'
'Vast. And when you get across it – it's weird – but there's a different attitude. Different values.'
'Isn't that what everybody says about the place they were brought up?'
She thought about this.
'No,' she said. 'Maybe not.'
The world outside was a finite place in the thickening snow. Matt was somewhere far inside himself. Across the Moss.
She glanced at him quickly. Thickset guy, coarse-skinned. Nobody's idea of a musician. Brooding eyes the colour of brown ale. Most times you thought you knew him; sometimes you weren't so sure. Occasionally you were damn sure you didn't know him, and couldn't.
After a while she said, 'What's it called? I forget.'
'Bridelow,' Matt said in a deliberate way, rounding out all the consonants. 'Bridelow Across the Moss.'
'Right,' she said vaguely.
'Dramatic place. To look at. Never saw that till I started going back. I take the little lad up there sometimes, of a weekend. When he's older we're going to go hiking on Sundays. Over the moors.'
'Sounds idyllic. Like to see it sometime.'
'But mostly I go alone.' Matt pulled up under the streetlamp in front of the Victorian villa where Moira had her apartment.
'Me and the pipes.'
'You take the pipes?'
Bagpipes. The Northumbrian pipes, played sitting down, had been Matt's instrument. Then he'd started experimenting with different kinds of bag, made of skins and things. He called them the Pennine Pipes, claiming they'd been played in these parts since before the Romans came to Britain.
The Pennine Pipes made this eerie, haunting sound, full of a kind of repressed longing.
'Releases me,' Matt said.
She didn't want to ask him what it released him from.
'Takes it away,' Matt said.
She didn't want to ask him what it was that piping took away.
'On the Moss,' Matt said. 'Only on the Moss.'
The tips of her fingers started to feel cold.
'The Moss takes it away,' Matt said. 'The Moss absorbs it.
He switched off the engine. Snow was settling on the bonnet.
'But the Moss also preserves it,' Matt said. 'That's the only drawback. Peat preserves. You give it to the peat, and you've got rid of it, but the peat preserves it for ever.'
He turned and looked at her; she saw something swirling in his eyes and the truth exploded in her mind. Oh, Christ, don't let me taste it. God almighty, don't let it come. Was the girl, what's her name, Gina…it was the girl, it wasny you, Matt, wasny you… please, don't let it be you… In the silence, the kind which only new snow seemed to make, they looked at each other in the streetlight made brighter by the snow.
'This is it then,' Matt said flatly.
'Think I might cry again.' But she was lying now. There was the residue of something unpleasant here, something more than sadness swirling in Matt's eyes.
Matt had his door open. 'Pass us your guitar.'
'Huh? Oh. Right. Sorry.'
The street was silent, snow starting to make the three and four-storey houses look like soft furnishings. Lights shone pastel green, pink and cream behind drawn curtains. Matt took the guitar case, snowflakes making a nest in his denim cap. He pushed it back. He said, just as relaxed, just as mild and just as offhand as he'd been earlier, 'One thing I've always meant to ask. Why do you always take this thing on stage with you?'
'No, lass. The case. This old and cracked and not very valuable guitar case. You never let the bloody thing out of your sight.'
'Oh.' How long had he been noticing this? She looked at him. His eyes were hard. He'd never asked her questions; everything he knew about her she'd volunteered. Matt was incurious.
And because of that she told him.
'There's… kind of a wee pocket inside the case, and inside of that there's, like, something my mother gave me when I was young.'
He didn't stop looking at her.
'It's only a comb. Kind of an antique, you know? Very old. Too heavy to carry around in your pocket. It means a lot to me, I suppose.'
'That's your mother, the…?'
'The gypsy woman. Aye. Ma mother, the gypsy woman.'
She shook snow off her hair. 'They're big on good luck tokens, the gypsies. Throw'm around like beads.'
Matt said roughly, 'Don't go making light of it.'
'You're trying to make it seem of no account. Traditions are important. Sometimes I think they're all we have that's worthwhile.' He propped the instrument in its stiff black case against the wide concrete base of the streetlamp.
Moira said, 'Look, you're gonny get soaked.'
He laughed scornfully, like the noise a crow makes.
'Matt,' she said, 'I'll see you again, yeh?' And she did want to, she really did. Sure she did.
He smiled. 'We'll be on different circuits now, lass. You in a suite at the Holiday Inn, me over the kitchen at the Dog and Duck. Tell you what, I'll buy all your records. Even if it is rock and roll. How's that?'
She took a step towards him, hesitant. He was only a wee bit taller than she was.
This was it. The final seconds of the last reel.
Two years in the band, building up her reputation on the back of his. Matt watching her with some pride. A touch supervisory at first, then graciously taking half a pace back until even the wee folk clubs were announcing 'The Matt Castle Band with Moira Cairns'. And a couple of times, to her embarrassment, Moira Cairns in bigger letters.
And now she was leaving. Off to London for the big money.
'Matt.. It was the worst moment. She should kiss him too, but that would seem perfunctory, demeaning and pretty damn cheap.
Also, for the first time, she didn't want to go that close to him.
He'd pulled down his cap; she tried to peer under the peak, to find out what his eyes were saying.
Nothing. His eyes would show no resentment, no disappointment. She was leaving the band which had changed her life, made her name. Leaving the band just when she was starting to put something back, and Matt felt…
He felt nothing.
'Did you go on the peat today?' she asked him in a very small voice, the snow falling between them. 'Did you go on the peat with the pipes? Did you let the damn peat absorb it?'
And then the projector stuttered and stalled again, images shivering on the screen of the night, and she saw him suddenly all in white. Maybe just an illusion of the snow. He was very still and framed in white. It wasn't nice. The white was frilled around him, like the musty lace handkerchiefs in the top dresser drawer at her gran's house.
And a whiff of soiled perfume.
For the first time, there was a real menace to him. Too transient to tell whether it was around him or from him. Her throat swelled. She coughed and the tears came, the wrong kind of tears. She felt the snow forming on the top of her own head; it was almost warm. Maybe she looked like that too, shrouded in white.
Matt held out his right hand and she gripped it like a lifeline, but the hand was deathly cold. She told herself, Cold hands, warm heart, yeah? And tried to pull him closer – but all the time wanting to keep him away and hating herself for that.
He dropped her hand and then put both of his on her shoulders. His arms were rigid, like girders, but she felt they were trembling, his whole body quivering with some titanic tension, something strong holding out against something potentially stronger, like a steel suspension bridge in a hurricane.
Then he said, 'Going to show me?' Voice colder than the snow.
She wanted to squirm away; she made herself remain still, trying to find his eyes. No. Please. Don't spoil this. I'll buy it. You're a selfless, self sacrificing guy. I don't want to know any more.
'This famous comb,' he said with a smile that was faintly unpleasant.
'It's no' famous,' she said quickly, almost snapping.
His brown eyes were steady. Hey, come on…this is Matt Castle. What's he gonna do, steal it off you, snatch it out your hand and drive away?
Keep it safe. Never take it out for show… Never treat it as a trinket or a wee souvenir. You understand, child?
No, see, all it is. He wants a link. A special moment, something between us and no one else.
You owe him. You owe him that.
You owe him nothing.
She stopped searching his eyes, didn't want to know what they might have to tell her about Matt Castle, the kindly father figure, that Matt Castle who'd said, Take your chance, grab it while you can, lass. Never mind us. We're owd men.
Dumbly, Moira laid the guitar case on the pavement in the snow and – hands shaking with the cold and the nerves – flipped up the chromium catch.
It was like opening someone's coffin.
Only the guitar lay in state. In a panic, she felt beneath the machine-heads for the velvet pouch which held the ancient metal comb.
I have to. I owe him, Mammy. I'm sorry, but I owe him.
The Spring Cross
From Dawber's Book of Bridelow:
This little book bids you, the visitor, a cordial welcome to Bridelow Across the Moss, a site of habitation for over two thousand years and the home of the famous Bridelow Black Beer.
Bridelow folk would never be so immodest as to describe their tiny, lonely village as unique. But unique it is, both in situation and character.
Although little more than half an hour's drive from the cities of Manchester and Sheffield, the village is huddled in isolation between the South Pennine moors and the vast peatbog known as Bridelow Moss. So tucked away, as the local saying goes, 'It's a wonder the sun knows where to come of a morning…'
A spring morning. A hesitant sun edging over the moor out of a mist pale as milk. Only when it clears the church tower does the sun find a few patches of blue to set it off, give it a bit of confidence.
The sun hovers a while, blinking in and out of the sparse shreds of cloud before making its way down the village street, past the cottage where Ma Wagstaff lives, bluetits breakfasting from the peanuts in two mesh bags dangling from the rowan trees in the little front garden.
The cats, Bob and Jim, sitting together on Ma's front step – donkeystoned to a full-moon whiteness – observe the bluetits through narrowed green eyes but resist their instincts because Ma will be about soon.
And while Ma understands their instincts all too well, she does not appreciate blood on her step. Milly Gill, shedding her cardigan at the Post Office door, thought the mist this morning was almost like a summer heat-haze, which wasn't bad for the second week in March.
It made Milly feel excited, somewhere deep inside her majestic bosom. It made her feel so energetic that she wanted to wander off for long walks, to fill up her reservoirs after the winter. And to go and see the Little Man. See what he had in his reservoir.
And of course it made her feel creative, too. Tonight she'd be pulling out that big sketch pad and the coloured pencils and getting to work on this year's design to be done in flowers for the dressing of the Holy Well. It was, she decided, going to reflect everything she could sense about her this morning.
Milly Gill thought, I'm forty-nine and I feel like a little girl.
This was what the promise of spring was supposed to do.
'Thank you. Mother,' Milly said aloud, with a big, innocent grin. 'And you too, sir!'
The Moss, a vast bed, hangs on to its damp duvet as usual until the sun is almost overhead. Behind temporary traffic-lights, about half a mile from the village, a Highways Authority crew is at work, widening the road which crosses the peat, a long-overdue improvement, although not everybody is in favour of improving access to the village.
It's close to midday before the foreman decides it's warm enough to strip to the waist.
This is the man who finds the chocolate corpse. The splendour of the morning dimmed a little for the Rector when, on getting out of bed, he felt a twinge.
It was, as more often than not, in the area of his left knee. 'We really must get you a plastic one,' the doctor had said last time. 'I should think the pain's pretty awful, isn't it?'
'Oh.' The Rector flexing his creased-up Walter Matthau semi-smile. 'Could be worse.' Then the. doctor ruefully shaking his head, making a joke about the Rector being determined to join the league of Holy Martyrs.
'I was thinking of joining the squash club, actually,' the Rector had said, and they'd both laughed and wondered how he was managing to keep this up.
The answer to this was Ma Wagstaff's mixture.
Standing by the window of his study, with sunshine strewn all over the carpet, pleasant around his bare feet, the Rector balanced a brimming teaspoonful of Ma's mixture, and his eyes glazed briefly at the horror of the stuff.
It looked like green frogspawn. He knew it was going to make his throat feel nostalgic for castor oil.
The bottle, as usual, was brown and semi-opaque so he wouldn't have to see the sinister strands and tendrils waving about in there like weed on the bottom of an aquarium.
But still, it worked.
Not a 'miracle' cure, of course. Ma Wagstaff, who promised nothing, would have been shocked at any such suggestion.
'Might just ease it a bit,' she'd say gruffly, leaving the bottle on his hall table, by the phone.
Through the study window the Rector saw sun-dappled gravestones and the great Norman tower of St Bride's.
He rubbed his feet into the sunshiny carpet, raised his eyes to heaven, the spoon to his lips, and swallowed. Out on the Moss, the foreman stands in the middle of the trench, in front of the JCB, waving his arms until the driver halts the big digger and sticks his head inquiringly round the side of the cab.
"Owd on a bit, Jason. I've found summat.'
The trench, at this point, is about five feet deep.
'If it's money,' says the JCB driver, 'just pass it up 'ere and I'll hide it under t'seat.' 'Well,' said Mr Dawber. 'as it's such a lovely day, we'd best be thinking about the spring. Now – think back to last year – what does that mean?'
Some of them had the good manners to put their hands up, but two little lads at the back just shouted it out.
'THE SPRING CROSS!'
Mr Dawber didn't make an issue of it. 'Aye,' he said. 'The Spring Cross.' And the two troublemakers at the back cheered at that because it would get them out of the classroom, into the wood and on to the moors.
'So,' said Mr Dawber. 'Who can tell me what we'll be looking for to put in the Spring Cross?'
The hands went up as fast and rigid as old-fashioned railway signals. Ernie Dawber looked around, singled out a little girl.
'Aye, that's right, catkins. What else? Sebastian.'
'Ye-es. What else? Benjamin.'
They all had a good cackle at this. Benjamin was the smallest child in the class and had the air of one who found life endlessly confusing. Ernie Dawber sympathized. He'd always reckoned that the day he retired he'd be able to sit back, job well enough done, and start to understand a few basics. But everything had just got hazier.
With them all looking at him, giggling and nudging each other, Benjamin seemed to get even smaller. Mr Dawber had a little deliberation about this while the class was settling down.
'Now then…' he said thoughtfully. 'Who can tell me when we find acorns?'
'Autumn!' four or five of the cleverer ones chorused scornfully.
'That's right. So, what I'm going to do – and don't forget to remind me when the times comes, lad – I'm going to put Benjamin, because he knows all about acorns… in charge of making the Autumn Cross.'
The clever ones looked aghast, unable to find any justice in this, and Ernie Dawber smiled to see it. Corning in just a few hours a week, to teach the children about nature, at least gave him more time to consider the psychology of the job.
'Now then.' He clapped his hands to change the mood.
'What else do we need for the Spring Cross? Tom.'
Mr Dawber's voice dropped an octave.
'We most certainly do not take birds' eggs to put into the Spring Cross, or for any other reason, Thomas Garside. And if it comes to my notice that any of you nave disturbed any nests there's going to be Trouble.'
There was silence.
'And don't anybody think I won't find out about it,' said Mr Dawber.
And they knew he would, because, one way or another, Mr Dawber found out about everything. And if it was important enough he put it in The Book of Bridelow. The foreman tells the JCB driver to switch his engine off. His voice is shaking.
'Come down a minute, Jason. Come and take a look at this.' The driver, a younger man, swings, loose-limbed, to the ground. His boots shudder on the surface of the Moss. 'What you got?'
'I'm not sure.' The foreman seems reluctant to go back in the trench.
The driver grinning, shambling over to the pit and balancing expertly on the rim. Can't make it out at first. Looks like a giant bar of dark chocolate.
Then, while the foreman is attempting to light a cigarette and nervously scattering matches over the peat, the driver suddenly realises what he's staring at, and, when the thought lurches into his head, it's eerily echoed by the foreman's fractured croak.
'Looks like a dead 'un to me, Jason.'
The driver falls over backwards trying not to topple into the trench. Just Eliza Horridge and Shaw now, and the drawing room at The Hall was too big.
He was taller but slighter than his father, who used to stand, legs apart, in front of the fireplace, lighting his pipe, belching dragon's breath and making it seem as if the room had been built around him. When Arthur Horridge spoke, the walls had closed in, as if the very fabric of the building was paying attention.
'The w-w-w-worst thing about all this…' Shaw's thin voice no more emphatic than the tinkling of the chandelier when a window was open, '… is that when der-der-Dad wanted to expand ter-ten years ago, the bank wouldn't back him, and now…'
'We'll ride it,' Liz Horridge told him firmly. 'We always have. We've got twenty-three people depending on us for an income.'
'Ter-ter-too many,' said Shaw. 'Fer-far…'
'No!' The first time ever that she hadn't waited politely for him to finish a sentence. 'That's not something your father would have said.'
She turned away from him, glaring out of the deep Georgian-style window at the brewery's grey tower through the bare brown tree trunks. Its stonework badly needed repointing, one more job they couldn't afford.
'When sales were sagging,' Liz said, as she'd said to him several times before, 'Arthur always blamed himself, and it was our belt – the family's – that was tightened. I remember when he sold the Jag to-'
'It was der-different then!' Shaw almost shrieked, making her look at him. 'There was no competition to ser-speak of. Wh-what did they need to know about mer-mer-market forces in those days?'
'And it's all changed so quickly, has it, in the six months since your father's death?'
'It was cher-changing… yer-years before. He just couldn't see it. He didn't w-want to ser-see it.'-
'He knew what his duty was,' Liz snapped, and her son began to wring his hands in frustration.
The sun shone through the long window, a cruel light on Shaw, the top of his forehead winking like a feeble flashlight.
If baldness was hereditary, people doubtless asked, why had\ Arthur managed to keep most of his hair until the end, while Shaw's had begun to fall out before he turned twenty?
Behind the anger, Liz felt the usual sadness for him, while acknowledging that sympathy was a poor substitute for maternal pride.
'Mother,' Shaw said determinedly, 'listen to me. We've ger-got to do it. Ser-soon. We've got to trim the workforce. Ser-ser-some of them have ger-got to go. Or else…'
'Never,' said Liz Horridge. But she knew that such certainty was not her prerogative. Shaw was the owner of the Bridelow Brewery now. He glared mutinously at her, thin lips pressed tight together, only too aware of how much authority he lost whenever he opened them.
'Or else what?' Liz demanded. 'What happens if we don't trim the workforce?'
She looked down at herself, at the baggy jeans she wore, for which she was rather too old and a little too shapeless these days. Realising why she was wearing the jeans. Spring cleaning.
An operation which she would, for the first time, be undertaking alone, because, when Josie had gone into hospital, she hadn't taken on another cleaner for economic reasons. Thus trimming her own workforce of one.
The ber-ber-brewery's not a charity, Mother,' Shaw said pleadingly. 'Jim Ford says we could be out of ber-business inside a year.'
'Or else what?' Liz persisted.
'Or else we sell it,' Shaw said simply.
Liz laughed. 'To whom?'
'Ter-ter-to an outside… one of the big firms.'
'That's not an option,' Liz said flatly. 'You know that. Beer's been brewed in Bridelow since time immemorial. It's part of the local heritage.'
'And still cer-could be! Sell it as a going concern. Why not?'
'And you could live with that, could you?'
He didn't answer. Liz Horridge was shaking with astonishment. She faced him like an angry mother cat, narrowing her eyes, penetrating. 'Who's responsible for this? Who's been putting these thoughts in your head?'
'Ner-nobody.' But he couldn't hold her gaze. He was wearing a well-cut beige suit over a button-down shirt and a strange leather tie. He was going out again. He'd been going out a lot lately. He had no interest in the brewery, and he wasn't even trying to hide this any longer.
'And what about the pub? Is this fancy buyer going to take that on as well?'
'Ser-somebody will.' Shaw shrugged uselessly, backing towards the door. 'Anyway, we'll talk about it later, I've got to…'
'Where are you going?'
'I… I'm…' He went red and began to splutter. Pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose, wiped his lips. For years she'd worried because he didn't go out enough, because he hadn't got a girlfriend (although this had hardly been surprising). Now at last, at the age of thirty-one, he was feebly groping for control of his own destiny… and floundering about, unbalancing everything.
Liz Horridge turned away from him and walked to the other window, the one with the view of Bridelow, which summer would soon obscure. She could see the humped but still sprightly figure of Mrs Wagstaff in the distance, lugging a shopping basket across the cobbles to Gus Bibby's General Stores.
Her breast heaved and she felt tears pumping behind her eyes.
Arthur… it's not my fault.
Mrs Wagstaff stopped in the middle of the street and – although it was too far away for Liz to be certain – seemed to stare up through the trees at the Hall… at this very window.
As though the old girl had overheard Liz's thoughts. As though she could feel the agony.
When Liz turned around, wet-eyed, she found she was alone; Shaw had quietly left the room. Although he'll be cool enough when the Press and the radio and TV reporters interview him in a few hours' time, the County Highways foreman is so shaken up right now that he has to be revived with whisky from the JCB driver's secret flask.
What he's discovered will come to be known as the Bridelow Bogman. Or the Man in the Moss. Important people are going to travel hundreds of miles to gaze with reverence upon its ancient face.
'And what was your reaction when you found it?' asks one of the reporters. 'What did you think it was?'
'Thought it were a sack o' spuds or summat,' the foreman says, quotably. His moment of glory. But out of his hands soon enough – so old and so exciting to the experts, like one of them Egyptian mummies, that nobody else seems to find it upsetting or horrifying, not like a real body.
But, though he'll never admit it, the foreman reckons he's never going to forget that first moment.
'And what did you think when you realised what it was?'
'Dunno, really… thought it were maybe an owd tramp or summat.'
'Were you shocked?'
'Nah. You find all sorts in this job.'
But that night the foreman will dream about it and awake with a whimper, reaching for his warm missus. And then fall asleep and wake again, his sweat all over both of them and his mind bulging with the moment he bent down and found his hand was gripping its cold and twisted face, his thumb between what might have been its teeth. Part Two black glow
From Dawber's Book of Bridelow:
The first-time visitor to Bridelow is strongly urged to approach it from the west, from which direction a most dramatic view of the village is attained.
From a distance of a mile or two, Bridelow appears almost as a craggy island when viewed from the narrow road which is virtually a causeway across Bridelow Moss.
A number of legends are attached to the Moss, some of which will be discussed later in this book.
In early summer, Bridelow hopefully dolls herself up, puts on a bit of make-up and an obliging smile for the sun. But the sun doesn't linger. On warm, cloudless evenings like this it saves its final pyrotechnics for the moor.
Sunset lures hues from the moor that you see at no other time – sensual pinks and melodramatic mauves which turn its stiff and spiky surface into velvet
… a delusion, thought Joel Beard, soon to leave theological college. A red light tenderizing the face of an old whore.
He had his back to the sinking sun. To him, it seemed agitated tonight, throwing out its farewell flames in a long, dying scream. As well it might.
Most of the lonely village was below the moor, and the sun's flailing rays were missing it. The stone houses hanging from the hill were in shadow and so was the body of the church on its summit. Only the spikes of the church tower were dusted with red and gold.
Joel dismounted from his motorbike.
In the centre of the tower was a palely shining disc. Like a rising full moon, it sent sneering signals to the sun: as you fade, it promised gleefully, I'll grow ever brighter.
Joel glared at the village across the sullen, scabby surface of the Moss. He imagined Bridelow under moonlight, stark and white as crow-picked bones.
Its true self.
The disc at the centre of the tower was actually an illuminated clock face, from which the hands had long ago fallen.
Often said to be a friendly face which turned the church into a lighthouse at night, across the black ocean of the Moss.
… you see, at one time, Mr Beard, very few people dared to cross the Moss… except those for whom the Devil lit the way – have you heard that legend?
It was no legend. On a dark night, all you would see of the village would be this silver disc, Bridelow's own, permanent full moon.
Was this how the Devil lit the path? Was this the Devil's light, shining from the top of the stairs in God's house, a false beacon for the weak, the uncertain and the disturbed?
Joel's black leathers straightened him, like armour, and the hard white collar lifted his eyes above the village to the luminous moor. Its lurid colours too would soon grow dull under the night. Like a harlot's cheap dress.
From the village, across the barren Moss, he heard voices raised, a shriek of laughter.
The village would be alive tonight. A new landlord had installed himself at the decrepit local inn. The Man I'th Moss, thus saving it from closure, a side-effect of the widely condemned sale of the Bridelow brewery.
Joel waited, astride his motorbike, his charger, until the moor no longer glowed and the illusion of beauty was gone.
Everyone saw shadows in the blackened cities, those obvious pits of filth and fornication, where EVIL was scrawled in neon and the homeless slept with the rats. And yet the source of it was up here, where city-dwellers surged at weekends to stroll through the springy heather, picnic among the gorse… young couples, families, children queuing at the roadside ice-cream vans, pensioners in small cars with their flasks of tea.
It's all around you, Mr Beard… once you know what you're looking for. Look at the church, look at the pub, look at the people… you'll see the signs everywhere.
Beneath him, the bike lurched into life, his strong, gauntleted hands making the engine roar and crackle, spitting holy fire.
He rode away from the village, back into the hills. 'Shades,' Ma Wagstaff would say later that night. 'Them's what's kept this place the way it is. Shades of things.'
Of all Ma's famous sayings, these were the words that would keep coming back at Ernie Dawber during the short, anxious days and the long, chill nights of the declining year.
And when, as local historian, he tried to find the beginning (as in, What exactly started the First World War? What caused the first spark that set off the Great Fire of London?), he'd keep coming back to this particular evening. A vivid evening at the end of May. The evening he'd blithely and thoughtlessly told Ma Wagstaff what he'd learned about the death of the bogman… and Ma had made a fateful prediction.
But it started well enough, with a big turn-out for the official reopening of The Man, under its new proprietor. The two bars couldn't hold all those come to welcome him home. So several dozen folk, including Ernie Dawber – best suit, waistcoat, watch-chain – were out on the cobbled forecourt, having a pint or two and watching the sun go down over the big hills beyond the Moss.
A vivid evening at the end of May. Laughter in the streets. Hope for the future. Most enmities sheathed and worries left at home under the settee cushions.
A real old Bridelow night That was how it ought to have been enshrined in his memory. All those familiar faces. A schoolteacher all his working life, Ernie Dawber had known at least three-quarters of this lot since they were five-year-olds at the front of the school hall: eager little faces, timid little faces… few belligerent ones too – always reckoned he could spot a future troublemaker in its pram.
He remembered Young Frank Manifold in the pram, throttling his panda.
'Well, well…' Twenty-odd years on. Young Frank strolling up to his boss, all jutting chin and pint mug clenched like a big glass knuckle-duster. 'It's Mr Horridge.'
Shaw said nothing.
'What's that you're drinking, Mr Horridge?' Sneering down at Shaw's slim glass.
Shaw's smile faltered. But he won't reply, Ernie thought, because if he does he'll start stuttering and he knows it.
There'd been a half-smile on Shaw's face as he stood alone on the cobbles. A nervous, forced-looking smile but a smile none the less. Ernie had to admire the lad, summoning the nerve to show himself tonight, not a month since Andy Hodgson died.
Especially with more than a few resentful brewery employees about.
'Looks like vodka.' Frank observed 'That what it is, Mr Horridge? Vodka?' A few people starting to look warily at Frank and Shaw, a couple of men guiding their wives away.
''Course, I forgot. Bloody Gannons make vodka on t'side. Gannons will make owt as'll sell. That Gannons vodka? That what it is… Mr Horridge?'
Shaw sipped his drink, not looking at Frank. This could be nerves. Or it could be an insult, Shaw pointedly pretending that Young Frank was not there. Whichever, Ernie decided he ought to break this up before it started to spoil the atmosphere. But somebody better equipped than him got there first.
'Where's your dad, Frank?' Milly Gill demanded, putting herself firmly between him and Shaw, like a thick, flowery bush sprouting between two trees.
'Be around somewhere.' Frank staring over the postmistress's head at Shaw, who was staring back now. Frank's knuckles whitening around the handle of his beer mug.
'I think you'd better find him, Frank,' Milly said briskly. 'See he doesn't drink too much with that diabetes.'
Frank ignored her, too tanked-up to know his place. 'Fancy new car. I see… Mr Horridge. Porsche, int it? Andy Hodgson just got 'isself a new car, day before he fell. Well, I'm saying "new" – Austin Maestro, don't even make um no more. He were chuffed wi' it. Easily pleased, Andy, weren't he, Milly?'
'It was an accident,' Milly said tightly. 'As you well know.'
'Aye, sure it were, I'm not accusing Mr Horridge of murder.
Only, why don't you ask him why Andy were suddenly ordered to reconnect a bloody old clapped-out pulley system for winching malt-sacks up to a storeroom right at top of t'building as isn't even used no more except by owls. You ask this bastard that, Milly.'
'We've had the inquest,' Milly said. 'Go and see to your dad.'
'Inquest? Fucking whitewash. I'll tell you why Andy were sent up. On account of place were being tarted up to look all quaint and old-fashioned for a visit from t'Gannons directors. Right, Mr Horridge?'
'Wasn't c… Not quite like that,' said Shaw quietly.
'Oh aye. How were it different? Lad dies for a bit of fucking cosmetic. You're all shit, you. Shit.'
The air between them fizzed. Shaw was silent. He'd been an expert at being silent during the three years Ernie had taught him before the lad was sent to prep school. And still an expert when he came back from University, poor bugger.
'And this Porsche.' Young Frank popped out the word with a few beery bubbles. 'How many jobs Gannons gonna axe to buy you that, eh?'
'Frank,' Milly Gill told him very firmly, big floral bosom swelling, 'I'll not tell you again!'
Careful, lass, Ernie thought. Don't do owt.
'You're a jammy little twat,' Frank spat. 'Don't give a shit. You never was a proper Horridge.'
A widening circle around them, conversations trailing off.
'Right.' Milly's eyes went still. 'That's enough. I'll not have this occasion spoiled. Am I getting through?'
'Now, Millicent,' Ernie said, knowing from experience what might happen if she got riled. But Shaw Horridge startled them all. 'It's quite all right, Miss Gill.'
He smiled icily at Young Frank. 'Yes, it is a per-Porsche.' Held up his glass. 'Yes, it is vodka. Yes, it's mer-made in Sheffield by a s-subsidiary of Gannons Ales.'
He straightened up, taller than Frank now, his voice gaining in strength. 'Gannons Ales. Without whom, yes, I wouldn't have a Porsche."
And, stepping around Millie, he poked Young Frank in the chest with a thin but rigid forefinger. 'And without whom you wouldn't have a job… Mr Manifold.'
Ernie saw several men tense, ready to hold Young Frank back, but Frank didn't move. His eyes widened and his grip on the tankard slackened. Lad's as astonished as me, Ernie thought, at Shaw Horridge coming out with half a dozen almost fully coherent sentences one after the other.
The red sun shone into Shaw's eyes; he didn't blink.
The selling of the brewery was probably the worst thing that had happened to Bridelow this century. But not, apparently, the worst thing that had happened to Shaw Horridge.
He lowered his forefinger. 'Just remember that, please,' he said.
Looking rather commanding, where he used to look shyly hunched. And this remarkable confidence, as though somebody had turned his lights on. Letting them all see him – smiling and relaxed – after perpetrating the sale of the brewery, Bridelow's crime of the century. And indirectly causing a death.
Took some nerve, this did, from stuttering Shaw.
Arthur's lad at last. Maybe.
'Excuse me,' Shaw said dismissively. 'I have to meet someone.'
He turned his back on Young Frank Manifold and walked away, no quicker than he needed to, the sun turning the bald spot on the crown of his head into a bright golden coin.
'By 'eck,' Ernie Dawber said, but he noticed that Milly Gill was looking worried.
And she wasn't alone. 'Now then, Ernest. Wha's tha make of that, then?'
He hadn't noticed her edging up behind him, although he'd known she must be here somewhere. She was a Presence.
Just a little old woman in a pale blue woollen beret, an old grey cardigan and a lumpy brown woollen skirt.
'Well,' Ernie Dawber said, 'Arthur might have been mortified at what he's done with the brewery, but I think he'd be quite gratified at the way he stood up for himself there. Don't you?'
'Aye,' said Ma Wagstaff grimly. 'I'm sure his father'd be right pleased.'
Ernie looked curiously into the rubbery old features. Anybody who thought this was just a little old woman hadn't been long in Bridelow. He took a modest swallow from his half of Black. 'What's wrong then, Ma?'
'Everything.' Ma sighed. 'All coming apart.'
'Oh?' said Ernie. 'Nice night, though. Look at that sun.'
'Aye,' said Ma Wagstaff pessimistically. 'Going down, int it?'
'Well, yes.' Ernie straightened his glasses. 'It usually does this time of night.'
Ma Wagstaff nodded at his glass. 'What's that ale like now it's Gannons?'
'Nowt wrong with it as I can taste.' This wasn't true; it didn't seem to have quite the same brackish bite – or was that his imagination?
Ma looked up and speared him with her fierce little eyes. 'Got summat to tell me, Ernest Dawber?'
Ernie coughed. 'Not as I can think of.' She was making him uneasy.
'Anythin' in the post today?'
'This and that, Ma, this and that.'
'Like one of them big squashy envelopes, for instance?'
'A jiffy-bag, you mean?'
'Aye,' said Ma Wagstaff. 'Wi' British Museum stamped on it.'
Ernie fumed. You couldn't keep anything bloody private in this place. 'Time that Millicent kept her damn nose out!'
'Never mind that, lad, what's it say?'
'Now, look…' Ernie backed away, pulling at his waistcoat. 'In my capacity as local historian, I was able to provide Dr Hall and the British Museum with a considerable amount of information relating to the Moss, and as a result, following their examination of the body, they've kindly given me a preview of their findings, which…'
'Thought that'd be it.' Ma Wagstaff nodded, satisfied.
'… which will be published in due course. Until which time, I'm not allowed…'
'If you know, why shouldn't we know?'
'It's not allowed, Ma. It's what's called an embargo.'
'Oh.' Ma's eyes narrowed. 'That's what it's called, is it?' Means educated fellers like you get to know what's what and us common folk…'
Common folk? Ma Wagstaff? Ernie kept backing off, looking around for friendly faces. 'Please, Ma… don't push me on this. You'll find out soon enough.'
But the nearest person was a good ten yards away, and when his back hit the wall of the pub's outside lavatory block, he realised she'd got him into a corner in more ways than one.
'Now then,' Ma said kindly. 'How's that prostate of yours these days?'
'Nowt wrong with my prostate,' Ernie replied huffily.
Ma Wagstaff's eyes glinted. 'Not yet there int.'
'This is mer-madness,' Shaw said.
'No,' said Therese, 'it's exciting.'
'You're exciting,' he mumbled. That's all.' He pushed a hand through her sleek hair, and she smiled at him, tongue gliding out between her small, ice-white teeth. He was almost crying; she had him on the edge again. He pushed his back into the car's unfamiliar upholstery and clenched both hands on the wheel.
'Shall we go, then?'
'I promise you,' Therese said, 'you'll feel so much better afterwards.'
And he would, he knew this from experience. Once, not long after they'd met, she'd made him go into a chemist and steal a bottle of Chanel perfume for her. I'll buy it for you, he'd almost shrieked. But that wasn't good enough. He was rich… buying her perfume – what would that demonstrate?
So he'd done it. Stolen it. Slipped it into the pocket of his sheepskin jacket and then bought himself two bottles of the shop's most expensive aftershave as an awkward sort of atonement.
But the awkwardness had just been a phase. He remembered lying awake all that night, convinced someone had seen him and the police would be at the door. Don't worry, she'd said, it'll get easier.
Jewellery next. Antique jewellery from a showcase, while Therese had distracted the manager.
You'll feel better, she'd say.
She was right. For the first time ever he was getting whole sentences out without stammering. Although his mother hadn't said anything, it was obvious she'd noticed. And been impressed. He'd felt quite wonderful, couldn't wait to see Therese again to tell her.
His confidence had increased daily. Soon he'd found he could speak openly to groups of men in the brewery like his father used to do, instead of slinking into his office and only communicating with the workers through the manager.
And when Gannons had made their approach, he'd found it surprisingly easy to make his decision – with a little help from Therese.
'Do you want really to stay in Bridelow all your life? Couldn't bear it, myself. Couldn't live here for a week.'
And he knew it was true. She wouldn't spend any time here. If they went for a walk, it had to be up on the moors. If they went for a drink, it had to be at some pub or club in Manchester or somewhere.
He wanted desperately to show her off, to show that stuttering Shaw Horridge could get himself a really beautiful girlfriend. But she seemed to find Bridelow beneath her.
'Dismal little place,' she said. 'Don't you think? I like lights and noise and people.'
So it hadn't been difficult, the decision to let Gannons have the brewery. Biggest thing he'd ever done and all over in a couple of weeks. All over before anyone in the village knew about it. Fait accompli.
'You'll feel better,' she said. And he had. He always did.
Sometimes the terror of what was happening would still flare and, for a moment, it would blind him. He'd freeze, become quite rigid. Like tonight, facing the oaf Manifold, who'd wanted to fight, wanted to take on stuttering Shaw, beat him publicly to the ground. Make a point in front of all his mates.
And Shaw had thought of Therese and felt his eyes grow hard, watched the effect of this on the thug Manifold.
'Start the car, Shaw,' Therese said softly.
Shaw laughed nervously, started the engine.
'Good,' she said. 'Now pull away gently. We don't want any screeching of tyres.'
It was a Saab Turbo. A black one. She'd blown the horn once and he'd known it was her.
It was a different car, but he wasn't unduly surprised; she'd often turn up in quite expensive ones. Her brother's, she'd say.
Or her father's. Tonight she'd stopped the Saab in a lay-by the other side of the Moss, saying, 'I feel tired; you drive.'
'Would I be insured?'
Therese laughed a lot at that.
'Who owns it exactly?'
'How should I know? I stole it.' 'Interferin' devils.' Be unfair, perhaps, to say the old girl was xenophobic about Southerners, but… No, on second thoughts, it wouldn't be unfair; Ma was suspicious of everybody south of Matlock.
'Aye,' Ernie said, 'I know you don't think he should have been taken to London, but this was a find of enormous national, nay, international significance, and they are the experts after all.'
He chuckled, 'By 'eck, they've had him – or bits of him, anyroad – all over the place for examination… Wembley, Harwell. And this report… well, it really is rather sensational, if you ask me. Going to cause quite a stir. You see, what they did…'
Putting on his precise, headmasterly tone, Ernie explained how the boffins had conducted a complete post-mortem examination, submitting the corpse to the kind of specialized forensic tests normally carried out only in cases of suspicious death.
'So they now know, for example, what he had for dinner on the day he died. Some sort of black bread, as it happened.'
Ma Wagstaff sniffed, obviously disapproving of this invasion of the bogman's intestinal privacy.
'Fascinating, though, isn't it,' Ernie said, 'that they've managed to conduct a proper autopsy on a chap who probably was killed back when Christ was a lad…?'
He stopped. 'What's up, owd lass?'
Ma Wagstaff had gone stiff as a pillar-box.
'Killed,' she said starkly.
'Aye. Ritual sacrifice, Ma. So they reckon. But it was all a long time ago.'
Ma Wagstaff came quite dramatically to life. Eyes urgently flicking from side to side, she grabbed hold of the bottom of Ernie's tweed jacket and dragged him well out of everybody's earshot, into a deserted corner of the forecourt. Into the deepest shadows.
'Tell us,' she urged.
The weakening sun had become snagged in tendrils of low cloud and looked for a minute as if it might not make it into the hills but plummet to the Moss. From where, Ernie thought, in sudden irrational panic, it might never rise again.
He took a few breaths, pulling himself together, straightening his jacket.
'This is not idle curiosity, Ernest.'
'I could tell that, Ma, when you were threatening to bugger up my prostate.' How much of a coincidence had it been that he'd shortly afterwards felt an urgent need to relieve himself which seemed to dissipate as soon as he stood at the urinal?
'Eh, that were just a joke, Ernest. Can't you take a joke any more?'
'From you, Ma…'
'But this is deadly serious,' Ma said soberly.
The sun had vanished. Ridiculously, Ernie thought he heard the Moss burp. 'All right.' he said. From the inside pocket of his jacket he brought out some papers bound with a rubber band and swapped his regular specs for his reading glasses. Be public knowledge soon enough, anyroad. Ernie cleared his throat.
'Seems our lad,' he said, 'was somewhere around his late twenties. Quite tall too, for the time, 'bout five-five or six. Peat preserves a body like vinegar preserves onions. The bones had gone soft, but the skin was tanned to perfection. Even the hair, as we know, remained. Anyroad, medical tests indicate no reason to think he wasn't in good shape. Generally speaking.'
'Get to t'point,' Ma said irritably.
'Well, he was killed. In no uncertain manner. That's to say, they made sure of the job. Blunt instrument, first of all. Back of the head. Then, er… strangulation. Garotte.'
'Garotte? Well.. He wondered if she ever had nightmares. Probably wouldn't be the usual kind if she did.
Little Benjie, Ma's grandson, had wandered across the forecourt with that big dog of his. 'Hey.' Ernie scooped a hand at him. 'Go away.'
He lowered his voice. 'They probably put a cord – leather string, sinew – around his neck and… inserted a stick in the back of the cord and, as it were… twisted it, the stick. Thus tightening the sinew around his… that is, fragments of the cord have been found actually embedded. In his neck.'
Ma Wagstaff didn't react like a normal old woman. Didn't recoil or even wince. 'Well?' she said.
'Well what?' said Ernie.
Ernie went cold. How could she know there was more to it? He looked over her head at the bloodied sky. 'Well, seems they… they'd have pulled his head back…'
His throat was suddenly dry. He'd read this report four times, quite dispassionately at first and then with a growing excitement. But an academic excitement. Which was all right. Emotionally he'd remained unmoved. It had, after all, happened a good two thousand years ago – almost in prehistory.
'So the head'd be sort of pulled back… with the… the garotte.'
When they'd brought the bogman out, a little crowd had assembled on the edge of the Moss. Ernie had decided it would be all right to take a few of the older children to witness this historic event. There'd been no big ceremony about it; the archaeologists had simply cut out a big chunk of peat with the body in the middle, quite small, half his legs missing and his face all scrunched up like a big rubber doll that'd been run over. Not very distressing; more like a fossil than a corpse.
They'd wrapped him in clingfilm and put him in a wooden box.
Ernie was staring into Ma Wagstaff's eyes, those large brown orbs glowing amber out of that prune of a face, and he was seeing it for the first time, the real horror of it, the death of a young man two thousand years ago.
'He'd be helpless,' Ernie said. 'Semi-concussed by the blow, and he couldn't move, couldn't draw breath because of the garotte…'
'That was when they cut his throat,' Ernie said hoarsely.
Ma nodded again. Behind her, out on the pub forecourt, a huge cheer suddenly went up. The new landlord must have appeared.
'You knew,' Ernie said. He could feel the blood draining out of his face. 'You knew…'
'It were the custom,' Ma Wagstaff said, voice very drab. Three times dead. See, Ernest, I were holding out the hope as this'd be just a body… some poor devil as lost his way and died out on t'Moss.' She sighed, looking very old. 'I knew really. I knew it was goin' t'be what it is.'
'A sacrifice?' It was growing dark.
'Not just any sacrifice, We're in trouble, Ernest.' Sometimes Shaw wanted to say, I feel like just being with you is illegal.
Some mornings he'd be thinking, I've got to get out of this. I'll be arrested. I'll be ruined.
But then, all through the day, the longing would be growing. And as he changed to go out, as he looked in the mirror at his thin, pale face, his receding hairline and his equally receding jawline, he saw why he could never get out… not as long as there was anything she wanted from him. Not as long as he continued to change.
They drove to a country pub and parked the Saab very noticeably under a window at the front, being careful to lock it and check the doors. He wondered how exactly she'd stolen it and obtained the keys, but he knew that if he asked her she would simply laugh at him.
In the pub, as usual, he couldn't prise his hungry eyes from her. She sat opposite him, wearing an old fox fur coat, demurely fastened to the neck. Shaw wondered if, underneath the coat, above (and inside) her black tights, she was naked.
With that thought, he felt his desire could lift their heavy, glass-topped, cast-iron table a good two inches from the floor.
'You could arouse the dead,' he said, almost without breath.
'Would you like to?' Therese's lips smiled around her glass of port.
'Arouse the dead?'
He laughed uncomfortably. Quite often she would say things, the meaning of which, in due course, would become devastatingly apparent. Later, two miles out of Macclesfield town, Shaw driving again, she said, 'All right, let's deal with this, shall we?'
But she was already unzipping his trousers, nuzzling her head into his lap. He braked hard, in shock, panic and uncontainable excitement. 'Yes, Shaw,' she said, voice muffled, 'you can stop the car.'
'Somebody… somebody might see us… you know, somebody walking past.'
'Well,' Therese said, burrowing, 'I suppose somebody might see you…'
Five minutes later, while he was still shivering, she said, 'Now let's get rid of the car.' She had the interior light on, re-applying lipstick, using the vanity mirror. Her fur coat was still fastened. He would never know if she was naked underneath it.
'How are we going to get home?'
'Taxi. There's a phone box across the road. I'll ring up for one while you're dispensing with the car.'
A shaft of fear punctured his moment of relief. 'Disp…? How?'
'I seem to remember there's a bus shelter along here. What… about a quarter of a mile…? Just take it and ram it into that.'
He just stared at her. Through the windscreen he could see high, evergreen, suburban hedges, sitting-room lights glimmering here and there through the foliage.
Shaw said weakly, 'Why don't we just leave it somewhere?
'Parked, you know…'
'Discreetly,' Therese said. 'Under a tree. With the keys in.'
'Yes,' he said inadequately.
She opened her door to the pavement, looked scornfully back at him. 'Because it wouldn't do anything for you. Your whole life's been tidy and discreet. I'm trying to help you, Shaw.'
His fingers felt numb as he turned the key in the ignition.
A car slowed behind them.
'What if there's somebody in the bus shelter?'
Therese shrugged, got out, slammed the car door. Shaw dug into his jacket pocket, pulled out a handful of tissues and began feverishly to scrub at the steering-wheel and the gear-lever and the door-handle and anything else he might have touched.
He'd been doing this for a couple of minutes when a wetness oozing between his fingers told him he was now using the tissue he'd employed to clean himself up after Therese had finished with him. And they could trace you through your semen now, couldn't they, DNA tests… genetic fingerprinting… oh, no… Banging his forehead against the steering-wheel… no…no…no…
The passenger door clicked gently open.
The police. The police had been surreptitiously following them for miles. That car going slowly, creeping up… He'd be destroyed.
Shaw reacted instinctively. He flung open his door, threw his weight against it, hurling himself out into the middle of the road, a heavy lorry grinding past less than a couple of feet away.
Across the roof of the Saab he looked not into a police uniform but into Therese's dark, calm eyes.
'I'll be listening out,' she whispered, 'for the sound of breaking glass.'
Matt Castle was standing on the pub steps with an arm around the shoulders of Lottie, his wife. Looked a bit awkward, Ernie noticed, on account of Lottie was very nearly as tall as Matt.
Lottie Castle. Long time since he'd seen her. By 'eck, still a stunner, hair strikingly red, although some of that probably came out of a bottle nowadays. Aye, that's it, lad, Ernie encouraged himself. Think about sex, what you can remember. Nowt like it for refocusing the mind after a shock.
How had she known? Was the bogman part of the Bridelow tradition? Was that it? By 'eck, it needed some thinking about, did this.
But not now.
'I'll stand here.' Matt Castle was smiling so hard he could hardly get the words between his teeth. 'So's you can all hear me, inside and out. Can you all hear me?'
'What's he say?' somebody bleated, to merry laughter, from about three yards in front of Matt. Ernie noted, rather disapprovingly, that some of this lot were half-pissed already.
'Yes, we can,' Ernie called helpfully from the edge of the forecourt.
'Thank you, Mr Dawber.'
Ernie smiled. All his ex-pupils, from no matter how far back, insisted on calling him Mr Dawber. When they'd first met, he was a baby-faced twenty-one and Matt Castle was eleven, in the top class. So he'd be fifty-six or seven now. Talk about time flying…
'I just want to say,' said the new licensee, shock-haired and stocky, 'that… well… it's bloody great to be back!'
And of course a huge cheer went up on both sides of the door. Matt Castle, Bridelow-born, had returned in triumph, like the home team bringing back the cup.
Except this was more important to the community than a bit of local glory. 'Looks well, doesn't he?' Ernie whispered to Ma Wagstaff, who didn't reply.
'Always wanted a pub of me own,' Matt told everybody. 'Never dared to dream it'd be this pub.'
The Man I'th Moss hung around him like a great black overcoat many sizes too big. Ernie hoped to God it was all going to work out. Draughty old pile, too many rooms… cellars, attics… take a bit of upkeep, absorb all the contents of your bank account by osmosis.
'To me, like to everybody else, I suppose, this was always Bridelow Brewery's pub.' Matt was dressed up tonight, suit and tie. 'We thought it always would be.'
At which point, quite a few people turned to look for Shaw Horridge, who'd long gone.
'But everything changes,' Matt said. 'Fortunes rise and fall, and this village owes the Horridge family too much not to make the effort to understand why, in the end, they were forced to part with the pub…and, of course, the brewery.'
We've all made the effort, Ernie thought, as others murmured. And we still don't understand why.
'Eeeh,' Matt said, his accent getting broader the more he spoke. 'Eeeh, I wish I were rich. Rich enough to buy the bloody lot. But at least I could put together enough for this place. Couldn't stand seeing it turned into a Berni Inn or summat.'
No, lad, Ernie thought. Left to rot.
'But… we got ourselves a bit of a bank loan. And we managed it.' Lottie Castle's fixed smile never wavering, Ernie noted, when Matt switched from 'I' to 'we' covering the money aspect.
Matt went on about how he didn't know much about running a pub, but what he did know was music. They could expect plenty of that in The Man I'th Moss.
Matt grinned. 'I know there's a few of you out there can sing a bit. And I remember, when I was a lad, there used to be a troupe of morris dancers. Where'd they go to?'
'Orthopaedic hospital,' somebody said.
'Bugger off,' said Matt. There's to be no more cynicism in this pub, all right? Anyroad, this is open house from now on for dancers and singers and instrumentalists. If there aren't enough in Bridelow, we'll ship them in from outside… big names too. And we'll build up a following, a regular audience from the towns… and, brewery or no brewery, we'll make The Man I'th Moss into a going concern again.'
At which point, somebody asked, as somebody was bound to, whether Matt and his old band would get together in Bridelow.
'Good point,' Matt accepted. 'Well, me old mucker Willie's here, Eric's not far off. And I'm working on a bit of a project which might just interest… well, somebody we used to work with… eeeh, must be fifteen years ago. Late 'seventies.'
Everybody listening now, not a chink of bottle on glass or the striking of a match. Outside, the sun was just a rosy memory.
Matt broke off. 'Hey up. For them as can't see, Lottie's giving me a warning look, she thinks I should shut up about this until we know one way or t'other…'
Lottie smiled wryly. Ernie Dawber was thinking, What the 'eck was her name, the girl who used to sing with Matt's band and then went off on her own? Very popular, she used to be, or so he'd heard.
'But, what the hell,' Matt said. 'If I'm going to do this right, I'll need your help. Fact is… it was this business of the bogman got me going. Lottie reckons I've become a bit obsessed. He laughed self-consciously. 'But the thing is… here we are, literally face to face with one of our forefathers. And it's my belief there's a lot he can teach us…'
Ernie Dawber felt Ma Wagstaff go still and watchful by his side.
'I mean about ourselves. About this village. How we relate to it and each other, and how we've progressed. There's summat special about this place, I've always known that.'
Moira Cairns, Ernie remembered. That was her name. Scottish. Very beautiful. Long, black hair.
'Right.' Matt bawled back over his shoulder, into the bar. 'Let's have a few lights on. Like a flamin' mausoleum in there.'
Ma Wagstaff stiffened and plucked at Ernie's jacket. The sun wasn't ever going to get out of that low cloud, he thought. Won't know till tomorrow if it's made it to the hills or if the Moss has got it.
'By 'eck,' he said ruefully, as if his fanciful thoughts were printed on the misting, mackerel sky where Ma Wagstaff could read them, 'I'm…'
'Getting a bit whimsy?'
Ernie laughed through his discomfort. She made it sound like a digestive problem.
'Not before time,' Ma said. 'Never any talking to you when you was headmaster. Jumped-up little devil. Knew it all – what teacher ever don't? Still… better late than not. Now then, Ernest Dawber, I'll try and teach thee summat.'
He let Ma Wagstaff lead him away to the edge of the forecourt, from where terraced stone cottages plodded up to the high-towered church, a noble sentinel over the Moss.
'What do you see?'
'This a trick question, Ma?'
Now, with the sun gone, all the houses had merged. You couldn't tell any more which ones had fresh paintwork, which had climbing roses or new porches. Only a few front steps stood out, the ones which had been recently donkey-stoned so they shone bright as morning.
'To be honest, Ma, I can't see that much. Can't even see colours.'
'What can you see, then?'
'It's not light,' Ernie said, half-closing his eyes, "and it's not dark. Everything's melting together.
'I can't see the individual houses. I suppose I can only see the people who live in them. Young Frank and Susan and the little lad. Alf Beckett. Millicent Gill at the Post Office…Gus Bibby, Maurice and Dee at the chip shop. And I suppose… if I look a bit harder…'
'Aye, you do that.'
'If I look harder I can see the people who lived in the house before…The Swains – Arthur Swain and his pigeons. Alf Beckett's mother, forty-odd years a widow. I can bring them all back when I've a mind. Specially at this time of day. But that's the danger, as you get older, seeing things as they were, not as they are.'
'The trick' said Ma, 'is to see it all at same time. As it was and as it is. And when I says "as it was" I don't just mean in your lifetime or even my lifetime. I mean as far back as yon bogman's time.'
Ernie felt himself shiver. He pushed the British Museum papers deeper into his inside pocket. Whatever secret knowledge of the bogman Ma possessed, he didn't want to know any more.
Ma said, 'You stand here long enough, you can see it all the way back, and you won't see no colours, you won't see no hard edges. Now when you're out on t'Moss, Brid'lo don't look that welcoming, does it? All cold stone. You know that, you've written about it enough. But it's not cold to us, is it? Not when we're inside. No hard edges, no bright colours, never owt like that.'
'Only shades. Ma said, almost dreamily. 'Them's what's kept this place the way it is. Shades of things '
'Old colours all run together. No clashes. Know what I'm telling you, Ernest?'
'Harmony?' Ernie said. 'Is that it? Which is not to say there's no bickering, or bits of bad feeling. But, fundamentally, I s'pose, Bridelow's one of those places where most of us are happy to be. Home. And there's no defining that. Not everybody's found it. We're lucky. We've been lucky.'
'Luck?' Something was kindling behind Ma's eyes. Eighty-five if she was a day and still didn't need glasses. 'Luck? You don't see owt, do you?' Ernie'd had glasses full-time since he was thirty-five. 'What's it got to do wi' luck?'
'Just a figure of speech, Ma.'
'Balls,' said Ma. 'Luck! What this is, it's a balancing act. Very complicated for t'likes of us. Comes natural to nature.'
Ernie smiled. 'As it would.'
'Don't you mock me, Ernest Dawber.
'I'm sorry, Ma.' She was just a shade herself now, even her blue beret faded to grey.
'Beware of bright, glaring colours,' she said. 'But most of all, beware of black. And beware of white.'
'I don't know what you mean…'
'You will,' said the little old woman. 'You're a teacher.' She put a hand on his arm. 'Ernest, I'm giving you a task.
'Oh 'eck '
'You've to think of it as the most important task you've ever had in your life. You're a man of learning, Ernest. Man wi' authority.'
'Used to be, Ma. I'm just a pensioner now…' Like you, he was going to say, then he noticed how sad and serious she was looking.
'Get that man back.'
'Who?' But he knew. 'How?' he said, aghast.
'Like I said, Ernest. Tha's got authority.'
'Not that kind of authority, for God's sake.' Nobody there. He swallowed. Nobody. Not in or near the bus shelter.
It was on his nearside, which was no good, he might get hurt, so he drove further along the road, reversing into someone's drive, heading back slowly until he could see the glass-sided shelter, an advertisement for Martini on the end panel, lit up like a cinema screen in the headlights: a handsome man with wavy hair leaning over a girl on a sofa, topping up her glass.
He was mentally measuring the distance.
What am I doing! What am I bloody doing?
I could park it just here. Leave it. Walk away. Too far, anyway, for her to hear the impact.
In his mind he saw Therese standing by the telephone kiosk, about to phone for a taxi. In his mind she stopped. She was frowning. She'd be thinking what a miserable, frightened little sod he was.
He could say there had been somebody in the bus shelter, two people. Get angry. Was he supposed to kill them? Was he supposed to do that?
But she would know.
He stopped the car, the engine idling. The bus shelter had five glass panels in a concrete frame. The glass would be fortified. He would have to take a run at it, from about sixty yards.
If he didn't she would know.
He remembered the occasions she'd lost her temper with him. He shivered, stabbed at the accelerator with the car in neutral, making it roar, clutching the handbrake, a slippery grip. Too much to lose. Gritting his teeth until his gums hurt.
Too much to lose.
And you'll feel better afterwards.
Took his foot off. Closed his eyes, breathed rapidly, in and out. The road was quiet now, the hedges high on either side, high as a railway embankment.
Shaw backed up twenty or thirty yards, pulled into the middle of the road. Felt his jaw trembling and, to stiffen it, retracted his lips into a vicious snarl.
He threw the Saab into first gear. Realised, as the stolen car spurted under him, that he was screaming aloud.
On the side of the bus shelter, the handsome man leaned over the smiling girl on the sofa, topping up her glass from the bottle. In the instant before the crash, the dark, beautiful girl held out the glass in a toast to Shaw before bringing it to her lips and biting deeply into it, and when she smiled again, her smile was full of blood.
You'll feel… better. The big lights came on in the bar and were sluiced into the forecourt through the open door where Matt Castle stood grinning broadly, with his tall red-haired wife. Behind them was the boy – big lad now, early twenties, must be. Not one of Ernie's old pupils, however; Dic had been educated in and around Manchester while his dad's band was manhandling its gear around the pubs and clubs.
'Happen he will bring a bit of new life,' Ernie said. 'He's a good man.'
'Goodness in most of us,' Ma Wagstaff said, 'is a fragile thing, as you'll have learned, Ernest.'
Ernie Dawber adjusted his glasses, looked down curiously at Ma. As the mother of Little Willie Wagstaff, long-time percussionist in Matt Castle's Band, the old girl could be expected to be at least a bit enthusiastic about Matt's plans.
Ma said, 'Look at him. See owt about him, Ernest?'
Matt Castle had wandered down the steps and was still shaking hands with people and laughing a lot. He looked, to Ernie, like a very happy man indeed, a man putting substance into a dream.
Lottie Castle had remained on the step, half inside the doorway, half her face in shadow.
'She knows,' Ma Wagstaff said.
'I doubt as she can see it, but she knows, anyroad.'
'Look at him. Look hard. Look like you looked at t'street.'
Matt Castle grinning, accepting a pint. Local hero.
I don't understand,1 said Ernie Dawber. He was beginning to think he'd become incapable of understanding. Forty-odd years a teacher and he'd been reduced to little-lad level by an woman who'd most likely left school at fourteen.
Ma Wagstaff said, 'He's got the black glow, Ernest.'
On top of everything else she'd come out with tonight, this jolted Ernie Dawber so hard he feared for his heart. It was just the way she said it, like picking out a bad apple at the greengrocer's. A little old woman in a lumpy woollen skirt and shapeless old cardigan.
'What are you on about?' Ernie forcing joviality. Bloody hell, he thought, and it had all started so well. A real old Bridelow night.
'Moira?' Matt Castle was saying. 'Aye, I do think she'll come. If only for old times' sake.' People patting him on the shoulder. He looked fit and he looked happy. He looked like a man who could achieve.
The black glow?' Ernie whispered. 'The black glow?
What had been banished from his mind started to flicker – the images of the piper on the Moss over a period of fifteen, to twenty years. Echoes of the pipes: gentle and plaintive on good days, but sometimes sour and sometimes savage.
Black glow?' his voice sounding miles away.
Ma Wagstaff looked up at him. 'I'm buggered if I'm spelling it for thee.' Part Three bog oak
From Dawber's Book of Bridelow:
Bridelow Moss is a two-miles-wide blanket of black peat. Much of its native vegetation has been eroded and the surface peat made blacker by industrial deposits – although the nearest smut-exuding industries are more than fifteen miles away.
Bisected by two small rivers, The Moss slopes down, more steeply than is apparent, from the foothills of the northern Peak District almost to the edge of the village of Bridelow.
In places, the peat reaches a depth of three metres, and although there are several drainage gullies, conditions can be treacherous, and walkers unfamiliar with the Moss are not recommended to venture upon it in severe weather.
But then, on dull wet, days in Autumn and Winter, the gloomy and desolate appearance of the Moss would deter all but the hardiest rambler…
With the rain hissing venomously in their faces, they pushed the wheelchair across the cindered track to the peat's edge, and then Dic lost his nerve and stopped.
'Further,' Matt insisted.
'It'll sink, Dad. Look.'
Matt laughed, a cawing.
Dic looked at his mother for back-up. Lottie looked away, through her dripping hair and the swirling grey morning, to where the houses of Bridelow clung to the shivering horizon like bedraggled birds to a telephone wire.
In the pockets of her sodden raincoat, Lottie made claws out of her fingers. She wouldn't look at Matt, even though she was sure – the reason she'd left her head bare – that you couldn't distinguish tears from rain.
'Right.' Abruptly, Matt pushed the tartan rug aside. 'Looks like I'll have to walk, then.'
'Oh, Christ, Dad..
Still Lottie didn't look at the lad or the withered man in the wheelchair. Just went on glaring at the village, at the fuzzy outline of the church, coming to a decision. Then she said tonelessly, 'Do as he says, Dic.'
Lottie whirled at him, water spinning from her hair. 'Will you just bloody well do it?'
She stood panting for a moment, then her lips set hard. She thought she heard Dic sob as he heaved the chair into the mire and the dark water bubbled up around the wheels.
The chair didn't sink. It wouldn't sink. It wouldn't be easy to get out, even with only poor, wasted Matt in there, but it wouldn't sink.
Maybe Matt was hoping they wouldn't have to get it out. That he'd be carried away, leaving the chair behind, suspended skeletally in the Moss, slowly corroding into the peat or maybe preserved there for thousands of years, like the Bogman.
'Fine,' Matt said. 'That's… fine. Thanks.'
The chair was only a foot or so from the path, embedded up to its footplate in Bridelow Moss. Dic stood there, tense, arms spread, ready to snatch at the chair if it moved.
'Go away, lad,' Matt said quietly. He always spoke quietly now. So calm. Never lost his temper, never – as Lottie would have done – railed at the heavens, screaming at the blinding injustice of it.
Stoical Matt. Dying so well.
Sometimes she wished she could hate him. It was Sunday morning.
As they'd lifted Matt's chair from the van, a scrap of a hymn from the church had been washed up by the wind-powered rain, tossed at them like an empty crisp-packet then blown away again.
They'd moved well out of earshot, Lottie looking around.
Thinking that on a Sunday there were always ramblers, up from Macclesfield and Glossop, Manchester and Sheffield, relishing the dirty weather, the way ramblers did. If it belonged to anybody, Bridelow Moss belonged to the ramblers, and they made sure everybody knew it.
But this morning there were none.
The bog, treacle-black under surface rust, fading to a mouldering green where it joined the mist. And not a glimmer of anorak-orange.
As if, somehow, they knew. As if word had been passed round, silently, like chocolate, before the ramble: avoid the bog, avoid Bridelow Moss.
So it was just the three of them, shadows in the filth of the morning.
'Go on, then,' Matt was saying, trying to pump humour into his voice. 'Bugger off, the pair of you.'
Lottie put out a hand to squeeze his shoulder, then drew back because it would hurt him. Even a peck on the cheek hurt him these days.
It had all happened too quickly, a series of savage punches coming one after the other, faster and faster, until your body was numbed and your mind was concussed.
I don't think I need to tell you, do I, Mrs Castle.
That he's going to die? No. There were signs… Oh, small signs, but… I wanted him to come and tell you weeks… months ago. He wouldn't. He has this… what can I call it…? Fanatical exuberance? If he felt anything himself, he just overrode it. If there's something he wants to do, get out of his system, everything else becomes irrelevant. I did try, doctor, but he wouldn't come.
Please – don't blame yourself. I doubt if we'd have been able to do much, even if we'd found out two or three months before we did. However, this business of refusing medication.. Drugs.
It's not a dirty word, Mrs Castle. If you could persuade him, I think…
He's angry, doctor. He won't take anything that he thinks will dull his perceptions. He's… this is not anything you'd understand… he's reaching out for something. 'Go on,' Matt said. 'Get in the van, in the dry. You'll know when to come back.'
And what did he mean by that?
As they walked away, the son and the widow-in-waiting, she saw him pull something from under the rug and tumble it out into his lap. It looked, in this light, like a big dead crow enfurled in its own limp wings.
The rain plummeted into Mart's blue denim cap, the one he wore on stage.
Dic said, 'He'll catch his dea-'
Stared, suddenly stricken, into his mother's eyes.
'I don't understand any more,' he said, panicked. 'Where he is… I've lost him. Is that… I mean, is it any place to be? In his state?'
'Move.' Lottie speaking in harsh monosyllables. 'Go.' The only way she could speak at all. Turning him round and prodding him towards the van.
'Is it the drugs? Mum, is it the drugs responsible for this?'
Lottie climbed into the van, behind the wheel. Slammed the door with both hands. Wound the window down, keeping the rain on her face. She said nothing.
Dic clambered in the other side. He looked more like her than Matt, the way his dark red hair curled, defying the flattening rain. Matt didn't have hair any more, under his blue denim cap.
'No,' Lottie said. 'There's no drugs. Listen.'
It was beginning.
Faint and fractured, remote and eerie as the call of a marsh bird, familiar but alien – alien, now, to her.
But not, she was sure, to the Moss.
She saw that Dic was crying, helpless, shoulders quaking.
An aggressive thing, like little kids put on: I can't cope with this, I refuse to cope… take it away, take it off me.
She couldn't. She turned away, stared hard at the scratched metal dashboard, blobbed with rain from the open window.
Because she didn't understand it either. Nor, she was sure, was she meant to. Which hurt. The sound which still pierced her heart, which had been filtered through her husband, like the blood in his veins, for as long as she'd known him and some years before that.
It had begun. For the last time?
She looked out of the window-space, unblinking, cheeks awash.
Fifty yards away, hunched in the peat, bound in cold winding-sheets of rain, the black bag under his arm like a third lung…
… Matt Castle playing on his pipes.
Eerie as a marsh bird, and all the birds were silent in the rain.
The tune forming on the wind and falling with the water, the notes pure as tears and thin with illness.
Dic rubbed his eyes with his fingers. 'I don't know it,' he said. 'I don't know this tune.' Petulant. As if this was some sort of betrayal.
'He only wrote it… a week or so ago,' Lottie said. 'When you were away. He said…' Trying to smile. 'Said it just came to him. Actually, it came hard. He'd been working at it for weeks.'
Lament for the Man, he'd called it. She'd thought at first that that was partly a reference simply to their pub, The Man I'th Moss, adrift on the edge of the village, cut off after all these years from the brewery.
But no. It was another call to him, wherever he was. As if Matt was summoning his spirit home.
Or pleading for the Man to summon him. Matt.
'I can't stand this,' Dic said suddenly. Dic, who could play the pipes too, and lots of other instruments. Who was a natural – in his blood too, his dad more proud than he'd ever admit, but not so proud that he'd encouraged the lad to make a profession of it.
'Christ,' said Dic, 'is this bloody suicide? Is it his way of…?'
'You know him better than that.' Figuring he just wanted a row, another way of coping with it.
'It's not as if he's got an audience. Only us.'
'Only us,' Lottie said, although she knew that was wrong. Matt believed – why else would he be putting himself through all this? – that there had to be an audience. But, it was true, they were not it.
'All right, what if he dies?' Dic said sullenly, brutally. 'What if he dies out there now?'
Lottie sighed. What a mercy that would be.
'What I mean is… how would we even start to explain…?'
She looked at him coldly until he subsided into the passenger seat.
'Sorry,' he said.
The piping was high on the wind, so high it no longer seemed to be coming from the sunken shape in the wheelchair, from the black lung. She wondered if any people could hear it back in Bridelow. Certainly the ones who mattered wouldn't be able to, the old ones, Ma Wagstaff, Ernie Dawber. They'd be in church. Perhaps Matt had chosen his time well, so they wouldn't hear it, the ones who might understand.
Dic said, 'How long…?'
'Until he stops. You think this is easy for me, Dic? You think I believe in any of this flaming stupid… Oh, my God!'
The piping had suddenly sunk an octave, meeting the drone, the marsh bird diving, or falling, shot out of the sky.
Lottie stopped breathing.
And then, with a subtle flourish of Matt's old panache, the tune was caught in mid-air, picked up and sent soaring towards the horizon. She wanted to scream, either with relief and admiration… or with the most awful, inexcusable kind of disappointment.
Instead she said, briskly, 'I'm going to call Moira tonight, I've been remiss. I should have told her the situation. He wouldn't.'
Dic said, 'Bitch.'
'That's not fair.' He was twenty, he was impulsive, things were black and white. She leaned her head back over the seat. 'I can understand why she didn't want to get involved. OK, if she'd known about his illness she'd have been down here right away, but at the end of the day I don't think that would have helped. Do you?'
The end of the day. Funny how circumstances could throw such a sad and sinister backlight on an old cliche.
Dic said, 'It would have taken his mind off his condition, maybe.'
Lottie shook her head. 'It's an unhealthy obsession, this whole bogman business.' They'd never really spoken of this. She'd have made things worse. She probably knew that.'
He said sourly, 'Why? You mean… because of his other unhealthy…'
Lottie suddenly sat up in the driving seat and slapped his face, hard. 'Stop it. Stop it now.'
She closed her eyes on him. 'I'm tired.'
The pipes spun a pale filigree behind her sad, quivering eyelids, across the black moss where the rain blew in grey-brown gusts.
Take him, she prayed. To God. To the Man. Away.
Was this so wrong? Was it wrong, was it sinful, to pray to the Man?
God? The Man? The Fairies? Santa Claus? What did it matter?
A thrust of wind rattled the wound down window, pulling behind it an organ trail from St Bride's, the final fragment of a hymn. It lay for a moment in strange harmony upon the eddy of the pipes.
No, Lottie decided. It's not wrong.
Take him. Please.
Three hours and he hadn't touched her. Chrissie had heard of men who paid prostitutes just to sit on the edge of the bed for half the night and listen to them rambling on about their domestic problems.
Maybe she should demand overtime.
'The other one,' Roger said, 'the one they found in Lindow, I mean, they christened him Pete Marsh. They had this instant kind of affection for the thing.'
Chrissie had been Dr Roger Hall's temporary admin assistant for nearly a fortnight and was a lot more interested in him than bog people. She poured coffee, watching him through the motel mirror. Unfortunately, he looked even more handsome when he was worried.
'Well, I mean, there's no way,' Roger went on, 'that I feel any kind of affection for this one. It's about knowledge.'
'So why not just let him go? After all, he must be pretty bloody creepy to have around,' said Chrissie, who shared an office at the Field Centre with a woman called Alice. She tried to imagine the situation if Alice was a corpse.
'It's not creepy, exactly.' Roger sat up in bed, carefully arranging the sheet over his small paunch.
'Spooks me,' Chrissie said, 'to be honest. And I never have to see him, thank God.'
'No, it's just… it's as if he knows how badly I need him. How much I need to know him, where he's coming from.'
'You're getting weird. You tell your wife stuff like this?'
'You're kidding. My wife's a doctor.'
That was a novel twist, Chrissie thought. My wife doesn't understand me – she's too intelligent. Chrissie didn't care for the underlying message Roger was sending out here. OK, he was tall, he had nice crinkles around his eyes, everybody said how dishy he looked on the telly. And OK, she was seducing him (with a bit of luck). But, in the end, one-to-one was the only kind of relationship Chrissie was basically interested in.
'No need to pout,' he said. 'I wasn't suggesting you were a bimbo. Just that a corpse is a corpse to Janet, regardless of its history.'
She brought him coffee. Outside, coming up to 7 p.m. on an autumn Sunday evening, traffic was still whizzing up the M6. Roger said he felt safe here: the one place he could count on people he knew not showing up was the local motor lodge.
Chrissie had booked in; he'd arrived later, leaving his car on the main service area, away from any lights.
He was a very cautious man. He was supposed to be in London until tomorrow evening, on Bogman business. They were re-examining the stomach-lining or something equally yucky.
'Roger, look…' Chrissie lit a cigarette. 'I know how important he's been to you – for your career and everything. And I take your point about him giving the Field Centre a new lease of life – obvious we were being wound up, the amount of work we were actually doing… I mean, I've been wound up before.'
'I bet you have,' Roger said, looking at her tits, putting down his coffee cup. But he still didn't reach out for her.
Chrissie tried to find a smile but she'd run out of them. 'Sunday,' she said sadly.
'Didn't know you were religious.'
'I'm not.' She'd just suddenly thought, What a way to spend a Sunday evening, in a motel no more than two miles from where you live. With a bogman's minder. 'Do you touch him much?'
'You make it sound indecent. Of course I touch him. He feels a bit like a big leather cricket bag. You should pop in sometime, be an experience for you.'
Chrissie shuddered. "
He grinned. 'Not that you'd get much out of it. He hasn't got one any more.
Chrissie wrinkled her nose. 'Dissolved or something?'
'No, they must have chopped it off. And his balls. Part of the ritual.'
'Oh yucky.' Chrissie wrapped her arms around her breasts and eased back into bed, bottom first.
'What I like best about your body,' Roger said, not moving, 'is that it's so nice and pale. All over.'
'Actually, I had quite a deep tan in the summer. Still there, in places.'
'Not as deep as his tan, I'll bet. That's what you call being tanned. Literally. Tanned and pickled. It's what it does to them. The acids. I like you. You're pale.'
It's not healthy, Chrissie thought, the way he brings everything back to that ancient thing. It's like 'Love me, love my bogman Oh, well… 'Roger,' she said hesitantly, looking at the gap between them, probably just about the size of the bloody bogman. 'Can I ask you something?'
'Sure,' he said tiredly, 'but if you want me to do anything complicated, you'll have to…'
'Don't worry. I just want to know something about you and… him… Just to clear the air. Then maybe we can relax.. Thing is, there've not been all that many bogmen found, have there? All right, that Pete Marsh, and before him a bunch of them in Denmark. But when one's discovered in this country, it's still a major find, isn't it?'
'In archaeological terms, he's worth more than the average Spanish galleon, yes.'
'So what,' said Chrissie very slowly, 'is he really doing in a little-known university field centre behind a school playing-field in the North of England? Why did the British Museum experts and all these London people… why did they let you bring him back?'
Roger's eyes closed in on one another. This is where he starts lying, Chrissie deduced. The more university degrees a man had, she'd discovered, the more hopeless he was at concealing untruths.
'What I mean is,' she said, airing the bits of knowledge she'd rapidly absorbed from the Press cuttings file, 'they like to keep these things, don't they? They go to Harwell and Oxford for this radiocarbon dating, and then…'
'Well, he's been to Harwell. He's been to Oxford. And he's been to the British Museum.'
'And he's come back,' said Chrissie. 'Why's that?'
The Archdeacon poured himself a cognac, offered the bottle to the Rev. Joel Beard but wasn't entirely surprised when Joel declined.
Only we poor mortals have need of this stuff, the Archdeacon thought. He's above all such vices.
Sadly, he thought.
Between them on the leather three-seater Chesterfield sat a shining white dome, like a strange religious artefact.
It was Joel's crash-helmet.
He's deliberately placed it between us, the Archdeacon thought. He's heard about me. 'And so you know the place well, I gather,' he said hoarsely. 'You know Hans. And his family.'
'Well, I remember his daughter, Catherine,' Joel said. 'A wilful girl.'
All right, thought the Archdeacon. So you're one hundred per cent hetero. I can take a hint, damn you.
He edged back into his corner of the Chesterfield and looked into his drink, at the pictures on the wall, out of the window at the bare front garden, sepia under a Victorian streetlamp. Anywhere but at Golden Joel, the diocesan Adonis.
'Of course,' Joel said, 'he's been in better health.'
'Erm… quite. And it isn't, you know, that we think he's failing in some way. He's been an excellent man. In his time. He's a very… tolerant man. Perhaps that's part of the problem. Ah… not that I'm decrying his tolerance…'
The Archdeacon snatched a sip of his brandy. Oh dear. Why did he let Joel Beard do this to him?
Joel smiled. Or at least he exposed both rows of teeth. 'Look, perhaps I can clarify some of this, Simon. I don't think tolerance is such a fundamental virtue any more. I think we've been tolerant for so long that it looks as if… I mean, what, increasingly, is the public's idea of a typical Anglican clergyman?'
You dare, you brute, the Archdeacon thought. You dare…
'A ditherer,' said Joel. 'An ineffectual ditherer.'
'Oh.' The Archdeacon relaxed. 'Quite.'
'There's a big game going on, you know, Simon. We – the Church – ought to be out there. But where are we?'
'Ah… where indeed?'
'We aren't on the pitch. We aren't even on the touchline.'
'We're in the clubhouse making the bloody tea,' said Joel Beard.
'There's real evil about, you know. It's all around us and it's insidious. A burglary somewhere in Britain every thirty seconds or so. An assault. A rape. A husband beating his wife, sexually abusing his small children. We talk of social problems. Or if we use the word evil, it's social evil… We're making excuses for them and we're excusing ourselves. When I was a gym teacher…'
Oh, please… The Archdeacon saw beneath the cassock to the tensed stomach and the awesome golden chest.
'… before each rugby lesson, there'd be the same pathetic collection of little notes. "Dear Sir, Please excuse my son from games, he has a minor chest infection." This sort of nonsense. Same ones every other week The wimps. Well I'm afraid that's what we look like sometimes. "Dear People, Please excuse me from confronting Satan this week, but my steeple's developed stone-fatigue and I have to organize a garden party." This is what we've come to. We've reached the point where we're ashamed to wield the weapons forged for us by God.'
The Archdeacon refused to allow himself to contemplate the weapon God had forged for Joel Beard. He took a mouthful of cognac and held it there while Joel talked of the Church's manifest obligation to confront the Ancient Enemy again. Lord, but he was a magnificent sight when fired-up – that profile, hard as bronze, those rigid golden curls…
Upstairs, in his files', the Archdeacon kept seven photocopies of the famous picture of Joel in the Sheffield Star – the one of him brandishing his outsize pectoral cross. At the time this dramatic pose had only reinforced the Diocesan consternation expressed when Joel, still at college, had been on local radio threatening physical disruption of certain Hallowe'en festivities planned by the university students' union.
The Archdeacon had managed to placate the Bishop, who'd been suggesting immediate efforts ought to be made to interest this turbulent mature student in a period of foreign missionary work – the Colombian jungles or somewhere equally dangerous.
Known his type before, the Bishop fumed. More trouble than they're worth, these self-publicists. Nonsense, said the Archdeacon. With respect, men like Beard must be considered the Church's Future… if the Church is to have one.
During these discussions about his future, Joel had apparently received a series of telephone calls alerting him to inbred evil in a small village in the Southern Pennines. Anonymous, of course. But weren't they always? And wasn't the Archdeacon himself becoming just a little tired of Hans Gruber, the old-fashioned rural priest treading his own sheep-tracks, totally immersed in his parish, oblivious to the Diocese?
'… mustn't be afraid to get physical.' Joel thumped the back of the Chesterfield, and the Archdeacon almost fainted.
Or, indeed, metaphysical…'
'Well, then…' The Archdeacon's hand was shaking so much he had to put down his glass. 'If you're determined to face this thing head-on, we'll delay no longer. There's just this question of accommodation in Bridelow. Not had a curate for so long we let the house go.'
'I understand,' said Joel, 'that there's accommodation in the church itself.'
'In the ch…? You don't mean this… priest's hole sort of place under the floor? You're not serious.'
'Well,' said Joel. 'Short-term, I see no reason why not. It was originally intended as emergency accommodation for visiting clergy, I gather. And how often does a priest get the opportunity to experience a night in the House of God?'
'Quite,' said the Archdeacon. 'Quite.' He was remembering the old story about an itinerant Bishop of Sheffield a century or so ago, who'd spent a night under the church at Bridelow and was supposed to have gone potty. Silly story. But still, was it wise for Joel to sleep down there? Alone?
The Archdeacon tingled. Finally Chrissie said, 'Admit it, you're getting a bit obsessed.'
'That's ridiculous.' Not much conviction there. 'I'm just… stressed, that's all. I'm not good at deception.'
'No, you're not.'
'I meant with Janet. Look, would you mind putting that thing out.' He reached over her, took the cigarette from between her fingers and dropped it in an ashtray on the bedside ledge.
'Honestly, it's not an obsession,' he said. 'Not the way you think. Look, I'll tell you, OK. But you've got to keep it to yourself. Not a word, OK? Thing is, I've… I've had approaches.'
'Lucky you.' When, a few minutes ago, he'd put a hand experimentally on her thigh, it had felt like a lukewarm, wet sponge.
He said, 'When you were young…'
'Thank you very much, Roger.'
'No, no… I mean, when you were a child… Did you ever read Stanage's books?'
'Sta… Oh, John Peveril Stanage.' She felt a mild stirring of interest; not his usual type of stultifying archaeological tome.
'Well, who didn't?'
'He wanted to see me,' Roger said. 'Or rather he wanted me to go and see him.'
'Good God, is he still alive?'
'Very much so. Not yet sixty, I'd guess. 'Course, he's been a published writer since his early twenties, which makes him…'
'Very rich, I suppose,' Chrissie said.
'You wouldn't know it to see where he lives – end of one of those run-down Georgian terraces in Buxton. Sort of seedy – palatial inside, but I'm assured he's loaded. You remember much about his stuff?'
'I wasn't much of a reader,' Chrissie admitted. 'But you didn't need to be much of a reader to get into his books. Really exciting… and interesting, you know? Because they were usually about places we knew. King Arthur in Manchester, I remember that one – Castle Fields, it was called. I think. That right?'
'And The Bridestones'.' Chrissie sat up in bed. 'Gosh, yes. And Blue John… Blue John's Way? God, I remember when I was…'
'Yes, thank you, Chrissie. Anyway, turns out Stanage is quite a serious antiquarian, in an amateur sort of way. Obsessed for a long time with the Celtic history of the North-West – albeit in a fanciful, mystical fashion.' Roger sniffed. 'So naturally he's quite excited about our friend from the peat.'
God, Chrissie thought. Another one. What is it with this corpse?
'… and he's talking about establishing some son of foundation… through the University… to set up an official Celtic museum… Keep this under your hat, won't you, Chrissie?'
I'm not wearing a bloody hat, she thought. I'm not wearing anything, in case you haven't noticed.
'… with the bog body as a centrepiece.'
'Oh.' She was starting to see. 'Money?'
'Big money,' said Roger. 'And Stanage's foundation would also support continued research, which would…'
'Keep us all in work.'
'To say the least. So, naturally, I'm keeping him to myself. We're going to work out the logistics of it between us and then present a complete package, an arrangement nobody – not the University, nor the British Museum – can afford to turn down.'
'And what does he get out of it? Stanage? I mean, what does the great man get out of dealing exclusively with you and keeping it all under wraps until you're ready to turn it to your advantage?
'Er… He just likes being in on it, I think,' Roger said, trying to look as if this aspect hadn't occurred to him before. 'He gets access to the bogman pretty much whenever he wants.'
Which explained why Roger had been so keen to bring the body back to the Field Centre. Chrissie gave him a wry look he didn't appear to notice.
'So I'm having to keep all these balls in the air… juggle Stanage, the University, the British Museum… and now those sodding Bridelow people, who want the bloody thing put back.'
'Sorry?' Chrissie had been thinking ruefully about balls in the air. 'Who wants it back?'
Roger snorted. 'They're superstitious. We know that our friend… him…that he was sacrificed for some reason. Maybe to persuade the gods to keep the Romans at bay, after the Celts were driven out of the fertile lowlands of Cheshire and Clwyd and into the hills.'
'Barbaric times,' Chrissie said, thinking of Arnold Schwarzenegger in skins and a headband.
'So, incredible as it may seem that serious archaeological research in this day and age should still be complicated by this kind of crap – it appears some people in Bridelow feel that by taking the thing away we'll bring bad luck down on the village. As simple and as primitive as that.'
'Sort of like Tutankhamen's tomb?'
'If you like.'
Chrissie wanted to laugh. It was pre-Schwarzenegger. More like one of those old Hammer films, Peter Cushing as Roger Hall.
'Keep getting pestered by this man Dawber. Who, admittedly, was quite useful at first. Used to be head teacher at the local school. Sort of… amateur historian.'
Roger said the words 'amateur historian' like other people would say 'dog turd'.
'Oh, of course, I know him,' Chrissie said. 'Mr Dawber. Tubby little chap. Rather cute. I suppose you think he's an eccentric, whereas Stanage…'
'Stanage knows," Roger said strangely. He seemed to remember his coffee. It was cold. He put the cup down.
Looked uncomfortable. 'Dawber's trouble. He says we should – get this – now we've done all our tests and found out everything we can, we should put the thing back in Bridelow Moss, in a secret location of their choosing – this is the bloody villagers – on the scientific basis that if the peat has preserved him for two thousand years it's probably the best way of keeping him in good nick for another two thousand…'
He laughed bitterly. 'The crackpot elements you have to deal with when you unearth something that catches the public imagination.'
Oh, you'll deal with crackpots, Roger, Chrissie thought. You'll deal with crackpots if there's something in it for you.
After about half an hour, Roger tried again.
Stress, he explained. The stress of keeping your balls in the air.
They lay in the dark and talked some more. Talked about her ex-husband, who drank. Talked about his wife, who was brilliant and capable and seemed to power an entire hospital on an average of twenty-eight hours' sleep per week.
Talked about him, Roger… and him, him.
'Look… what I said about Stanage… forget it, will you? Forget I even mentioned Stanage.'
'All right,' Chrissie said. forehead, Roger said to the ceiling, 'Sometimes… when Janet's on nights at the General… I wake up in the early hours, feeling really sort of cold and clammy.'
Which didn't exactly augur well, Chrissie thought, for the next few hours.
'And you know… I can almost feel it in the bed with me. Lumps of it.'
Jesus. She said, 'Lumps?'
'Peat. Lumps of peat.' Roger slid a damp and hopeless hand along her left thigh. 'That's stress for you.'
The Earl's place was nineteenth-century Gothic, a phoney Dracula's Castle with a lofty Great Hall that stank, the American thought, of aristocratic bullshit, domination and death.
He could tell the woman hated it too. Especially the skulls. Or maybe she had something else on her mind. She was worried; he could tell that much. Still, he wasn't about to miss this opportunity.
He kept glancing at her over dinner at the long baronial table, a couple of hours ago. All that wonderful long black hair, with the single streak of grey. He'd never seen her before, not in concert, not even on the TV, but he knew the face from the album covers, and he'd know the voice.
She was standing alone by the doorway, frowning at the gruesome trophies on the walls. Not talking to anyone, although there were people all around her, expensively dressed people, crystal glasses hanging from their fingers like extra jewellery.
He supposed she'd be a couple of years older than he was, which only added to that mysterious lustrous glamour. Pretty soon she'd pick up her guitar, and take her place on the central dais to sing for them all. Which didn't give him much time.
What he needed was a neat, elegant opening line. Kind of imagining – her general aura being so magical – that one would come naturally.
He carried his glass across, stood alongside her, following her gaze around the overloaded walls.
He said, 'Uh…'
And followed up with something so dumb he could only hope to attribute it to the impact of fifteen-year-old malt on an uncultured brain.
'Impressive, huh?' he said.
She looked at him. Coldly. Looked at him like she was thinking. Yeah, well you would have to be impressed by this kind of Victorian shit. Where you come from, pal, this most likely is what passes for ancient, right?
'After its fashion,' she said mildly.
From the middle of a cluster of people, the Earl was watching them. Or rather, watching him, because he was American and therefore could maybe buy this place and everything else of its kind between here and Pitlochry many times over.
The Earl was a sleek man, English all the way down to the tip of his sporran. But the Earl wanted to be a real Celt and no doubt was counting on the American wanting that too, all the way down to the deepest part of his wallet.
A discreet buff-coloured card, handed to him several weeks ago by his mother – who also, unfortunately, was his boss – had said:
THE CELTIC BOND: A major conference of politicians and poets, writers, broadcasters and business people, to establish an international support mechanism for the regeneration of a submerged European culture. Hosted, at his Scottish family seat, by…
'Shit,' he'd said in some dismay. 'You're kidding, aren't you?'
She wasn't. Since she lost the use of her legs, the single most important element in his mother's life had become her Scottish ancestry. 'We are Celts, Mungo,' she'd say. 'Above all, never forget that.' By which she meant her side of the family; hence he bore her family name rather than that of his long-gone, long-forgotten father.
'If I can say this,' he said now, politely, trying to recover some credibility, 'you don't seem too relaxed.'
'No?' She wore a long, black dress, very plain. He could sense no perfume.
'I mean I can't imagine you'd be nervous about performing.'
She wasn't looking at him. She was still looking at the heads. Huge sets of antlers protruding from bleached fragments of skull, all over three walls, from just above head-height to within a couple of feet of the lavishly moulded ceiling.
'And I guess you aren't the nervous kind, anyway,' he said. 'So…'
Wherever you sat, the remains of three or four dozen butchered stags were always in view. On the central wooden dais, where she'd sit to sing, she'd probably feel herself constricted by some grisly necklace of bone.
'I was just wondering,' she said at last, 'when it must have been clear he wasn't going to go away, 'why people should be proud of being a Celt. Killing things for fun and showing off about it.'
A good work popped up in the American's head, like somebody had flashed him a prompt-card.
'Pantheistic,' he said. 'The old Celts were highly pantheistic. So I'm told.'
'That means they had respect for animals,' she said scornfully. She had a soft Scottish voice but not too much of an accent. 'A bit like your Red Indians.'
'Native Americans.' He smiled. 'To be politically and ethnically correct.' The smile was supposed to say, I may be devilishly attractive, with my untamed curly black hair, this cool white tuxedo, thistle in the buttonhole. But you can trust me. I'm a sincere guy. 'Can I get you another drink?'
'No,' she said. 'No, thank you.'
'I… ah…' He hesitated. 'I have a couple of your albums.'
'Oh?' She didn't seem too interested. 'Which ones?'
'Well, uh, my favourite, I guess, is still the one you did with The Philosopher's Stone. That'd be quite some years ago.'
'Oh.' She glanced away, as if looking for someplace else to put herself.
'Uh, I also have your first solo album,' he said quickly. 'How I recognized you. From the sleeve. You haven't changed.'
'Oh, I've changed, believe me. Look, I…'
'You never did cut your hair, though,' he said, urbanely displaying his knowledge of the album's prime cut.
'"Never let them cut your hair,'" he quoted, '"or tell you where…" Listen, I… I just wanted to say it's real good to meet you… Moira. No one said you'd be here. Makes me glad I came after all.'
She said, 'I'm a last-minute replacement. For Rory McBain. He's sick. We have the same agent.'
A flunkey needed to come past with a tray of drinks, and he took the opportunity to manoeuvre her into a corner, unfortunately under two pairs of huge yellowing antlers. He said, 'Listen, that album – with the Stone – it had some magic.'
'He has bronchitis,' Moira said.
He smiled. 'See, when I hear you sing, it always sounds to me like…'
'That album,' she said with an air of finality, 'was a mistake. I was too young, too stupid, and I never should have left Matt Castle's band.'
She shook her head, wide-eyed, like she was waking up.
'Matt Castle?' He had his elbow resting on a wooden ledge below another damned antlered skull.
'He was… He was just the guy who taught me about traditional music when I was a wee girl. Look, I don't know why I said that, I…'
Her poise wavered. She looked suddenly confused and vulnerable. Something inside of him melted with pure longing while something else – something less admirable but more instinctive – tensed like a big cat ready to spring. The album cover hadn't lied. Even after all these years, she was sensational.
'Traditional music,' he said, looking into her brown eyes. 'That's interesting, because that's all you do these days, right? You used to write all your own songs, and now you're just performing these traditional folksongs, like you're feeling there's something that old stuff can teach you. Is that this, uh, Matt Castle? His influence?'
'No… No, Matt was a long time ago, when I was in Manchester. He… Look, if you don't mind…'
He was losing her. He couldn't bear it. He tried to hold her eyes, babbling. 'Manchester? That's the North of England? See, why I find that interesting, this guy was telling us at the conference this afternoon, how the English are the least significant people – culturally that is – in these islands. Unlike the Scottish, the Welsh, the Irish, the English are mongrels with no basic ethnic tradition…'
She smiled faintly. 'Look, I'm sorry, I --'
'See this guy, this Irish professor – McGann, McGuane? – he said there was nothing the English could give us. Best they could do is return what they took, but it's soiled goods. At which point this other guy, this writer… No, first off it was this Cornish bard, but he didn't make much sense… then, this writer – Stanton, Stanhope? – he's on his feet, and is he mad…This guy's face is white. I thought he was gonna charge across the room and bust the first guy, the professor, right in the mouth. He's going, Listen, where I come from we got a more pure, undiluted strain of, uh, heritage, tradition…than you'll find anywhere in Western Europe. And the guy, this Stanfield, he's from the North…'
Moira Cairns said, 'I'm sorry, I really do have to make a phone call.'
And she turned and glided out of the doorway, like the girl in the Irish folksong who went away from this guy and mov'd through the fair.
'…the North of England,' the American said to the stag's head.
This wasn't a new experience for him, but it was certainly rare. You blew it, he told himself, surprised. She could feel him watching her through the doorway, all the way down the passage.
Was he the one?
She took a breath of cool air. The man was a fanatic. Probably one of those rich New Yorkers bankrolling the IRA. Surely there was some other unattached female he could find to sleep with tonight. Why were fanatics always promiscuous?
And was he the one whose examination she could feel all over her skin, like she was being touched up by hands in clinical rubber gloves?
'Phone?' she said to a butler-type person in the marble-tiled hallway.
'Next to the drawing room, madam, I'll take you.'
'Don't bother yourself, I'll find it.'
She'd found herself, for no obvious reason, while this smoothie American was trying to come on to her, hearing the name Matt Castle, then saying it out aloud apropos of nothing… and then…
This was the dong. The hollow chime. Not the link, not the ping.
Aw, hey, no, please…
The phone turned out to be in the room where she'd left her guitar, where it would be safe – the black case lying in state, like a coffin, across two Jacobean chairs. Safe here, she'd thought, surely. This is a castle. But she'd take it with her when she'd made her call.
She stood in front of the phone, picked it up and put it back a couple of times. She didn't know who to ring.
Malcolm. If in doubt, call Malcolm. She was planning, anyway, to strangle the bastard for tonight. 'You'll enjoy it,' he'd insisted. 'You'll find it absolutely fascinating. Rory's mortified.'
She rang him at home in Dumbarton. 'Malcolm,' she said, 'I may never convince myself to forgive you for this. I may even cast about in the shark-infested waters you inhabit for a new agent.
He didn't say a word. Had he heard all this before from her? More than once? Was she becoming querulous? Creeping middle age? She felt tired, woozy. She shook herself, straightened her back, raised her voice.
'Listen, there are so-called Celts here not only from Ireland and Wales and Brittany, but from Switzerland and Italy – with Mafia connections, no doubt – and America and some wee place nudging up to Turkey. And they are, to a man, Malcolm – they are a bunch of pretentious, elitist, possibly racist wankers.'
'Racism?' Malcolm said. 'I thought it was about money. EC grants. Cultural exchanges. More EC grants…'
'Is it not a good fee for you?'
'Is it the same fee as Rory's fee would have been?'
'Oh, Moira, come now…'
'Forget it. Listen, the real reason I disturbed you on the sabbath…'
'Not my sabbath, as it happens.'
'… is my answering machine is on the blink and I suspect someone's trying to get hold of me, and it's no' my daddy because I called him.'
'Nothing urgent that I'm aware of, Moira, don't you worry your head."
'None at all.' He paused. 'You aren't feeling unwell again, you?'
'I'm fine.' Her left hand found the guitar case, clutched at it. She had that feeling again, of being touched. She shivered. She felt cold and isolated but also crowded in, under detailed examination. Too many impressions: the hollow chime, the eyes, the touch – impersonal, like a doctor's. Too much, too close. She had to get out of here.
'It's none of my business, of course,' said Malcolm, who believed in the Agent's Right to Know, 'but what was it exactly that made you think someone wanted to contact you?'
'Just a feeling.'
'Just a feeling?'
'Aye,' she said wearily. There was nothing touching her now. The room was static and heavy, no atmosphere. The furniture lumpen, without style. A museum. Nothing here.
He said, 'You are a strange, witchy woman, Moira.'
'Malcolm,' Moira said. 'Go fuck yourself, huh?' From Dawber's Book of Bridelow: RELIGION (i)
Bridelow is dominated by the ancient church dedicated to Saint Bride and built upon a small rise, thought to be the remains of the 'low' or burial mound from which the village gets the other half of its name.
The tower is largely Norman, with later medieval embellishments, although there was considerable reconstruction work to this and to the main body of the church in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The clock was added to the tower following a donation by the Bridelow Brewery in 1889 and was subsequently illuminated, enhancing the role of the tower as a 'beacon' for travellers lost on Bridelow Moss.
The churchyard offers a spectacular view over the Moss and the surrounding countryside, which, to the rear, gives way to a large tract of moorland, uninhabited since prehistoric days.
During evensong, though he still didn't know quite what had happened with Matt, the Rector said a short prayer for the dying landlord of The Man I'th Moss.
Holding on to the lectern, eyes raised to the bent and woven branches of the Autumn Cross, he said carefully, 'Grant him strength, O Lord, and… a peaceful heart.'
Not quite sure what he meant, but he felt it was the right thing to say; you learned to trust your instincts in Bridelow. Sure enough, several members of the congregation looked up at him, conveying tacit approval. Briefly, he felt the warmth of the place again, the warmth he'd always remember, a quite unexpected warmth the first time he'd experienced it.
Unexpected because, from the outside, the church had such a forbidding, fortress-like appearance, especially from a distance, viewed from the road which traversed the Moss. He remembered his first sight of the building, close on thirty years ago. Not inspiring, in those days, for a novice minister: hard and grey-black with too many spiky bits and growling gargoyles. And Our Sheila perpetually playing with herself over the porch.
This was the 1960s, when what the young clergyman dreamed of was a bright, modern church with a flat roof and abstract stained glass (after ten years it would look like a lavatory block, but in the sixties one imagined things could only get better and better.)
'Amen,' the congregation said as one. The old schoolmaster, Ernest Dawber, glanced up at the Rector and gave him a quick, sad smile.
Sometimes it had seemed as if the church walls themselves were heating up under the pale amber of the lights – they were old gas-mantles converted to electricity, like the scattered streetlamps outside. And at Christmas and other festivals, it felt as though the great squat pillars either side of the nave had become giant radiator pipes.
But the warmth was rarely as apparent now. The Rector wondered if it would even be noticeable any more to a newcomer. Perhaps not. He'd gone to the expense of ordering more oil for the boiler and increasing the heat level. Knowing, all the same, as he went through the motions, that it couldn't be that simple.
There'd been a draught in the pulpit today; he certainly hadn't known that here before. The draught was needle-thin but it wasn't his imagination because, every so often, the Autumn Cross would sway a little over his head, rustling.
It rustled now, as he read out the parish notices, and something touched his hair, startling him. When he reached out, his flingers found a dead leaf. It crackled slightly, reminding him of the furious flurry of leaves blasted against his study window at dusk, like an admonishment: you must not watch us… you must turn your face away.
A strikingly cold autumn. October frost, nearly all the trees were bare. His arthritis playing up.
Giving him a hard time tonight. Difficult keeping his mind on the job, wanting only to get it over and limp back to his study – even though, since Judy's death, this had become the loneliest place of all.
'… and on Wednesday evening, there'll be a meeting of the morrismen in the Function Room at The Man, that's 7.30…
The congregation numbered close on seventy tonight, not a bad turnout. A few regular faces missing, including several members of the committee of the Mothers' Union, but that wasn't too surprising, they'd been here this morning. Couldn't expect anyone to attend twice, even the Mothers.
He rounded off the service with a final hymn, accompanied as usual by Alfred Beckett on the harmonium – a primitive reedy sound, but homely; there'd never been an organ In Bridelow Church, despite its size.
'Well done, lad,' Ernie Dawber said at the church door patting his shoulder. 'Keep thi chin up.' Fifteen years his senior, Bridelow born and bred, Ernie Dawber had always called him 'lad'. When the Rector had first arrived, he'd expected a few problems over his name. It had still seemed too close to the War for the locals not to be dubious about a new minister called…
'… Hans Gruber,' the schoolmaster had repeated slowly rolling it round his mouth like a boiled sweet.
'That's German, isn't it?'
Hans had nodded. 'But I was actually born near Leighton Buzzard.'
Ernie Dawber had narrowed his eyes, giving the new minister a very hard look. 'Word of advice, lad. Keep quiet about that, I should. Thing is…' Glancing from side to side '… there's a few folks round here who're not that keen on…' dropping his voice,'… southerners.'
The Rector said now, thinking of his lonely study, 'Come back for a glass, Ernie?'
'I don't trunk so, lad.' Ernie Dawber pulled on his hat 'Not tonight.' 'I'll never forgive you for this.'
He was gripping the stiffened edge of the sheet like a prisoner clutching at the bars of his cell, his final appeal turned down.
'We should never have let you go home, Mr Castle,' the nursing sister said.
'Matt, please…' Lottie put her cool hand over his yellowed claw. 'Don't say that…'
'You never listen.' Feebly shaking his head, inconsolable All the way here in the ambulance, Lottie holding his hand, he'd been silent, away somewhere, still on the Moss perhaps.
His eyes shone with the tears that wouldn't come, no moisture left in his body.
The nurse said, 'I think he should have some sleep, don't you, Mrs Castle?'
'Sleep?' Matt was bleakly contemptuous. 'No real sleep in here. Comes out of the bloody… drug cabinet… only sort sleep you can get in here.' He looked past the nurse, 'Where's Dic?'
'I told you, Matt,' Lottie said gently. 'He wouldn't come in. He's too confused. He's probably walking round the grounds, walking it off. He'll come in tomorrow, when he's…'
'Might be too late, tomorrow.'
Lottie smiled at him. 'Don't be soft.' There was a small commotion behind her, a nurse and a young porter putting screens around a bed opposite Matt's.
'Another one gone,' Matt grunted.
'Bath time, that's all,' the nurse said unconvincingly.
'Give you any old crap in here. Look, tell Dic…' His faltering voice forming words as dry and frail as an ancient cobweb… Tell him, he can be in the band. If he wants to. Then… when Moira comes, he can play. But you won't, will you? You never do owt I say.'
'You tell him,' Lottie said. 'Tell him when you see him in the morning.'
Matt Castle made no reply. He seemed too dehydrated to sweat or to weep. It was as though somebody had talcumed his face, like a…
Lottie swallowed hard.
Matt fell asleep. Shrivelled leaves, unseen, chattered on the window-pane. The dead leaves said, Go away, draw the curtains, put on the light.
It's not your affair, the dead leaves said.
The Rector didn't move, just as he hadn't moved in the late afternoon, at dusk, when the warning flurry had hit the pane, as if flung.
At the top end, the vicarage garden almost vanished into the moor. When the light faded, the low stone wall between them dissolved into shadow and the garden and the moor became one. On the other side of the wall was a public footpath; it was along this they came, and sometimes, over the years, around dusk, the Rector had seen them, had made himself watch them.
Tonight, resting up before evening service, sitting in the window of the darkening study, wedged into a hard chair, his swollen foot on the piano stool, he'd watched three of them enter the churchyard from the footpath, passing through the wooden wicket gate. They were black, shapeless, hooded and silent. A crescent moon had wavered behind smoky cloud.
It was all over, though, as was usual, when he walked out across his garden, through the gate and into the churchyard
Half an hour before the evening service.
Now he was back in his study, listening to the leaves with the lights out. All he could see through the window was the reflection of two bars of the ineffectual electric fire.
When Judy, his wife, was alive there'd been a coal fire in the study every night from the end of September until the end of April.
The Rector was cold. Eleven years now since Judy's death. Where had all the warmth gone, the warmth which before had only increased with the drawing-in of the days? Where had the smiles gone, the smiles which lit the eyes while the mouths stayed firm?
And why, for that matter, had Ma Wagstaff's herbal preparation had so little effect this time on his arthritis?
He stood up, hobbled close to the window, cupped his hands to the pane and peered through.
At the garden's edge, a few graves lurched giddily on the slope, and then the church loomed like an enormous black beast. Lately, Hans Gruber had been wondering if life would not have been a good deal simpler in one of those modern churches, where one's main headache was glue-sniffing behind the vestry. Us and Them. Good and evil. God and Satan.
Hans thought, Wouldn't that be wonderful? After his wife had left, they'd wheeled Mr Castle's bed into a the ward where, unless anyone was brought in suddenly, he'd be alone, until…
'Until morning,' the young nurse whispered, reassuring herself.
Mr Castle was sleeping. She was glad; she was still afraid of people who were dying, who were in the actual process of it. She wasn't yet sure how to talk to them, how to look at them, and the awful suspense – what it would be like, the atmosphere in this small, comparatively quiet space, in the moment, the very second when it happened.
She was never going to get used to this. She was supposed to comfort the dying, but more often than not it was the dying who comforted her – old ladies, all skin and bone and no hair, patting her hand, one actually saying, Don't worry, luv, I won't keep you long.
Less bothered, it often seemed, than she was. Sometimes it was like they were just waiting for a bus.
She sat at the desk by the door, under the angled, metal-shaded lamp, the only light in the room. There were four beds in the side ward, three of them empty. It was the only part of this hospital where you could usually count on finding a couple of spare beds, it being the place where terminal patients were often brought in the final stages so they wouldn't distress other patients who were not quite so terminal.
Tamsin, the other nurse, a year or two older, was out on the main ward. Sister Murtry would pop in occasionally, see if they were all right.
Sister Murtry had been very firm with Mrs Castle, who was a tall, strong-looking woman – only Sister Murtry would have dared. 'Come on now, he needs his sleep and you need yours.'
… Mr Castle waking up suddenly and chuckling in a ghastly, strangled way when she said he needed sleep.
(She looked across now at his face on the pillow; his skin was like cold, lumpy, wrinkled custard. He wasn't so very old: fifty-seven, it said on his chart, not even elderly.)
'Will you be sure to…' Mrs Castle had been in the doorway. Sister Murtry's hands on her shoulders, pushing her out.
'Yes, I'll ring you myself if there's any change. But there probably won't be, you know… Just go and get your sleep, or we'll be seeing you in here too…'
She imagined Mrs Castle lying wide awake in a cold double bed, waiting for the phone to ring. The wind howling outside – they lived up by Bridelow Moor, didn't they? The wind always howled up there.
He was quite a famous man, Mr Castle. There'd been dozens of Get Well cards when he was in last year for tests and things. Dr Smethwick, the registrar, who was a folk music fan, had been thrilled to bits to have him in. 'Pioneer of the Pennine Pipes,' she remembered him saying, and Dr Bun had said, dry as a stick, 'Oh, he works for the Water Authority, does he?' And she'd rushed out, scared to giggle because she was still a student then, and Dr Smethwick was senior to Dr Burt.
Dr Smethwick had moved on, to a better job in Liverpool. Now there was nobody left who knew anything about Mr Castle or the Pennine Pipes. All he had tonight was her, and she was afraid of him because he was dying.
She wondered how many folk had died here, in this small space, over the years. Passed away, they still preferred you to say that to the relatives. She said it to herself.
Passsssed… awayyyy. Soft, like a breath of air.
She jumped. Mr Castle had released a breath of air, but it wasn't soft. It was… phtttt… like a cork popping out of a bottle or like a quiet fart (one of the regular noises of the night here).
'Mr Castle…?' Whispering, rising rapidly to her feet with a rustle of the uniform, bumping her head on the edge of the metal lampshade.
'All right, Mr Castle… Matt.' A hairgrip, dislodged by the lamp, fell to the desk, she felt her hair corning loose at the back. 'I'm here.'
But when she reached the bedside he was breathing normally again – well, not normal normal, but normal for a man who… for a man in his condition.
Holding her hair in place with one hand, the grip in her teeth, she went into the main ward to collect her mirror from her bag.
Plenty breathing out here, and snoring, and a few small moans, everything hospital-normal. Up the far end of the ward, Tamsin was bending over Miss Wately's bed. Miss Wately the retired headmistress who wouldn't be called by her first name, which was Eunice. Tamsin straightened up, saw her and raised a hand to her lips, tilting her head back as if the hand held a cup.
She nodded and smiled and pointed over her shoulder to the side ward, and Tamsin nodded and held up five fingers.
'Ger… yer owd bugger…' an old man rasped in his sleep. It was supposed to be a mixed ward but because of the attitude of patients like Miss Wately, the men tended to be at one end and the women at the other. Best, really, at their age.
No kimono-style dressing-gowns and baby-doll nighties on this ward.
She found the mirror, slipped it into her pocket, went back to the side ward and sat down, her eyes moving instinctively from bed to bed, four beds, all empty.
'Oh!' She spun round, her hair unravelling down below her shoulders.
He said, 'You've come then, eh?'
God help us, he was hanging over her… like bones in pyjamas.
What was holding him up? She'd seen his legs, his muscles, wasted, gone to jelly. Been in a wheelchair for weeks and weeks. They'd said to watch him, he might even die in the night, and here he was standing up, oh God, his lips all pulled back and frozen into a ric-rictus?
'Tarn…' trying to shout for the other nurse, but her voice was so dry the name just dropped out of her mouth like a piece chewing gum '… sin.' Hardly heard herself.
His eyes were far back in his head, black marbles, like the eyes had already died.
Then one of his hands reached out, it was all shrivelled and rigid, like a chicken's foot, and he started… he started playing with her hair, pulling it down and fingering it, looking down at it in his fingers, mumbling, Moira… Moira.
Eventually she managed to say, 'I'm not your wife, Mr…Mr Castle…'
But remembered Sister Murtry saying, 'Her name's Charlotte, I think.' And then, later, 'Come on, Charlotte, let's be having you, can't stay here all night. Not good for either of you.'
She couldn't move. The metal bars on the bed heads made hard shadows on the walls, the little ward was like a cage. If only Sister Murtry would come now, bustling in, short and dynamic. Nobody Sister Murtry couldn't handle.
Oh, God, this was the wrong job, she hated dying people, their stretched skin, their awful smell, especially this one – the damp stench of ripe, putrid earth (the grave?). She began to shiver and tried to stand up, drawing back, away from him, but there was nowhere to go, her bottom was pressed into the edge of the desk, and Mr Castle was still hanging over her like a skeleton in a rotting sack and smelling of wet earth.
How could he smell of earth, of outside?
'Tam… sin…' Her scream was a whisper, but her mouth was stretched wide as his greenish chickenfoot hand whipped out and seized her throat.
The scuffed sixteen-year-old Ovation guitar, with its fibreglass curves, was a comfort. Its face reflected the great fire blazing on the baronial hearth.
'Ladies of noble birth…' Adjusting the microphone. 'In those days, they didn't have too much of a say in it, when it came to husbands. This is… thumbing an A-minor, tweaking the top string up a fraction, '… this is the story of a woman who's found herself betrothed to a titled guy much younger than she is. However…' gliding over a C, 'I doubt if we're talking toy-boys, as we know them. This is like… nine or ten, right?'
Tuning OK. 'I mean, you know, there's a limit to the things you can get from a boy of nine or ten.'
No reaction. You bastard, Malcolm. And you, Rory McBain – one day you really will be sick.
'Anyway, she's stuck with this kid. And she's standing on the castle walls, watching him playing down below, working out the dispiriting mathematics of the situation and wondering if…'
Shuffling on the stool, tossing back the black wings of her hair, the weight of it down her back pulling her upright so that she could see the audience and the gleaming stag skulls all round. The walls of neatly dressed stone, with spotlit banners and tapestries. The black eye-holes in the skulls, and the eyes of the conference delegates looking, from five or so yards away, just as opaque and unmoving.
'Anyway, don't expect a happy ending, OK? This is a traditional song. You don't get many happy endings in traditional songs. It's called… "Lang a-growin' ".'
The bastard McBain would have handled this better. For the sake of ethnic credibility, he'd do a couple of songs in the Gaelic, of which he understood scarcely a word. What she had these days was a different kind of credibility: sophistication, fancy nightclub ethnic, low and sultry vocals, folk tunes with a touch of jazz guitar, strictly rationed to what she could handle without fracturing a fingernail.
'He's young…' Hearing her own voice drifting vacuously on the air, the words like cigarette smoke. '… but he's daily… growin'…'
Over an hour ago, she'd called Lottie's number. A guy answered, obviously not the boy, Dic. The guy'd said Lottie was at the hospital in Manchester. Muffled voices in the background – this was a pub, right? She'd asked no more questions. She'd call back.
The hospital. In Manchester. Oh, hell.
The Great Hall was huge, the acoustics lousy. When the song was over, applause went pop-pop-pop like a battery of distant shotguns. The stags' heads gathered grimly below the ceiling, so many that the antlers looked to be tangled up.
'Splendid,' she heard the Earl call out magnanimously. How many wee staggies did you pop yourself, my lord, your grace, whatever? Maybe you invited members of the Royal Family to assist. Traditional, right?
Moira did a bit of fine tuning on the guitar. She was wearing the black dress and the cameo brooch containing the stained plaid fragment that was reputed to have been recovered from a corpse at Culloden. Credibility. 'This song… You may not know the title, most of you, but the tune could be slightly familiar. It's… the lament of a girl whose man's gone missing at sea and she waits on the shore accosting all the homecoming fishermen as they reach land.
The song's called "Cam Ye O'er Frae Campbelltoon". It's, er,… it's traditional.'
Traditional my arse. Me and Kenny Savage wrote it, still half-pissed, at a party in Kenny's flat in 1982 – like, Hey, I know… how about we invent a totally traditional Celtic lament…
She told them, the assembled Celts, 'The chorus is very simple… so feel free to join in…'
And, by Christ, they did join in. Probably with tears in their eyes. All these Scots and Irish and Welsh and Bretons and the folk from the wee place up against Turkey… writers and poets and politicians united in harmony with a phoney chorus composed amidst empty Yugoslav Riesling bottles at the fag end of Kenny Savage's Decree Absolute party in dawn-streaked Stranraer.
What a sham, eh? I mean, what am I doing here?
And Matt Castle dying.
Tears in her own eyes now. Last year he'd told her on the phone that he'd be OK, the tests had shown it wasn't malignant. And she'd believed him; so much for intuition.
The damn tears would be glinting in the soft spotlight they'd put on her, and the Celtic horde out there, maudlin with malt, would think she was weeping for the girl on the shore at Stranraer – and weeping also, naturally, for the plight of Scotland and for the oldest race in Europe trampled into the mud of ages.
'Thank you,' she said graciously, as they applauded not so much her as themselves, a confusion of racial pride with communal self-pity.
And that makes it nine songs, over an hour gone, corning up to 10.30. Time to wind this thing up, yeh? Lifting the guitar strap out of her hair. Let's get the hell out of here.
At which point someone called out smoothly, 'Would it be in order to request an encore?'
She tried to smile.
'Maybe you could play "The Comb Song"?'
It was him. It would have to be. The New York supplier of Semtex money to the IRA.
'Aw, that's just a kiddies' song.' Standing up, the guitar-strap half-off.
'Well, I don't know about the other people here,' the voice said – and it was not the American, 'but it's the song I most associate with you, and I was rather disappointed not to hear
'Oh, hell, it's a good long time ago, I don't think I even remember the words…' Who the fuck was this?
'If you go wrong, I'm sure we could help you out.' She couldn't make out his face behind the spotlight. She looked up, in search of inspiration, but her gaze got entangled in antlers.
'Also,' she said miserably, 'it isn't exactly traditional. And it's awful long. See, I don't want to bore your friends here…'
'Miss Cairns…' The Earl himself took a step towards the dais, into the spotlight, the light making tiny dollar-signs in his eyes. 'I doubt if any of us could possibly be bored by any of your songs.' A touch of threat under the mellifluousness? Some flunkey had replaced the empty Guinness glass by her stool with a full one. She picked it up, put it down again without drinking. There were murmurings.
What the hell am I going to do now? She felt their stares, the more charitable ones maybe wondering if she was ill. Aw, shit…
What she didn't feel any more were the eyes of the Watcher.
This had maybe been a mistake. Sometimes you made mistakes. It probably had been the American and it probably was no heavier than lust.
'I warn you,' Moira said, as the Ovation's strap sank back into her shoulder, 'this is the longest song I ever wrote.'
And to the accompaniment of a thin cheer from the floor her fingers found the chord, and she sang the rather clumsy opening lines. Trying not to think about it, trying to board up her mind against all those heavyweight memories tramping up the stairs.
Her father works with papers and with plans.
Her mother sees the world from caravans…
The song telling the story of this shy, drab child growing up in the suburbs of a staid Clydeside town with the ever-present feeling that she's in the wrong place, that she really ought to be some other person. Bad times at school, no friends. Brought up at home by the grandmother, restrictive, old-fashioned Presbyterian.
I wish to God you hadna been born.
Your hair's a mess, get it shorn.
Get it shorn…
Then the song becoming a touch obscure – one night, around the time of her adolescence, the child seems to be in this dark wood, when the moon breaks through the clouds and trees, and she finds she's holding… this curious, ancient comb. It's a wonderful magic comb and apparently is the key to the alternative reality which for all these years has been denied to her. She runs it through her hair and becomes electrified, metamorphoses into some kind of beautiful princess. Fairytale stuff.
… She sees herself in colours and
She weighs her powers in her hand…
Dead silence out there. She had them. Oh, it had its magic, this bloody song which intelligent people were supposed to think was all allegorical and the comb a metaphor for the great Celtic heritage. Most likely this was how the American saw it, and the other guy who'd demanded the song.
A bastard to write, the words wouldn't hang together – sign of a song that didn't want to be written.
The song knew from the start: some things are too personal.
Never let them cut your hair
Or tell you where
Or where you're going to
Couple of twiddly bits which, after all these years, she fluffed. Then dropping down to minor key for the main reason she hadn't wanted to perform this number, the creepy stuff, the heavy stuff.
And in the chamber of the dead
Forgotten voices fill your head…
Sure, there they are… tinny little voices, high-pitched, fragmented chattering, like a cheap transistor radio with its battery dying. Tune it in, tune it in.
Who is this? Who is it?
No, no, NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Oh, shit, please, don't die, Matt, don't die on me now…you have no right…
Singing on, through her wild tears, an awed silence in the room like a giant cavern, hall of ages, caged in bones. You think you know this song, these words, Mr New York Irishman…?
… for the night is growing colder and you feel it at your shoulder…
Icy-bright singing now, purged of that phoney, Guinnessy growl. One or two women out there shivering and reaching for their cardigans. The song rippling across the night sky, down the dark years, and you're watching its wavering passage from a different level, like an air traffic controller in a tower late at night. Something flying out to meet it, on a collision course.
Give up, you fool, there is no heat.
The Abyss opens up beneath your feet…
Here he is again, uncertainly into the spotlight, looking around. Hello again, Earl, something wrong is there, my lord, your grace…? Is it cold for you in here? Will you get some servant to turn up the heating, throw more peat on the fire?
And all the while, will you listen to these wee voices, chattering, chattering, chattering…
The comb is ice, it's brittle, oh.
You cannot hold it, must let go…
Yes, let it go. It's a trinket, it's worthless, it takes your energy. Let it drift. Let the night have it. Let…
These – Christ – these are not my words. These are somebody else's words.
I'm singing somebody else's goddamn words!
And the comb is being pulled away now in a deceptively soft silver haze, gently at first, just a tug. Then insistent, irritable – let it come, you bitch – and slender hands, slender like wires, scalpelling into her breast. Feeling delicately – but brutally and coldly, like a pathologist at an autopsy – for her emotional core, for the centre of her. somebody…
In a frenzy she's letting go of the song, she's groping wildly at the air, feeling her spirit straining in her body as the big lights come on, huge shimmering chandeliers.
Moira has fallen down from the stool.
She's lying twisted and squirming on the carpeted dais, both arms wrapped around the guitar. From miles away, people are screaming, or is it her screaming at them… Stop it! Catch it! Don't let it go from here! Help me! Help me!
She can hear them coming to help her, the army of her fellow-Celts. But they can't get through.
They can't get through the walls of bone.
The walls of jiggling swelling bone. Not just the skulls any more; the plaster's fallen from the walls and the walls are walls of bone, whole skeletons interlocking, creaking and twisting and the jaws of the skulls opening and closing, grisly grins and clacking laughter of teeth, right up against her face. She's trapped, like a beating, bloody heart inside a rib-cage.
She sees the comb and all it represents spinning away until it's nothing but a hairline crack of silver-blue. She watches it go like a mother who sees her baby toddling out of the garden and into the dust spurting from the wheels of an oncoming articulated lorry.
But you can't hear me, can you, mammy? The connection's broken.
I'm on my own. But no.
There is a man.
A tall, thin man, with a face so white it might be the face of some supernatural being.
No, this is a real man. He's wearing an evening suit, a bow-tie. He has a small voluptuous mouth and an expanse of white forehead marked with greyish freckles, and the white hair ripples back from the forehead; not receding, it has always been that way. She ought to know him; he knows her.
And where she keeps the comb.
This person, unnoticed in the hubbub by everyone but her, is lifting the black guitar case from the steps of the dais and examining it to see how it opens. He looks at her, furiously impatient, and the air between them splinters like ice and when she tries to see into his eyes, and they are not there, only the black sockets in a face as white as any of the skulls.
Their eyes meet at last. His have projected into the sockets from somewhere. They are light grey eyes. And there's a whiteness around him, growing into arms like tree-branches above his head. No, not arms, not branches.
Moira shrieked, flinging the guitar away from her. It made a mangled minor chord as it rolled down the steps of the dais.
She threw herself after it, headlong into the glass-spattered Guinness-sodden tartan carpet, clawing at the pair of shiny, elegant evening shoes, the air at first full of swirling, unfocused energy.
And then, for a moment, everything was still.
Most of those in the room were still seated at their tables, with drinks in front of them, the men and women in their evening wear, white shirts and black bow-ties, jewellery and silk and satin. The American half out of his seat, dark Irish hair tumbling on to his forehead. The Earl on his feet; his expression… dismay turning to disgust; was this woman having a fit? In his castle?
Everybody shimmering with movement, but nobody going anywhere.
Projector-jam. Until the first skull fell. It was possibly the smallest of them, so comparatively insignificant that Moira wondered briefly why anyone would have admitted to having shot it, let alone wanted to display it. She watched it happen, saw the antlers just lean forward, as if it was bowing its head, and then the wooden shield it was mounted on splintered and the poor bleached exhibit crashed seven or eight feet on to a table, crystal glasses flying into the air around it.
'God almighty!' a man blurted.
The white, eyeless head toppled neatly from the table into the lap of a woman in a wine-coloured evening dress, the antlers suddenly seeming to be sprouting from her ample Celtic cleavage.
For a whole second, the woman just looked at it, as though it was some kind of novelty, like a big, fluffy bunny popped onto her knees by an admirer at a party. Her glossy red lips split apart into what appeared for an instant to be an expression of pure delight.
It was this older woman next to her, whose ornate, red-brown coiffure had been speared by an antler, she was the one who screamed first.
More of an escalating gurgle actually. Both women jerking to their feet in quaking revulsion, clutching at one another, chairs flying…
… as, with a series of sickening ripping sounds, several other skulls cracked themselves from the walls, all at once…
(Look!' Some guy grabbing the Earl by the shoulders, shaking him.)
… and began to descend in, like, slow motion, some so old they fell apart in the air and came down in pieces.
Moira's audience in cowering disarray. 'Stop this!' the Earl commanding irrationally, limbs jerking in spasms, semaphoring incomprehensible fear, like a spider caught in its own web.
'Stop it! Stop it at once!'
This tumultuous tending and creaking from all the walls. Even the great fire looking cowed, burning, back, low and smoky as though someone had thrown muffling peat at it.
Next to the fireplace, this severe and heavy lady – a matriarch of Welsh-language television, it was said – just sitting there blinking, confused because her spectacles had been torn off and then trodden on by a flailing bearded man, some distinguished professor of Celtic Studies, eyes full of broken glass, one cheek gashed by a blade of bone.
And, pulling her gaze away from this carnage, in the choking maw of the great fireplace Moira thought she saw a face… so grey it could only have been formed from smoke. The face swirled; two thrashing arms of smoke came out into the room, as if reaching for her.
Moira whispered faintly, 'Matt?' But it was smoke, only smoke.
The butler guy weaving about helplessly in the great doorway as the stag skulls fell and fell, this roaring, spitting avalanche of white bone and splattering glass, battered heads and scored skin, people yelping, moaning, hurling themselves under collapsing tables, craving shelter from the storm. She caught the black guitar case as it fell towards her. Caught it in her arms.
Come to mammy.
She sat bewildered on the bottom step of the dais, in the refrigerated air, in the absurdly shocking mess of glass and antlers.
I have to be leaving, she thought.
Hands on her shoulders. 'You OK? Moira, for Chrissake…?'
'Get the fuck off me!'
But it was only the American, Mr Semtex.
'Please… You OK? Here, let me take that…'
'No! Let it alone, will you?'
She saw the white-faced man on his knees, not six feet away. He was holding one of the skulls, a big skull, one antler snapped off halfway, ending in a savage point, a dagger of bone. There was blood on the point.
And blood welling slowly out of his left eye, blood and mucus, a black pool around the eye.
The other eye was very pale, grey going on pink. He was staring at her out of it.
Moira clutched the guitar case defiantly to her throbbing breast.
'Just hang on in there, pal,' the American said to the white-faced man. 'We're gonna get you a doctor.'
Ignoring the American, the man with the injured eye said (and later the American would swear to her that he hadn't heard this, that the guy was too messed up to speak at all)…
The man said, very calm, very urbane, 'Don't think, Miss Cairns, that this is anything but the beginning.'
In Matt Castle's band, Willie Wagstaff had played various hand-drums – bongo-type things and what the Irish called the bodhran, although Matt would never call it that; to him it was all Pennine percussion.
This morning, without some kind of drum under his hands, Willie looked vaguely disabled, both sets of fingers tapping nervously at his knees, creating complex, silent rhythms.
Lottie smiled wanly down at him. They were sitting on wooden stools at either end of the kitchen stove, for warmth
'Can you finish it, Willie? Can it be done?'
Willie looked up at her through his lank, brown fringe, like a mouse emerging from a hole in the wall. Lukewarm autumn sunbeams danced with the dust in the big kitchen behind the public bar. Such a lot of dust. She'd been neglecting the cleaning, like everything else, since Matt had been bad. Now it was over. Dust to dust.
Willie said, 'We got two or three instrumental tracks down, y'know. The lament. It all got a bit, like… half-hearted, as you can imagine. Me and Eric, we could see it weren't going to get finished. Not wi' Matt, anyroad.'
'I want it finished,' Lottie said crisply. 'It was his last… I'm not going to use the word obsession, I've said it too much.' She hesitated. '… I'm not religious, Willie, you know that, not in any… any respect.'
Willie gave three or four nods, his chin keeping time with the fingers on his knees.
'But I just feel that he won't be at peace… that it won't be over… until that music's finished.'
'Aye.' Willie's fingers didn't stop. Nerves.
'So what about Dic?' Lottie said.
'Will Dic want to do it?'
Lottie said grimly, 'He'll do it. Is he good enough?'
'Oh, aye,' Willie said without much difficulty. 'I reckon he is. With a bit of practice, like. But really, like, what we could do with is…He beat his knees harder to help him get it out. '… Moira.'
'She rang me,' Lottie said. 'Last night.'
Willie's eyes lit up, expectant. Dear God, Lottie thought, they're all in love with her.
'Actually, it was early this morning. I mean very early. Gone midnight. The kind of time people don't ring up unless it's an emergency.'
'Oh,' Willie said, and his hands were suddenly still.
'She asked me about Matt. She said, was he ill? I told her yes he was very ill. I told her it was close to the end. I told her…' Lottie stood up and put her hands on the warm metal covers over the hot-plates of the kitchen stove, pressing down with both hands, hard. 'I didn't need to tell her.'
Willie was quiet.
'We didn't say much. She started to explain why she'd put him off when he wrote to her. I stopped her. I said we'd discuss it some other time.'
There was a new kind of silence in the room.
'I put the phone down,' Lottie said. 'It was about twenty-five past twelve. I waited for a minute or two, in case Dic had heard the phone, but he was fast asleep. I thought, I'll make some cocoa, take it up with me. But I didn't move. I knew. I mean, why should she suddenly ring after all these years at that time of night? And sure enough, not five minutes had passed and the phone rang again, and it was Sister Murtry at the hospital. And I just said, He's gone, hasn't he?'
There was more silence, then Lottie said, 'I've not slept since. I've just sent Dic to bed for a few hours. I'm not tired, Willie. I'm not using up any energy – not thinking, you know?'
Lottie sat down again. 'I shan't be staying here. Only until it's done. His bloody project. I think coming back here, buying the pub, the whole bit, that was all part of it. The project. All I want is to draw a line under it, do you see? I mean, I hope somebody'll buy the pub, somebody sympathetic, but if not…' She shrugged. 'Well, I've got to get away, regardless.'
Willie nodded. Fingers starting up very slowly. 'Um… what about Moira?'
'I'm not inviting her to the funeral, that's for sure.' Lottie folded her arms, making a barrier. 'If she wants to help complete these songs, that'd be… I'll not be begging. No more of that. And another thing, Willie – tell whoever needs to be told, tell them I'm not having anything to do with these stupid… traditions. You know what I'm saying? Matt might've accepted it, I don't. All right?'
'Aye, all right,' Willie said, not sounding too happy. But that was his problem, Lottie thought. 'Yeh,' he said. 'I'll tell her.'
When Willie had gone, Lottie pushed her hands on to the hot-plate covers again, seeking an intensity of heat, needing to feel something. Something beyond this anaesthetized numbness.
Wanting pain – simple pain. Loss. Sorrow.
Not any of this confusion over the gratitude that he was gone and the wanting him back… but back as he used to be, before all this. Before his project. A blinding sun through leafless trees ricocheted from the windscreens of cars on the forecourt. A perky breeze ruffled the flags projecting from the motel's awning and lifted tufts of Chrissie's auburn hair. She thought she probably looked quite good, all things considered.
That, she told herself, was what a good night's sleep could do for you.
Roger Hall paused, gripping the door-handle of his Volvo Estate. Don't say it, Chrissie thought. Just don't give me that, I still can't understand it, this has never happened to me before…
He didn't. He merely put on an upside-down, pathetic grin.
'Can we try again sometime?' Eyes crinkled appealingly, full of silly morning optimism, and she felt herself falling for it – even if she knew he still wasn't telling the half of it.
'Why not,' she said, daft bitch. She squeezed his arm. 'How long will you be gone?'
'Oh, only until Tuesday. That is, I'll be back late tonight so I'll see you tomorrow morning. Have lunch together, shall we? Would that be…?'
'Of course,' she said. She would have wangled the day off and gone to London with him. They'd been too close to the Field Centre last night, that was probably the problem. Too close to him.
'I'm really only going down there,' Roger said, 'to make sure we get all the stomach returned. Don't want them trying to pinch him back, bit by bit.'
Shut up! Just shut up about that fucking thing!
'Don't worry about it, Roger. Just drive carefully.'
As the Volvo slid away past the Exit Southbound sign, two commercial traveller types came out to their twin Cavaliers and gave her the once-over. Chrissie found herself smiling almost warmly at the younger one. It would be two years in January since her divorce.
She got into her Golf. She looked at her face in the driving-mirror and decided it could probably take a couple more years of this sort of thing before she ought to start looking for something… well, perhaps semi-permanent.
Sadly, Roger's marriage was now in no danger whatsoever. Not from her, anyway.
All the trouble he'd gone to to deceive his wife. Was that for her? Was that really all for her? And then he couldn't do it. Because of 'tension'.
She imagined him driving like the clappers to London, where he was supposed to have spent the night, and then driving determinedly back with the bogman's peaty giblets in a metal samples case.
There was his real love. And there was more to it
Alter the way he'd been talking last night, she'd half expected to wake up in the early hours to find him all wet and clammy and moaning in his sleep about lumps of the stuff in the bed.
But that hadn't happened either. Indeed, the only thing to remind her of soft, clammy peat was the consistency of Roger's dick.
Chrissie got out of the motel compound by the service entrance and drove to work.
Not to worry. Later that morning, little Willie Wagstaff went to see his mother in her end-of-terrace cottage across from the post office.
'Need to find a job now, then,' the old girl said sternly before he'd even managed to clear himself a space on the settee. Ma was practical; no time for sentiment. Dead was dead. Matt Castle was dead; no living for Willie playing the drums on his own.
'Can't do owt yet,' Willie said. "Sides, there's no work about.'
'Always work,' said Ma, 'for them as has a mind to find it.'
Willie grinned. Rather than see him relax for a while, Ma would have him commuting to Huddersfield or Chorlton-cum- Hardy to clean lavatories or sweep the streets.
'Devil makes work for idle hands,' she said. Her as ought to know – half the village reckoned she'd been in league with the bugger for years.
'Aye, well, I've been over to see Lottie this morning.'
'Oh aye? Relieved, was she? Looking better?'
'Grief's one thing, our Willie, hypocrisy's summat else. She's done her grieving, that one.'
'I've to tell you…' Willie's fingers were off… dum, dum de-dum, side of his knees.
Ma's eyes narrowed. Her hair was tied up in a bun with half a knitting-needle shoved up it.
'Er…' Dum, dum, dum-di-di, dum-di-di…
'Gerrit out!' Ma squawked.
'No messing about,' Willie mumbled quickly. 'Lottie says, none of that.'
'What's that mean?' Making him say it.
'Well, like… well, naturally he'll be buried in t'churchyard. First one. First one since…' His fingers finding a different, more complicated rhythm. 'What I'm saying, Ma, is, do we have to…? Does it have to be Matt?'
Ma scowled. She had a face like an over-ripe quince. She wore an old brown knee-length cardigan over a blue boiler-suit, her working clothes. The two cats, one black, one white, sat side-by-side on the hearth, still as china. Bob and Jim. Willie reckoned they must be the fourth or fifth generation of Ma's cats called Bob and Jim, and all females.
Willie liked his mother's cottage. Nothing changed. Bottles of stuff everywhere. On the table an evil-looking root was rotting inside a glass jar, producing a fluid as thick as Castrol.
Comfrey – known as knitbone. And if it didn't knit your bones at least it'd stop your back gate from squeaking.
'Rector come round,' Ma told him. 'Said was I sure I'd given him right stuff for his arthritis.'
'Bloody hell,' said Willie. 'Chancing his arm there.'
'No, he were right,' said Ma surprisingly. 'It's not working. Never happened before, that hasn't. Never not worked, that arthritis mixture. Leastways, it's always done summat.'
She reached down to the hearth, picked up an old brown medicine bottle with a cork in it; Ma didn't believe in screw tops. 'Full-strength too. Last summer's.'
Willy smiled slyly. 'Losing thi touch, Ma?'
'Now, don't you say that!' His mother pointing a forefinger stiff as a clothes-peg. Think what you want, but don't you go saying it. It's not lucky.'
'Aye. I'm sorry.'
'Still…' She squinted into the bottle then put it back on the hearth behind Bob or Jim. 'You're not altogether wrong, for once.'
'Nay.' Willie shook his head. 'Shouldn't've said it. Just come out, like.'
'I'm not what I was.'
'Well, what d'you expect? You're eighty… three? Six?'
'That's not what I'm saying, son.'
Ma's brown eyes were calm. She still didn't need glasses, and her eyes did wonderful things. In Manchester, of a Saturday, all dolled up, she could still summon a waitress in the cafe with them eyes, even when the waitress had her back turned. And Willie had once seen this right vicious-looking street-gang part clean down the middle to let her through; Ma had sent the eyes in first.
But now the eyes were oddly calm. Accepting. Worrying, that. Never been what you might call an accepter, hadn't Ma.
'None of us is what we was this time last year,' Ma said.
'Ever since yon bogman were took…'
'Oh, no, Willie stood up. 'Not again. You start on about that bogman and I'm off.'
'Don't be so daft. You know I'm right, our Willie. Look at yer fingers, drummin' away, plonk, plonk. Always was a giveaway, yer fingers.'
'Nay,' Willie said uncomfortably, wishing he hadn't come.
'I'm telling you, we're not protected same as we was.' Ma Wagstaff stopped rocking. 'Sit down. Get your bum back on that couch a minute.'
Willie sat. He was suddenly aware of how dim it was in the parlour, despite all the sunlight, and how small it was. And how little and wizened Ma appeared. It was like looking at an old sepia photo from Victorian times. Hard to imagine this was the fiery-eyed old woman who'd blowtorched a path through a bunch of Moss Side yobboes.
'We've bin protected in this village,' Ma said. 'You know that.'
'I suppose so.'
'We're very old-established, y'see. Very old-established indeed.'
Well, this was true. And the family itself was old-established in Bridelow, at least on Ma's side. Dad had come from Oldham to work at the brewery, but Ma and her ma and her ma's ma… well, that was how it seemed to go back, through the women.
'But we've let it go,' Ma said.
Willy remembered how upset she'd been when her grand-daughter, his sister's lass, had gone to college in London. Manchester or Sheffield would've been acceptable, but London
He said, 'Let it go?'
Ma Wagstaff leaned back in the rocking-chair, closing her eyes. 'Aye,' she said sadly. 'You say as you don't want to hear this, Willie, but you're goin' t'ave to, sooner or later. You're like all the rest of um. If it's up on t'moor, or out on t'Moss, it's nowt to do wi' us. Can't do us no harm. Well, it can now, see, I'm telling thee.'
All eight of Willie's fingers started working on his knees.
Ma said, 'They're looking for openings. Looking for cracks in t'wall. Been gathering out there for years, hundreds of years.'
'What you on about, Ma?'.
'Different uns, like,' Ma said. 'Not same uns, obviously.
'Yobboes,' Willie said dismissively, realising what she meant. 'Bloody hooligans. Always been yobboes and hooligans out there maulin' wi' them owd circles. Means nowt. Except to farmers, like. Bit of a bugger for farmers.'
'Eh…' Ma was scornful. 'Farmers loses more sheep to foxes. That's not what I'm saying.'
Her eyes popped open, giving him a shock because there was no peace in them now, no acceptance. All of a sudden they looked just like the little white marbles Willie had collected as a lad, shot through with the same veins of pure, bright red.
She stabbed a finger at him again. 'I can tell um, y'know. Couldn't always… Aye. Less said about that…'
Willie's own fingers stumbled out of rhythm, the tips gone numb. 'Now, don't upset yourself.'
'But there's one now,' Ma said, one hand clutching an arm of the rocking-chair like a parrot's claw on a perch. 'Comes and goes, like an infection. Looking for an opening…'
'Shurrup, Ma, will you. Whatever it is, Lottie doesn't want…'
'Listen,' Ma said without hesitation. 'You tell that Lottie to come and see me. Tell her to come tomorrow, I'm a bit busy now. Tell her I'll talk to her about it. Just like we talked to Matt. Matt knew what had to happen. Matt were chuffed as a butty.'
'Aye.' Matt and his mate, the bogman. Together at last.
'Only we've got to protect the lad,' Ma said.
'I don't like any of this. Ma. Lottie'll go spare.'
'Well, look.' Ma was on her feet, sprightly as a ten-year-old, moving bottles on the shelf. 'Give her this.'
'What is it?'
'Aye.' Accepting the little brown bottle. 'All right, then, I'll give it her. Tell her it'll calm her down. Make her feel better. But I'll not tell you're going ahead with…' Willie gave his knee a couple of climactic thumps. 'No way.'
He didn't tell Ma what Lottie had said about them finishing Matt's bogman song-cycle. Because, when it came down to it, he didn't like the thought of that himself. And he had a pretty good idea how Ma would react.
I warned him not to meddle with stuff he knows nowt about, she'd say. And I don't expect to have to warn me own son.
So, in a way, Willie was hoping Lottie would have forgotten about the whole thing by the time the funeral was over.
A funeral which, if she'd any sense, she'd be attending with a very thick veil over her eyes.
The man with two Dobermans prowling the inside of the wire mesh perimeter fence was clearly too old to be a security guard. His appallingly stained trousers were held up by a dressing-gown cord with dirty gold tassels; a thinner golden cord was draped around the crown of his tattered trilby.
However, the dogs looked menacing enough, and when the man flung open the metal gate, they sprang.
For just a few seconds, the dun-coloured sky disappeared as the Dobermans rose massively and simultaneously into the air. And then they were on her, both heads into her exposed face, hot breath pumping and the great, savage teeth.
'Oh, my God!' Moira shrieked as the rough tongues sliced through her make-up. 'Do you guys know what this bloody stuff cost?'
She threw an arm around each of the dogs, trapping the four big front paws to her tweed jacket, and they all staggered together through the gate and on to the site, knocking over an empty, grey plastic dustbin.
The elderly man in the black trilby caught the bin as it fell. 'Moira!,' he yelled. 'Hey!'
'Donald,' Moira said, arms full of black and gold paws. 'You all right?'
'Well, damn.' He pulled his hat off. 'We wisny expecting ye today, hen, the Duchess didny say…'
'That's because she doesn't know,' Moira said. 'I hope she's not away from her van… Down, now…'
The dogs obediently sat at her feet. 'Ye've still got the way, all right,' Donald said admiringly.
'They've grown. Again. I swear I've never seen Dobermans this big. What d'you feed them on?
Donald didn't smile. 'Public health officials.'
'My daddy,' she reminded him gently, "was a public health official.'
'Aye, I know. But your daddy wisny like the hard-faced bastards they send 'round these days.' Donald turned his head and shouted at a woman pegging baby-clothes to a washing line outside a lilac-coloured caravan.
'Hey, Siobhan, the Duchess, she in now?'
'Oh… sure' The woman stumbled and dropped a nappy in a puddle. She picked it up, wrung out the brown water and hung it on the line. 'Leastways, I haven't seen no red carpet goin' down today.'
'Tinkers,' Donald said disparagingly. 'They're all bloody tinkers here now, 'cept for the few of us.'
Moira followed him and the dogs through the site, with its forty-odd vans on concrete hard-standings and its unexpectedly spectacular views of the Ayrshire coast. It might have been a holiday caravan site but for the washing lines full of fluttering clothes and the piles of scrap and all the kids and dogs.
They passed just one perfect old Romany caravan, bright red and silver, originally designed for horses but with a tow-bar now. A man with a beard and an earring sat out on the step whittling chunks out of a hunk of dark wood. He wore a moleskin waistcoat trimmed with silver. Moira stared at him, amazed. 'Who the hell's that?'
Donald turned his head and spat. One of the Dobermans growled. 'Oh,' Moira said. 'I see.'
'Bloody hippies. Call 'emselves New Age gypsies. Wis a time this wis a select site. All kindsa garbage we're gettin' now, hen.'
He stopped at the bottom of six concrete steps leading to the apex of the site, a flat-topped artificial mound with the sides ranked into flowerbeds.
Nothing changes, Moira thought. Wherever she's living it's always the same.
Evergreen shrubs, mainly laurel, sprouted around the base of the shining silver metal palace which crowned the mound like the Mother Ship from Close Encounters. The old man mounted the bottom step. 'Hey, Duchess!'
It wasn't what you'd call a traditional Romany caravan. Few like it had been seen before on a statutory local authority gypsy site. Only movie stars on location lived quite like this.
Donald stayed on the bottom step, the Dobermans silent on either side of him. There were antique carriage lamps each side of the door, a heavy door of stained and polished Douglas fir, which slid open with barely a sigh.
She came out and stood frailly in the doorway, a soft woollen evening stole about her bony shoulders. The day was calm for the time of year, no breeze from the sea.
Donald said, 'Will you look who's here. Duchess.' From the edges of the stole, the Duchess's hair tumbled like a cataract of white water almost to her waist. She looked down at Moira and her face was grave.
Moira said, 'Hullo, Mammy.' 'You OK?'
He'd looked anxious, his tuxedo creased, the thistle lolling from his buttonhole.
Well, actually, it was more than anxious; the guy had been as scared as any of them in the room full of splintered bone – twisted antlers across the tables on beds of broken glass, and one pair still hanging menacingly among the glittering shards of a chandelier.
Moira had said, 'You ever see bomb damage in Belfast?'
She was up on her knees now, examining the guitar for fractures.
'Bomb damage,' she said, not looking at him.
He was silent. He crouched down next to her, the two of them by the dais, all the others, the multi-national Celts, brushing each other down, sheltering in groups in the corners of the Great Hall.
The pale man had been helped away by the Earl and some servants He'd looked just once at Moira with his damaged eye.
There were no cracks in the body of the guitar, although its face was scratched and it looked to be very deeply offended.
'What's your name?' Moira turned to the American.
'What are you called?'
'I, uh…' He grimaced, the suaveness gone, black curls sweated to his forehead. He looked as limp as the thistle he wore. 'I don't believe this has happened. Some kind of earthquake? Or what? Uh… Macbeth.'
'That's your name? My God. Here, hold this a second.' She passed him the guitar while she untangled her hair.
He held the instrument up by the neck, gripping it hard.
'You have earthquakes in these parts?'
'What?' She'd started to laugh.
She said 'Macbeth. I thought you were going to be Irish despite the thistle. New York Irish '
'Just New York. Born and raised. Mungo Macbeth. Of the Manhattan Macbeths. My mother said I should wear the kilt.' He straightened the thistle. 'We compromised,'
'That's a compromise?'
He said, 'You really are OK now?'
'Oh, I'm fine. Just fine.' Feeling like she'd come through a war – a whole war in just a few minutes.
Mungo Macbeth had been looking around at all the wreckage, where the stags' heads had fallen. Then up at the ceiling.
'There isn't one of them left hanging,' he'd said, awed. Not a goddamn one.'
He was right.
What have I done?
'I mean, is that weird?' Mungo Macbeth said. 'Or is that weird?' 'And what was it that made you think,' the Duchess said contemptuously, 'that it was you?'
She didn't sound at all like Moira. Her voice was like the refined tink you made when you tapped with your fingernail on crystal glass of the very highest quality. A most cultured lady who had never been to school.
'Not me on my own,' Moira said. 'Someone… something was… you know, like an invasion? I felt threatened. This guy… Also, I didn't like the setup anyway, generations of stalkers' trophies, and all these elitist folk, like "we are the Celtic aristocracy, we're the chosen ones…" '
The Duchess lifted her chin imperiously. 'What nonsense you talk. Do you seriously think that if you began to suddenly resent me or something, you could come in here and break everything on my walls?'
Virtually all the wall space in the luxurious caravan had been decorated with fine china.
'Your walls, no,' Moira said.
'I should think not indeed.'
'But this place, I felt very threatened.'
She kept seeing, like on some kind of videotape loop, the man unfastening her guitar case. But it was all so dreamlike, part of the hallucination summoned by the song and the strangeness of the night. She couldn't talk about it.
'I'm mixed up, Mammy.'
'Don't whine,' the Duchess said mildly.
'I'm sorry.' And the smoky form in the fireplace? The sensation of Matt – and yet not Matt?
And the knowing. Confirmed by the call.
Lottie? Lottie, listen, I know it's late, I'm sorry… Only it's Matt. I've been thinking about Matt all night…
The Duchess said, 'Have you the comb with you?'
'Surely.' Moira pulled her bag on to her knee.
'Show me.' The Earl had said he couldn't explain it; the heads had been accumulating on the walls for four or more generations, and had ever been dislodged before. Some sort of chain-reaction perhaps, the domino effect. He had suggested everyone go through to the larger drawing room, and the servants had been dispatched for extra chairs and doctors to tend the injuries, none of them apparently major.
Uninjured, Moira and the American called Macbeth had gone outside into the grounds.
'Clear my head,' he said.
The house behind them was floodlit, looked like a wedding cake. A narrow terrace followed the perimeter of the house, and they walked along it, Moira carrying the guitar in its case.
'Why are you here?' she said, drifting. 'What do you do? Or are you just rich?'
'TV,' Macbeth said. 'I make lousy TV shows. But, also we're rich, the Macbeths. Which is why they let me make my lousy TV shows, and also why I'm here. That is, my mother… she was invited. She owns the company.'
'Uh huh.' Moira nodded, as if she was interested. White flakes of bone were still silently spattering her vision, like static.
'They sent me," Macbeth said, 'on account of, A I'm about the most expendable member of the family, and B – they figured it was time I reconnected with my, uh, roots.'
Roots sometimes need to stay buried,' Moira said. 'You dig up the roots, you kill the tree.'
'I never thought about it like that '
'It's probably just a clever thing to say. You found your roots? Have you been to where Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane?'
'No,' he said. 'But I think I just found one of the three witches.'
'Really?' Moira said coldly.
'Only these days they come more beautiful.' Macbeth stopped suddenly and threw up both hands. 'Ah, shit, I apologise. I don't mean to be patronizing, or sexist or anything. It was, uh… The hair… your wonderful, long, black hair…'
'With that lonely grey strand,' Macbeth said. 'Like a vein of onyx. Or something. I recognized it soon as you came into the room tonight. See, I don't know much about Celtic history, but rock music and folk… I mean, I really do have those albums.'
'Would that you didn't,' Moira said quietly. Then she shook her hair. 'Sorry. Stupid. Forget it.'
Standing on the edge of the terrace overlooking a floodlit lawn, he cupped both palms around his face. 'I am such an asshole.'
No way she could disagree.
Macbeth hung his head. 'See, I… Aw, Jesus, I'm in this party of seriously intellectual Celtic people, and, like… what do I know? What's my contribution gonna be? What do I know? – I know a song. So I go – showing off my atom of knowledge – I go, how about you play The Comb Song? Just came out. Dumb, huh?'
She looked hard into his dark blue eyes. 'So it was you asked for the song.'
'Yeah, it just came to me to ask for that song. Then someone else took it up. It was confusing. I coulda bit off my tongue when it came clear you didn't want to do that number. I'm sorry.' He sat down on the paved area, legs hanging over the side of the terrace. He rubbed his eyes. 'All those stag heads. Like it was orchestrated.'
'You think it was somehow down to the song? Hence I'm a witch? You connect that with me?'
'Uh…' Macbeth looked very confused. 'I'm sorry. Whole thing scared the shit out of me. You feel the atmosphere in there? Before it happened?'
Headlight beams sliced through the trees along the drive. The ambulance probably. Maybe two. Maybe a whole fleet, seeing this was the Earl's place.
'Cold,' Macbeth said. 'Bone-freezing cold. I mean… shit… it isn't even cold out here… now.'
Moira had said, 'Can you excuse me? I need to make a phone call.' She didn't know how old the comb was. Maybe a few hundred years old, maybe over a thousand. She'd never wanted to take it to an expert, a valuer; its value was not that kind.
The comb was of some heavy, greyish metal. It was not very ornate and half its teeth were missing, but when she ran it through her hair it was like something was excavating deep furrows in her soul.
The Duchess weighed the comb in fingers that sprayed red and green and blue fire from the stones in her rings, eleven of them.
'My,' the Duchess said, 'you really are in a quandary, aren't you?'
'Else why would I have come.'
'And someone… You've not told me everything… I can sense a death.'
'Yes,' Moira whispered, feeling, as usual, not so much an acolyte at the feet of a guru, more like a sin-soaked Catholic at confession.
'Who is he?'
'You know… He was the guy whose band I joined when I left the university in Manchester. Must be… a long time… seventeen years ago.'
'This was before…?'
The Duchess passed the comb from one hand to the other and back again. 'There's guilt here. Remorse.'
'Well, I…I've always felt bad about leaving the band when I did. And also… three, four months ago, he wrote to me. He wanted me to do some songs with him. He was back living in his old village, which is that same place they found the ancient body in the peat. Maybe you heard about that.'
'A little.' The Duchess's forefinger stroking the rim of the comb.
'Matt was seriously hung up on this thing,' Moira said, 'the whole idea of it. This was the first time… I mean, when we split, his attitude was, like, OK, that's it, nice while it lasted but it's the end of an era. So, although we've spoken several times on the phone, it's fifteen years last January since I saw him. Um… last year it came out he'd been to the hospital, for tests, but when I called him a week or so later he said it was OK, all negative, no problem. So… Goes quiet, we exchange Christmas cards and things, as usual. Then, suddenly – this'd be three, four, months ago – he writes, wanting to get me involved in this song-cycle he's working on, maybe an album. To be called The Man in the Moss.'
'And you would have nothing to do with it?'
'I… Yeh, I don't like to bugger about with this stuff any more. I get scared… scared what effect I'm gonna have, you know? I'm pretty timid these days.'
'So you told him no.'
'So I… No, I couldn't turn it down flat. This is the guy got me started. I owe him. So I just wrote back, said I was really sorry but I was tied up, had commitments till the autumn. Said I was honoured, all this crap, and I'd be in touch. Hoping, obviously, that he'd find somebody else.'
She paused. Her voice dropped. 'He died last night. About the same time all this…'
The Duchess passed the comb back to Moira. 'I don't like the feel of it. It's cold.'
The comb is icy, brittle, oh…
Her mother was glaring at her, making her wish she hadn't come. There was always a period of this before the tea and the biscuits and the Duchess saying, How is your father? Does he ever speak of me? And she'd smile and shake her head, for her daddy still didn't know, after all these years, that she'd even met this woman.
The Duchess said, 'That trouble you got into, with the rock and roll group. You dabbled. I said to you never to dabble. I said when you were ready to follow a spiritual path you should come to me. It was why I gave you the comb.'
'Yes, Mammy, I know that.' She'd always call her Mammy deliberately in a vain effort to demystify the woman. 'I'm doing my best to avoid it. That's why…'
'The comb has not forgiven you,' the Duchess said severely. 'You have some damage to repair.'
'Aye, I know.' Moira said. 'I know that too.' She'd returned from the phone floating like a ghost through a battlefield, blood and bandages everywhere – well, maybe not so much blood, maybe not any. Maybe the blood was in her head.
'You all right, Miss Cairns? You weren't hit?'
'I'm fine. Your… I'm fine'
'You're very pale. Have a brandy.
'No. No, thank you.'
All this solicitousness. Scared stiff some of his Celtic brethren would sue the piss out of him. She was impatient with him. Him and his precious guests and his precious trophies and his reputation. What did it matter? Nobody was dying.
Yes, Moira. Yes, he is. I'm sorry… No, not long. I'll know more in the morning. Perhaps you could call back then.
She had to get out of this house, didn't want to see wounds bathed and glass and antlers swept away. Didn't want to see what had happened to the pale man.
Outside, Mungo Macbeth, of the Manhattan Macbeths, still sat with his legs dangling over the edge of the terrace.
Moira joined him, feeling chilly now in her black dress, stiff down by the waist where it had soaked up spilled Guinness from the carpet.
And, because he was there and because he was no threat any more, she began to talk to Macbeth. Talked about many things – not including Matt Castle.
In fact she was so determined not to talk about Matt – and, therefore, not to break down – that she blocked him out, and his dying, with something as powerful and as pertinent to the night: she found she was telling Mungo Macbeth about the Comb Song.
'Everybody thinks it's metaphor, you know?'
Then she thought. Only person I ever told before was M…
She said quickly, 'Your family make regular donations to the IRA?'
His eyebrows went up like they'd been pulled on wires and she stared good and hard into his eyes. They were candid and they were innocent.
'Sorry,' she said. 'I forgot. You aren't even Irish.'
'Moira, let's be factual here. I'm not even Scottish.'
She found herself smiling. Then she stopped. She said, 'Every year these gypsies would camp on the edge of the town, derelict land since before the War. Only this year it was to be redeveloped, and so the gypsies had to go. My daddy was the young guy the council sent to get rid of them. He was scared half to death of what they might do to him, the gypsy men, who would naturally all be carrying knives.'
Some night creature ran across the tiered lawn below them, edge to edge.
'My gran told me this. My daddy never speaks of it. Not ever. But it wasn't the gypsy men he had cause to fear, so much as the women. They had the poor wee man seduced.'
Macbeth raised an eyebrow, but not much.
'Like, how could he resist her? This quiet Presbyterian boy with the horn-rimmed spectacles and his first briefcase. How could he resist this, this…' Moira swung her legs and clicked her heels on the terrace wall.
'I can sympathize,' Macbeth said.
'She was a vision,' Moira said. 'Still is. He'd have laid down his beloved council job for her after the first week, but that wasn't what they wanted – they wanted the camp site until the autumn, for reasons of their own, whatever that was all about.
And they got it. My daddy managed to keep stalling the council, his employers, for reasons of his own. And then it all got complicated because she wasn't supposed to get herself pregnant. Certainly not by him.'
She'd glossed over the rest, her daddy's ludicrous threats to join the gypsies, her gran's battle for custody of the child, the decision by the gypsy hierarchy that, under the circumstances, it might be politic to let the baby go rather than be saddled with its father and pursued by his mother.
And then her own genteel, suburban, Presbyterian upbringing.
'And the rest is the song. Which you know.'
The American, sitting on the wall, shook his head, incredulous. 'This is prime-time TV, you know that? This is a goddamn mini-series.'
'Don't you even think about it, Mr Macbeth,' Moira said, 'or Birnam Wood'll be corning to Dunsinane faster than you can blink.'
'Yeah, uh, the wood. I was gonna ask you. The scene in the wood where you get the comb…?'
'Poetic licence. What happened was, the gypsies were in town, right, just passing through. Two of them – I was twelve – these two gypsies were waiting for me outside the school. I'm thinking, you know… run like hell. But, aw… it was… intriguing. And they seemed OK, you know? And the camp was very public. So I went with them. Well… she'd be about thirty then and already very revered, you could tell. Even I could see she was my mother.'
'Holy shit,' said Macbeth.
'We didn't talk much. Nobody was gonna try and kidnap me or anything. Nobody offered me anything. Except the comb. She gave me that.'
'And is it a magic comb?'
'It's just a comb,' Moira said, more sharply than she intended. 'He's close to you,' the Duchess said.
'The departed one.'
'We'll have some tea,' the Duchess said in a slightly raised voice, and a young woman at once emerged from the kitchen with a large silver tray full of glistening white china. 'One of my nieces,' the Duchess said, 'Zelda…' There would always be nieces and nephews to fetch and carry for the Duchess.
She lifted the lid of the pot and sniffed. 'Earl Grey. Never mind. You should take a rest, Moira. Unravel yourself.'
'Maybe I'd rather not see what's inside of me.'
The Duchess stirred the tea in the pot, making it stronger, making the Earl Grey's rich perfume waft out. 'Maybe you should get away, and when you get back your problems will be in perspective. Go somewhere bland. St Moritz, Barbados…'
'Jesus, Mammy, how much money you think I'm making?'
'Well, England then. Tunbridge Wells or somewhere.'
'You know what I mean.'
'Yeah. You're telling me it's something I'm not gonna get away from no matter where I go.'
'You said there was damage to repair. You think I damaged Matt Castle?'
'I don't kn… No! No, I don't see how I could have.'
'That's all right, then,' said the Duchess. She smiled.
Moira felt profoundly uneasy. 'Mammy, how was he when he died? Can you tell me that?'
'Moira, you're a grown woman. You know this man's essence has not returned to the source. I can say no more than that.'
Moira felt the weight of her bag on her knees, the bag with the comb in it. The bag felt twice as heavy as before, like a sack of stolen bullion.
She said in a rush, 'Mammy, somebody was after the comb. I had to fight for it.'
'Yes. That happens. The comb represents a commitment. Sometimes you have to decide whether or not you want to renew it.'
'So it was this struggle which caused… See, I'm confused. I feel exhausted, but I feel I made it through to a new level, a new plateau. But that usually means something heavy's on the way. Well, doesn't it?'
The Duchess blinked. 'How is your father?' she said brightly. 'Docs he speak of me often?' She said goodbye to Donald at the gate and patted the Dobermans. Her old BMW was parked about fifty yards away near a derelict petrol station. Parked behind it was a car which had not been there before, a grey Metro with a hire-firm sticker on the rear window.
Leaning against the Metro was a man wearing a dinner jacket over a black t-shirt. On the t-shirt it said in red, I ¦ Govan. The remains of a thistle hung out of one lapel of the jacket.
His face fumbled a grin.
'Uh, hi,' he said.
Moira was furious.
'You followed me! You fucking followed me!'
'Listen… Moira… See, this has been… Like, this was the most bizarre, dramatic, momentous night of my life, you know?'
'So? You've had a sheltered life. Is that supposed…?'
'I can't walk away from this. Am I supposed to like, push it aside, maybe introduce it as an anecdote over dinner with my associates?'
Moira stood with her key in the door of the BMW. She wanted to say, OK, while you're here maybe you can tell me something about a tall, pale man with white hair.
Instead, she said, 'Macbeth, you shouldn't believe everything a woman tells you when she's in shock.'
'I… Goddammit, I saw. And I tried to sleep on it and I couldn't, so this morning…' Mungo Macbeth looked sheepish and spread his hands…
She gave him a cursory glance intended to wither, fade him out.
'I figured maybe you could use some help,' he said.
OK,' she said. 'You see those gates? Behind those gates is a guy with two huge and ferocious dogs. The dogs'll do anything the guy says… And the guy – he'll do anything I say. You got the message?'
'Couldn't we go someplace? Get a bite to eat?'
'No, we could not.' Moira opened the driver's door of the BMW and got in, wound down the window. 'You think I need a strong male shoulder to lean on, that it? Or maybe a bedpost?'
Macbeth said helplessly, 'I just think… I just think you're an amazing person.'
'Macbeth…" She sighed. 'Just go away, huh?'
He nodded, expressionless, turned back to his hire car. He looked like he might cry.
This was ridiculous.
'Hey, Macbeth.. Moira leaned back out of the window, nodded at his T-shirt. 'You ever actually been to Govan?'
'Aw, hell…' Macbeth shrugged. 'I cruised most of those Western Isles. Just don't recall which is which.'
Moira found a grin, or the grin found her. Hurriedly, she put the car into gear, drove away, and when she looked back there was only a bus, a long way behind.
From Dawber's Book of Bridelow.
Fine beers have been brewed in the Bridelow area since time immemorial, the most famous being the almost-black Bridelow Bitter.
This, or something similar, was first produced commercially, on an relatively small scale, by Elsie Berry and her sons in the late seventeenth century, using a species of aromatic bog-myrtle as a preservative. The Berry family began by providing ale for the Bridelow pub. The Man I'th Moss, but demand grew swiftly in communities up to fifteen miles away.
The Bridelow Brewery as we know it today was founded in the early nineteenth century by Thomas Horridge, a businessman from Chesterfield who bought out the Berry Family and whose enterprise was to provide employment for many generations of Bridelow folk. He at once began work on the construction of the first proper road across the Moss to facilitate the movement of his brewery wagons.
Descendants of Thomas Horridge continued to develop the industry, and the family became Bridelow's greatest benefactors, building the village hall, enabling major repairs to be carried out to the ancient church and continuing to facilitate new housing as recently as the 1950s.
In the bar at The Man I'th Moss, lunchtime, Young Frank Manifold said, in disgust, 'Bloody gnat's piss!'
And angrily pushed his glass away.
'I'll have draught Bass next time,' Young Frank said. Never thought I'd be saying that in this pub. Never.'
'Eh, tha's just bitter, lad.' said Frank Manifold Snr, who preferred Scotch anyway. 'Tha's a right to feel bitter, mind, I'm not saying tha's not… Know what they've done, now, Ernie? Only paid off our drivers and replaced um wi' their own blokes.'
'Ken and Peter?'
'Paid off! Cut down lorries from five to two – bigger uns, like. Needed experienced HGV drivers, they reckoned. Makes you spit.'
Ernie, who also was on whisky, had a sip out of Young Frank's beer glass. 'Lad's right, I'm afraid,' he said. 'It's gone off.'
'Well, thank you!' Young Frank said devoutly. 'Thank you very much, Mr Dawber.'
'Only just don't go shouting it around the place,' Ernie muttered. 'Lottie's got to sell the stuff and she's enough problems.'
'No, she doesn't,' said Young Frank, back-row smart-arse in Ernie's top class fourteen years ago. 'Doesn't have to sell it at all no more. Free house, int it?'
Lottie wasn't here this lunchtime. Stan Burrows, who'd also been made redundant from the brewery, was minding the bar. Stan said, 'I heard as how Gannons was kicking up, claiming they'd been sabotaged, not given proper recipe, like. Threatening legal action, what I heard.'
'Balls,' said Young Frank, glaring at his discarded glass. 'They don't give a shit.'
Ernie Dawber, on his usual stool at the end of the bar, by the telephone, pondered this. The way he saw it, there was no way the Horridge family could have got away with not providing Gannons with the correct recipe. And why should they want to, with Shaw Horridge on the Board?
Yet it was a fact. Since the brewery had been taken over, the stuff had been slowly shedding its distinctive flavour.
Surprising, because it was well known that Gannons, whose bestselling product was a fizzy lager with a German name produced down Matlock way, had been anxious for some time to acquire their own genuine, old-established Real Ale – and would therefore be expected to treat Bridelow beer with more than a modicum of respect.
Ernie decided he'd better go up to the Hall one night and have a bit of a chat with Shaw Horridge or his mother. Bridelow Black Bitter had a reputation. Even if the brewery was in new hands, even if there'd been this swingeing 'rationalization', which meant firing half the lads, it was still Bridelow beer.
Gnat's piss! By 'eck, he'd never thought to hear that. When his daughter rang from Oxford, in the early afternoon, the Rector barely made it to the phone in time.
'Were you in the garden?' Catherine asked him suspiciously, and Hans didn't deny it. It had taken him almost a minute to hobble from the kitchen to the study.
Pointless, however, trying to conceal anything from Cathy. 'How's the knee?' she demanded at once and with a certain menace.
'Oh,' Hans said, as airily as he could manage with clenched teeth. 'Could be worse, you know.'
'I've no doubt that it could, Pop. But worse than what is what I'd like to know.'
Hans tried to keep from screaming out loud as he fell into the window chair, pulling the phone on to his knees.
Cathy said, 'I don't suppose you'd even tell me if you'd had to have a Zimmer frame screwed into the back of the pulpit.'
The still-aggressive sun, having gouged chunks out of the church wall, began to attack the study window, and when the Rector twisted away from it, his left knee felt like a slab of volcanic rock with a core of molten lava.
'Well, actually,' he said, abandoning pretence with a sigh, 'it couldn't be a lot worse.'
'That's it,' his daughter said. 'I'm on my way. Pop. Expect me for supper.'
'No, no, no. Your studies… whatever they are.'
Cathy said crisply, 'In a post-graduate situation, as I keep explaining, you get a fair bit of leeway. I'm coming up.'
'No. Listen. You don't understand.' Raising his voice, trying to shout down the pain as much as her. 'I'm getting a lot of help. The Mothers' Union… terribly kind, and… look, when I need you, I promise I'll be in touch. You know I will.'
He swallowed a great slab of breath and bit his tongue, jamming his palm over the mouthpiece just in time. Change the subject. Talk about something else. 'Erm, Matt Castle… Poor Matt died on Sunday night.'
'It was a mercy, Catherine.'
'Yes, I suppose it would be. Did…?'
'Oh, very quick. In the end, he spent no more than a few hours in hospital. Kept signing himself out, you see. Determined to die in Bridelow. He was even out on the Moss yesterday morning, I'm told, with Lottie and the boy. Brave man. Poor Matt.'
'What's going to happen to the pub?'
'She'll stay on, I imagine. For a while. You know what she's like. Terribly independent. Old Mrs Wagstaff sent one of her special potions across, to help her sleep. Lottie bunged it back at once, with Willie. She's very resistant to all that.'
'When's the funeral?'
'You're going to have difficulty, aren't you? Especially if it gets colder.'
Putting her finger on it, as usual. So Hans had to come out with what, apart from the pain, was on his mind. 'Cathy, they've given me a curate.'
'Oh,' she said, surprised. 'Well, you certainly could do win the help. But it, er… that could be a headache, couldn't it?'
'It was only a matter of time,' Hans said, 'parish this size. Suppose I've been holding out. Putting it off. That is, I realise this sort of thing – new chaps – has always taken care of itself in the past. I mean, I myself was not… well, not, perhaps, the man they would have chosen at the time. But one gets acclimatized. Headache? Hmm… let's hope not.'
'Anybody I know?'
'Oh, a young fellow, few months out of college. Simon's very keen… Well, actually not that young. Late twenties, I suppose. Used to be a teacher. Joel Beard, his name. Pleasant enough lad. Slightly earnest, but so many of them are, aren't they?'
Cathy said, 'Jesus Christ.'
Hans didn't say anything. His daughter never blasphemed for effect.
'I was at the high school with him.' Hans could hear her frowning. 'For a year or two. That is, he was four or five years in front of me. He was Head Boy. One of those who takes it seriously. Very authoritative, very proper. Seemed more of a grown-up than some of the teachers, do you know what I mean? Most of the girls were crazy about him. But I was never into Greek gods.'
She stopped. 'Pop, listen, you do know he was at St Oswald's, don't you?'
Yes, he did. He was surprised, though, that she knew the significance of this. 'It's not necessarily a drawback, you know, Cathy.'
He tried to straighten his right leg and, although there was no great pain in this one, the right knee fought him all the way. Both knees now. God save us. Wheelchair job soon. Or one could go into hospital and leave Joel Beard in charge.
'Simon thinks he's a star,' he said. 'Which means, I suppose, that the silly sod's fallen in love with him. He used, apparently… Joel, this is… he used to be some sort of Born Again Christian. Before he decided to go straight, as it were.'
You call two years at St Oswald's going straight? The most notoriously fundamentalist theological college in the country?'
'I like to think I'm broadminded,' Hans said.
'Sure, but how broadminded is Ma Wagstaff?'
'Look,' Hans said, 'people adjust. Bridelow adjusts people. I'd rather have a fundamentalist or a charismatic than some bureaucrat with a briefcase and a mobile phone. Anyway, the Diocese likes him. "He's tough, he's athletic" – this is Simon talking – "and he's bringing God back into the arena." Bit of muscle. They're into that these days. The anti-pansy lobby. Even Simon, ironically. I mean, all right, I could refuse him, I could tell them to take him back, say he doesn't fit it… but somebody's going to ask, why doesn't he fit? And anyway, who's to say…? They might not be… orthodox here, but they have a strong faith and strong, simple principles. Ma Wagstaff? Very broadminded in some ways.'
'Hmmm,' said Cathy, unconvinced.
'However, rest assured, I won't let him take Matt's funeral. I suspect the ladies have plans.'
'God, no, you mustn't let him do that.'
'So if I have to go out there on a pair of crutches… or a Zimmer frame.'
'Don't you go talking about Zimmer frames. Pop.'
'That's when I'll come,' Catherine decided. 'I'll come on Wednesday night. I'll get you through the funeral. I won't have you talking about Zimmer frames.'
'I'm not going to argue, my phone bill's getting ridiculous. I'll see you Wednesday night.'
And she hung up on him.
'Thank you,' the Rector said with resignation into the dead phone. 'I suppose.' The Hall had once been surrounded by parkland, although now it just looked like ordinary fields with a well-ordered assembly of mature trees – beech and sycamore and horse-chestnut.
The trees were higher now, but not yet high enough to obscure the soaring stone walls of the brewery, four storeys high, an early Victorian industrial castle, as proud and firm in its setting as St Bride's Church.
She hated it now.
You could not see the brewery from the drawing room. But with all the trees nearly bare again, Eliza Horridge, from her window seat, could see the village in detail. She supposed she'd always preferred autumn and winter for this very reason: it brought her closer to Bridelow.
The sad irony of this made her ache. On the night the redundancies had been announced, she'd gone – rather bravely, she thought – down to the post office to buy some stamps which she didn't need. She'd just had to get it over, face the hostility.
Except there hadn't been any. Nobody had screamed Judas at her, nobody had ignored her or been short with her.
But nobody had said a word about the jobs either. They didn't blame her personally. But Liz Horridge blamed herself and since that night had never been back into Bridelow.
Self-imposed exile in this warm and shabby-luxurious house with its pictures and memories of Arthur Horridge.
Self imposed; could go out whenever she wanted. Couldn't she?
She snatched up the phone on its second ring to wrench her mind from what it couldn't cope with.
'Yes?' The number was ex-directory. There were too people down there with whom she could no longer bear to speak.
'Yes? Hello? Is that you, Shaw?'
Something told her she was in for a shock, and her eyes clutched at the view of the village for support, following the steep cobbled street past the pub, past the post office, past the line of tiny stone cottages to the churchyard.
'Liiiiz…' Mellifluously stretching the word, as he used to, into an embrace. 'Super!' Shattering her.
'Thought I saw you last week, m'girl, in Buxton. Was in a wine bar. Thought you came up the street. No?'
'Couldn't have been,' she scraped out. 'Never go…'
'Thought you sensed me… turned your head so sharply.'
'… to Buxton.' Her voice faded.
'And looked at the window of the wine bar, with a sort of sadness in your eyes. Couldn't see me, of course.'
She stared down at the village, but it was like watching a documentary on the television. Or a soap opera, because she could identify most of the people and could map out the paths of their lives from their movements, between the post office, the pub and the church.
'… perhaps it wasn't you, after all,' he said.
She could even hear their voices when the wind was in the right direction. And yes, it was a lot like the television – a thick glass screen between them, and she was very much alone, and the screen was growing darker.
'Or perhaps it was you as you used to be. Those chestnut curls of yore.'
Her hand went automatically to her hair, as coarse and dry now as the moorland grasses. She grabbed a handful of it to stop the hand shaking.
'One wonders,' he mused. 'Your hair grey now, Liz? Put on weight or angular and gaunt? I'd so much like to see.'
'What do you want?' Liz croaked.
'If you were with me, I suppose you'd keep in trim, dye your hair, have your skin surgically stretched. Probably wouldn't work, but you'd try. If you were with me.'
'How dare you?' Stung at last into anger. 'Where did you get this number?'
She felt alone and cold, terribly exposed, almost ill with it. 'What are you trying to do?'
He said, 'How's dear old Ma these days? Is she well?'
She said nothing.
'Perhaps you don't see her. Or any of them. The word is you've become something of a recluse. All alone in your rotting mansion.'
'What nonsense,' she said breathlessly.
'Also, one hears the Mothers' Union isn't as well supported as it was. Sad, secular times, Liz. What's it all coming to? Silly old bats, eh?'
'They had your measure,' Liz said, with a spurt of spirit. 'They saw you off.'
'Oh, long time ago. Things change. Barriers weaken, old sweetheart, I've been thinking, why don't we meet up?'
'Love to be able to come to Buxton, wouldn't you? Love to be smart and sprightly and well-dressed. Give anything to have those chestnut curls back. Perhaps it was you after all, sitting in your emotional prison and day-dreaming of Buxton. Perhaps that's what I saw. Perhaps you projected yourself. Ever try that, Liz? Should do. Could be a way out – send the spirit, give the body the bottle to go for it. Perhaps I'll drop in on you. Like that, would you?'
'You can't! They won't let you!'
'Times change, m'girl, times change.'
'What do you mean?'
'Will you tell dearest Ma I called?'
She said nothing.
'Of course you won't. Don't see her any more, do you? You don't see any of them. Do you… Liiiiiiz?'
She crashed the phone down, and she and the phone sat and trembled.
'Alone,' she said, and began to weep.
'I thought perhaps I might leave early,' Alice said. 'I've got a check-up at the dentist's in Buxton at six and I've got some stuff to pick up at Boots, and I don't like the look of the weather. Is that all right?'
'Suppose so,' Chrissie said, bending over the filing cabinet. Roger had arrived mid-morning, seeming preoccupied, and had not even mentioned their lunch-date, just sloped off to some appointment. Now Chrissie would have to check everything, switch off the lights and lock up.
'You don't mind being alone with…' Alice giggled. '… him?'
'Couldn't be safer,' Chrissie said. 'Rog… Dr Hall was telling me he hasn't got one.'
'Hasn't he?' Alice was putting her stuff away in her calfskin sandbag. She flicked a card across the desk at Chrissie. 'See, there's my appointment.'
'The dentist's. Just to show you I'm not making it up.'
'I never thought you were making it up, Alice, OK?'
'Why hasn't he got one?' asked Alice without much interest. She was a good ten years older than Chrissie, had grown-up kids and a big house. Didn't need the job but Chrissie supposed that in Alice's circle it was nice to say you worked for the University, even if it was only as a number two secretary in an overgrown Portacabin outside Congleton.
Chrissie said, 'Part of the ritual, apparently, when he was sacrificed.'
'I suppose that would be quite a sacrifice for a man,' said Alice, pretending to shudder.
'Actually, it's possible they just cut it off after he was dead.'
'I see.' Alice shrugged into her sheepskin coat. Hard luck, Chrissie thought. Now you'll never know how big they were in pre-Christian times.
Alice took her car keys out of her bag, stuck the bag under an arm. 'So it's all right then, if I leave now?'
'Yes,' Chrissie said. Yes, yes, yes! she screamed to herself.
But when Alice had gone, she decided it wasn't all right. Bloody fat-arsed cow got away with too much. Spends most of the day experimenting with this disgusting sea-green nail varnish, then pisses off to sprawl on the sofa and moan to her husband about how overworked she is.
Chrissie picked up the dentist's appointment card which Alice had left behind. It looked authentic enough, if you didn't happen to know Alice's eldest daughter was a dental receptionist.
It was 4.30. A dim grey afternoon, with all the lights on. She couldn't herself go in case somebody (Roger) rang, or one of the research students came in to raid the files.
She stared across the office at a double-locked metal door.
Just me and you, chum, and you've got no dick.' Chrissie laughed.
Under the laughter, there was a soft noise from behind the metal door.
Chrissie breathed in hard. 'Who's that?'
There was silence.
Yes, that was it – just a soft noise. Not a thump, not a clang. She looked around and over her shoulder. The room had three desks, seven filing cabinets and two big metal-framed bookcases. It was garishly lit by fluorescent tubes and the windows had Venetian blinds. Between the blinds she could see the deserted college playing-fields and, beyond, the tops of container-lorries on the motorway.
She was alone in the Field Centre and there was nobody apparent outside. 'Now, look,' Chrissie said, 'this is not on. This is not bloody on.'
It was going dark out there.
The soft noise came again, like a heavy cushion – an old-fashioned one, with brocade – being tossed on to a sofa.
Bravely, Chrissie slipped off her shoes and moved quietly to the metal door.
Should she check this out? Dare she?
Although she'd never been in there alone, she knew where there was a key.
She put her ear to the door.
There was silence. Shaw's Porsche was coming up the drive, black as a funeral – did it have to be a black one? She could tell by the speed that it wouldn't be stopping at the house but continuing up to the brewery. There was a new link road for the brewery lorries, so they never grumbled past the Hall these days, and no local vehicles, except for Shaw's Mercedes and his Porsche, ever laboured up from Bridelow any more.
So the Hall, sealed off from both the brewery and village, irrelevant now to both, might as well not exist.
'Nor me,' Liz Horridge whispered into the empty, high-ceilinged room with its bland Regency-striped wallpaper and its cold, crystal chandelier. 'I've become irrelevant to everybody.'
Even Shaw – famous mother's boy – had quite casually replaced her in his life. Always away at meetings, in Matlock, Buxton, Sheffield, London even. Or with his girlfriend, the mysterious Therese.
With whom Shaw appeared obsessed. As well he might. The girl was far too beautiful for him – at thirty-one, he was at least ten years older, losing his hair, conspicuously lacking in style despite his costly education. But being seen with Therese (Therese Beaufort, no less) had done wonders for his confidence, and his lifelong stutter had virtually disappeared.
Her delight had turned to a damp dismay. Years of speech therapy, of love and patient coaxing at the fireside. And what was it that finally killed Shaw's stutter?
She could weep. Had wept.
And wept and wept.
Last week he'd made her position quite appallingly clear. If I were you, Mother,' he'd said in passing – everything Shaw said to her these days appeared to be in passing – 'If I were you, I'd be off. Out of here. Somewhere warm. The Channel Islands. Malta.'
She clung to the sofa. 'But I don't want a holiday, Shaw.'
'No, not a holiday. I mean, for good. To live. Why not? It's warm, it's civilized. And absolutely everyone would want to come and stay with you.'
'What are you saying?
Shaw had smiled affably and dashed off to his 'meeting'.
Every day since, she'd sat here, by this bay window, and listened to his voice in her head saying so smoothly, without a hint of impediment, Somewhere warm. The Channel Islands, Malta…
And envisaged Therese Beaufort, in some slinky designer costume, drink in hand, languid in this window, gazing out on her property.
Liz Horridge thought she could see old Mrs Wagstaff waddling up the main street of Bridelow towards the church. Or maybe it wasn't. Maybe she just needed to see the old girl.
How's dear old Ma these days? Is she well?
Three decades ago, in the crowded parlour full of bottles, two cats on the hearth, Ma Wagstaff cradling Liz's head. Sleeping in the little bedroom. If he comes to you… scream. Don't matter what time.
And now, Perhaps I'll drop in. Wouldn't you like that?
You can't. She'll stop you.
Things change. Barriers weaken.
She looked out at the village, willing it closer. She'd give anything to be able to shatter that damned glass screen before it all went black. Well, look at it this way – there was no way anyone could have got in there without her or Alice knowing about it. Therefore there was no one in there, except for… well, yes.
The spare key was filed in the third filing cabinet. Under K, for key.
The problem was, suppose something was amiss in there? Suppose a rat or something had got in? Suppose something electrical had malfunctioned, threatening the bogman's welfare? And therefore Roger's. And hers.
Tentatively, she unlocked the third filing cabinet and located the key. It was smoky-coloured steel, about four inches long.
Who would Roger blame if something had gone wrong with the bogman, his future? Who was in charge of the office in Roger's absence?
Filed under B was a second and longer key for the double lock to the inner room, the specimen room, the bogman's bedroom.
She just rather wished, as she pushed in the first key, that she hadn't acquiesced so readily to Alice's 'request' to leave early.
Chrissie slipped on her cardigan. It would be cold in there, wouldn't it? Mustn't get the shivers, that would never do.
The metal door opened with a soft vacuum belch.
'Sorry to intrude,' Chrissie said softly.
Behind the door was a small hallway where two new Portacabins had been pushed together. This was where the white coats were kept, and there were a couple of lavatory cubicles and a washbasin. Then there was another, unlocked door leading to an anteroom with a desk. And then the innermost metal door- with a double lock through which minions like her and Alice were not supposed to venture.
So there couldn't possibly be anybody in there.
She'd been in there a couple of times, but only with Roger and not for very long. So she knew what he looked like, no problem about that.
The second key turned easily, twice, and Chrissie walked into an almost complete but alarmingly pleasant darkness which hummed faintly.
She didn't move. Apart from the hum, it was very, very quiet. Nothing scurried away. She'd left the door open behind her to allow a little light in there, but the velvety darkness absorbed it all within a yard or two of the opening and she had to fumble about for switches.
It was not cold. This was it. Well, of course, this was why it seemed so pleasant. The temperature was controlled to body heat. Bog body heat. He'd apparently been freeze-dried and then maintained in a controlled environment. She rather hoped he was packed away or at least covered up with something.
… do you touch him much?
Chrissie's hand found a switch, and the lights came on, flickering blue laboratory light, white on white tiles.
Mortuary light. Chrissie tensed, breathed in sharply.
But, of course, she was right. There was absolutely nobody here.
… of course I touch him. He feels like a big leather cricket bag. You should pop in sometime, be an experience for you.
Actually he was rather smaller than the cricket bags Chrissie had seen when her ex-husband used to play.
He was lying on his table in his heat-regulated bubble, looking like somebody who'd spent far too long in a solarium.
Yes, he had a lovely tan.
Still hard to think of him as an actual corpse. He was too old. But still, ancient as he was, when you thought about it, he was probably in a better state of preservation than Chrissie's late grandad was by now.
Chrissie laughed at her stupid self.
She leaned over the bogman, curled up under his plastic bubble.
'All right then, chuck?'
She wondered what he'd sound like if he could reply, what language he spoke. Welsh, probably. She looked around. There were a couple of wires, naked rubber, emerging from the bottom of the container. Pretty primitive. The British Museum boffins would probably have a fit.
But nothing seemed amiss.
'I'll leave you, then,' Chrissie said. She tried to see his face. His nose was squashed, like a boxer's. There were whiskers around his contorted lips, which were half open, revealing the brown stumps of his teeth.
There was a fold in the side of his neck, a flap, like another lip. She thought, God, that's where they cut his throat, poor little devil.
Beaten over the head, garrotted, throat cut and then they chopped his dick off.
Automatically, she glanced down to where his groin ought to be, where the body was bent.
And then Chrissie made a little involuntary noise at the back of her throat.
She glanced back at his face.
His twisted lips… leering at her now.
Her eyes flicked rapidly back to his groin, back to his face, back to his groin. She felt her own lips contorting, and she made the little noise again, a high-pitched strangled yelp, and she began to back off towards the door.
But she couldn't stop looking at him.
… what, no…
… penis… must have chopped it off. Part of the ritual.
Chrissie's hands began to tingle as they scrabbled frantically behind her back for the door-handle.
Get me out of here.
Far from being emasculated, the bogman, under his bubble, had the most enormous erection she had ever seen.
From Dawber's Book of Bridelow:
Bridelow Moss is believed to be over four thousand years old, but there has been considerable erosion over the past two centuries and the bog appears to have been affected by pollution from industry twenty or more miles away, with much of the vegetation being destroyed and the surface becoming even darker due to soot-deposits.
Erosion is gradually exposing the hills and valleys submerged under the blanket bog, and many fragments of long-dead trees, commonly known as 'bog oak', have been discovered.
Because of the preservative qualities of peat, wood recovered from the Moss is usually immensely strong and was once considered virtually indestructible…
There was frost on the morning of the day Matt Castle was to be buried, and the heaped soil beside the prepared grave looked like rock.
The grave was in the highest corner of the churchyard, and the Rector could see it from the window of his study. A shovel was set in the soil, a stiff, scarecrow shape against the white morning.
Hans turned back to the room and to the kind of problem he didn't need, today of all days.
'I didn't know who else to come to,' the young farmer said, the empty teacup like a thimble in his massive hands. 'I've got kids.'
'Have you told the police?'
'What's the point?' The fanner wore black jeans and a tan leather jacket. He wasn't a churchgoer but Hans had christened his second child.
'If you've been losing stock…'
'Aye, one ram. But that were months ago. I told t'coppers about that. What could they do? Couldn't stake out the whole moor, could they? Anyway, like they said, it's not a crime any more, witchcraft.'
'Devil worship,' Hans said gently. 'There's a difference. Usually.'
'All bloody same to me. With respect. Like I say, it's not summat they warn you about at agricultural college, Vicar. Sheep scab's one thing, Satanism's summat else.'
'Yes.' Hans didn't know what to do about this. The man wasn't interested in counselling, sympathy, platitudes; he wanted practical help.
'So I've come to you, like.' His name was Sam Davis. This was his first farm. A challenge – seventy acres, and more than half of it basically unfarmable moorland, with marsh and heather, great stone outcrops… and the remains of two prehistoric stone circles half a mile apart.
'Cause it's your job, really, int it?' said Sam Davis, thrusting out his ample jaw. A lad with responsibilities. Two kids, a nervy wife and no neighbours. 'T'Devil. An' all his works, like.'
And there he really had put his finger on it, this lad. If this was not a minister's job, what was? Hans tried to straighten his leg. Some minister he was, took him half an hour to climb into the pulpit.
'Tell me again,' he said. "There was the remains of a fire. In the centre of the circle. Now… on the previous occasion, you actually found blood. And, er, the ram's head, of course. On the stone.'
'Just like they wanted me to find it,' Sam Davis said. 'Only it weren't me as found it, it were t'little girl.' He set his cup down in the hearth, as if afraid he was going to crush it in his anger.
'Yes. Obviously very distressing. For all of you. But you know… It's easy for me to say this, obviously, I'm not living in quite such an exposed…'
'Hang on now, Vicar, I'm not…'
'I know… you're a big lad and well capable of taking care of your family. The actual point I was trying to make is that it's easy to get this kind of thing out of proportion. Quite often it's youngsters. They read books and see films about Satanism, they hear of these ritual places, the stone circles… not in Transylvania or somewhere but right here within twenty miles of Manchester and Sheffield…'
'So you think it's youngsters, then.'
'I don't know. All I'm saying is it's often kids. The kind, if you saw them, you could probably tuck a couple under each arm.'
'Aye, well, like I say, it's not me… so much as the wife. I wanted to wait up there, maybe surprise 'em, like, give 'em a bloody good hiding, but…'
'I think your wife was right,' Hans said. 'Don't get into a vendetta situation if you can help it. It's probably a phase, a fad. They'll go off and find another circle in a week or two, or perhaps they'll simply grow out of it. You've told the police, and apart from the, er, the ram…'
'I've not told coppers about last night. Only you. There's nowt to see. Only ashes. No blood. No bits.'
'How far is the nearest circle from where you live?'
'Half a mile… three-quarters. But it's a tricky climb at night, can't do it wi'out a light, and wi' a light they'd see me comin'. Jeep's no bloody use either, on that ground.'
'So you saw the fire…'
'Bit of a red glow, that were all.'
'And your wife heard…'
'She thought she heard. Like I say, could've bin a sheep… fox… owl… rabbit.'
'But she thought it was…'
'Aye,' said Sam Davis. 'A babby.' 'There's a dragon,' the boy said, and his bottom lip was trembling. 'There is…!'
'Gerroff,' said Willie Wagstaff.
He'd been for his morning paper and didn't plan to bugger about on a day as cold as this, wanted to get home and put a match to his fire.
'You go an' look, Uncle Willie.'
This was Benjie, nearly eight, Willie's youngest sister Sally's lad. Tough little bugger as a rule. He had The Chief with him, an Alsatian, Benjie's minder.
Willie folded up his paper, stuck it under his arm. 'What you on about at all?'
'…'s a dragon, Uncle Willie…'s 'orrible…'
He was about to cry. Pale too. Cheeks ought to be glowing on a morning like this. Especially with having the day off school, to go to Matt's funeral.
Then again, could be that was at the bottom of this. Death, funerals, everybody talking hushed, a big hole being dug in the churchyard for the feller he called Uncle Matt. And Benjie trying to understand it all, seeing this great big dragon.
'All right,' Willie said, pretending he hadn't noticed the lad was upset. 'I'll buy it. Where's this dragon?'
'Oh, aye. And what were you doin' on t'Moss on your own then, eh?'
'I weren't on me own, Uncle Willie. T'Chief were wi' me. An' 'e dint like it neither.'
The big dog flopped his mouth open, stuck his tongue out and looked inscrutable.
'Gerroff,' said Willie. 'That dog's scared of nowt. All right, lead the way. But if you're havin' me on, you little Arab, I'll…' When the farmer had gone, Catherine came in with a mid-morning mug of tea for Hans, and he asked her, 'You hear any of that?'
'Bits.' His daughter sat on the piano stool. She was wearing a plain black jumper and baggy, striped trousers with turn-ups. 'Got the gist. What are you going to do about it, Pop?'
'Well,' said Hans, 'I don't really know. Obviously I don't like the sound of this baby business. And I'm not one to generalize about hysterical women. But still, I think if a child had gone missing virtually anywhere in the country we'd have heard about it, don't you?'
Cathy looked serious, as she often did these days, as if she'd suddenly decided it was time to shoulder the full responsibility of being an adult, as distinct from a student.
'No,' she said. 'Not necessarily.'
'What do you…?' Hans looked puzzled. Then he said, 'Oh. That.'
'It's been exaggerated a lot, of course, but that doesn't mean it doesn't go on, Pop.'
'You're beginning to sound like Joel Beard.'
'Oh, I don't think so.'
'Well,' said Hans, 'if there really is a possibility of something of that nature, then he should tell the police, shouldn't he? But where's his evidence? His wife thought she heard a baby crying. As he said, it could have been any one of a dozen animals, or the wind or…'
Cathy said, 'A friend of mine at college did a study of so-called ritual child abuse. What it amounts to, in most of the cases which have been proved, is that the ritual bits – the devil masks and the candles and so on – are there to support the abuse clement. Simply to scare the children into submission. So in most cases we're not talking about actual Devil worship…'
'Just extreme evil,' Hans said. 'Where's the difference exactly?'
'I'm not an expert,' Cathy said, 'but I rather think there is a difference.' She grinned slyly. 'I think it's something Ma Wagstaff could explain to you if you caught her in the right mood.'
Cheeky little madam. Hans smiled. 'I'm the accredited holy man in these parts, in case you'd forgotten. Anyway, why didn't young Sam go to Ma Wagstaff for advice?'
'Because he hasn't lived around here very long. He doesn't know the way things operate yet.'
How they changed. There'd been a time, not so long ago, when Cathy had been dismissive, to say the least, of Ma Wagstaff and all she stood for.
'And you do, do you?' Hans said. 'You know how things operate.'
'I'm getting an inkling.'
'Perhaps we should discuss this sometime.'
'I don't think so,' Cathy said.
'I don't think words can really pin it down,' she said. Or that we should try to.'
She looked at him blandly. All open-faced and pain-free. Twenty-three years old, a light-haired, plain-faced girl – even Hans had to admit she was no great beauty. However, there was a knowingness about her that he hadn't been aware of before.
He felt old. Suddenly she was starting to look wiser than he felt. How they changed. Every time they came home from University they'd grown stronger and more alien. Catherine studying archaeology at Oxford and Barney, her twin (who he'd rather imagined would follow him into the Church) at the London School of Economics and now researching for a prominent Conservative MP – Barney, the one-time Young Socialist.
'Have you got a boyfriend, Cathy?' he asked suddenly.
'Why do you ask?'
'Because I'm your only surviving parent.'
Her nose twitched mischievously. 'And you'd got around to wondering if I was gay, I suppose.'
He felt his eyes widening. Was this indeed what he'd been wondering? One of those forbidding, shapeless lumps that lay in the mental silt.
Cathy swivelled suddenly on the piano stool, lifted up the wooden lid to expose the keys, and began to beat out the opening bars of 'Jerusalem'.
'I don't think I'm queer,' she said, addressing the keys. 'But some people find me a bit strange.' The frosted peat was quite firm where he walked. Didn't even need his wellies today.
Fifty yards out, Willie stopped.
Bog oak, he told himself, that's all. Probably passed it hundreds of times, but they get turned around by the wind, bits break off.
The Moss looked like a dark sea sometimes. You came down from the village, across the road, and it was like chambering over the rocks to get to the bay. That was on a misty day, when the Moss stretched quickly to the horizon. But on a bright morning, like now, you could see how the bog actually sloped gently upwards, then more steeply towards the mountains, Kinder Scout in the distance.
On a beach there was driftwood. In a moss, bog oak, great chunks of blackened wood coughed up by the peat. Made good, strong furniture.
Benjie wouldn't cross the road to the Moss, but The Chief had followed Willie, reluctantly, big paws stepping delicately over the black pools at the edge, where it nearly met the tarmac.
Now fifty yards into the Moss, The Chief stopped too and made a noise at the back of his throat that was half-growl and half-whine…
'Bog oak,' Willie said to the dog. 'You never seen bog oak before?
Point was, though, he personally had never seen owt like this before. The size of it. The fact that it had suddenly appeared in a place where there were no trees, save a few tatty corpses.
He walked up by the side of it, and its shape began to change, but it still didn't make you think of anything scarier than half an oak tree with its branches all crushed up and twisted.
But when he got around it, looking back through the branches towards the village, this was when his breath got jammed up in his throat, when he felt like he was swallowing half a brick.
Willie backed off to where the dog was crouching and snarling, his black lips curled back over his teeth. 'All right, Chief,' Willie said hoarsely.
He looked back to where Benjie stood, forlorn in his red tracksuit.
'You're going t'ave to explain this,' Willie told himself, his right hand building up a rhythm on his hip pocket where there was a bunch of keys. 'Lad's countin' on you. Better come up wi' summat a bit quick.'
He straightened up.
He'd stick to his story. The fact that he'd never seen bog oak like this before was his problem. Just had to make it sound convincing for the lad.
Willie marched boldly up to the thing, grabbed hold of the end of one of its branches to snap it off, about nine inches of it. 'Strewth!' It was like trying to snap a crowbar. It came off though, all at once. 'Go on,' he said to The Chief. 'Fetch it.'
And he threw it as hard as he could, glad to get it out of his hand if truth were told. It felt cold and hard, just like iron or stone. But it was wood all right, nowt fossilized about it, too light – he'd hurled it into the wind and it landed barely ten feet away.
'Well, go on then!' Bloody hell, he'd thrown dozens of sticks for this dog over the years.
The Chief didn't move; the thick fur on the back of his neck was flattened, his eyes were dull and wary, his tail between his legs.
'You soft bugger,' Willie said.
What this was, the dog was close to Benjie, they'd grown up side by side. Only natural he'd picked up on the kid's fear. Aye, Willie thought, and it'd've put the shits up me too, at his age.
Then he thought, admitting it to himself, What do you mean, at his age…?
He tried to look at the thing dispassionately. It was amazing, like a work of art, like bloody sculpture.
But it didn't make him think of a dragon. Dragons were from fairy tales. More than that, dragons were animals. All right, they had wings and long scaly tails, but they were animals and there was nowt scary about animals.
Willie wanted to back off further, until he couldn't make out the details. He wanted to crouch down at a safe distance and growl at it like The Chief.
Basically he didn't want to see it any more, wished he'd never seen it at all because it was the kind of shape that came up in your dreams. This was stupid, but there was no getting round it.
The tangle of branches wrapped round, woven into each other like pipes and tubes, like a human being wearing its intestines on the outside.
And out of all this, the head rearing up on a twisted, scabby neck, and the head was as black as, as… as peat. It had holes for eyes, with the daylight shining through, and a jagged, widely grinning mouth, and on either side of the head were large knobbly horns.
And where one of the horns went into a knob, there was even the beginnings of another face, like one of them gargoyles on the guttering at St Bride's.
But what was worse than all this was the way the thing thrust out of the peat, twelve feet or more, two big branches sticking out either side of the neck-piece, like hunched shoulders, and then smaller branches like dangling arms and hands and misshapen fingers, like they had arthritis in them, like the Rector's fingers.
And when a gust of wind snatched at it, the whole thing would be shivering and shaking, its wooden arms waving about and rattling.
Willie remembered something that used to scare the life out of him when he was little. The teacher, Ernie Dawber's uncle, telling them about Gibbet Hill where hanged men's skeletons used to dangle in chains, rattling in the wind.
'Oh, come on…!' Willie said scornfully. He was shivering himself now – cold morning, coldest this year, not expecting it, that's all there is to it, nowt else.
Walked away from it across the Moss, towards the little lad and the village, wanting to run, imagining Benjie screaming, Run, Uncle Willie, run! It's come out of t'bog and it's after you…!Run!
He kept on walking steadily, but the fingers of both hands were drumming away, going hard and steady at his thighs.
'Bog oak,' Willie made himself shout. 'Bog oak!'
Across the border, heading south, Moira ignored all the big blue signs beckoning her towards the M6. Motorways in murky weather demanded one-track concentration; she had other roads to travel.
You should take a rest, Moira. The Duchess. Unravel yourself.
Well, sure, nothing like a long drive to a funeral for some serious reflection… for facing up to the fact that you were also journeying – and who knew how fast? – towards your own.
The countryside, getting rained on, glistening drably, looked like it also was into some heavy and morose self-contemplation. It was almost like she'd left Scotland and then doubled back: there were the mountains and there were the lochs. And there also was the mist, shrouding the slow, sulky rain which made you wet as hell, very quickly.
Cumbria. She stopped a while in a grey and sullen community sliding down either side of a hill. Wandered up the steep street and bought a sour, milky coffee in a snack-and-souvenir shop. A dismal joint, but there was a table where she could spread out the map, find out where she was heading.
Many places hereabouts had jagged, rocky names. Nordic-sounding, some of them. The Vikings had been here, after the Romans quit. And what remained of the Celts? Anything?
She looked out of the cafe window at a ragged line of stone cottages with chalet bungalows, Lego-style, on the hillside behind.
She watched a couple of elderly local residents stumbling arm-in-arm through the rain.
… this guy was telling us, at the conference this afternoon, how the English are the least significant people – culturally, that is – in these islands… mongrels… no basic ethnic tradition.
And what the hell, Moira wondered, were New Yorkers? Mungo Macbeth, of the Manhattan Macbeths. Could you credit it?
Moira had another go at the coffee, made a face, pushed the plastic cup away.
She sighed. Poor Macbeth. Poor glamorous, superficial Macbeth. Who, back home, through the very nature of his occupation and his connections, would likely have whole queues of mini-series starlets outside his hotel room. Who, in New York, would have been chasing not her but his lawyer, wondering if a bonestorm was an Act of God or maybe worth half a million in compensation.
But who, because this was Scotland, the old ancestral muckheap, and because of the night – the crazy, surrealistic, Celtic night – had behaved like a man bewitched.
Moira took her plastic cup back to the counter, which was classic British stained-glass – stained with coffee, congealed fat, tomato ketchup.
'On your own?' the guy behind the counter said. He was lanky, late-twenties. He had a sneery kind of voice out of Essex or somewhere. Nowhere you went these days in Britain, did the people running the tourist joints ever seem to be locals.
She said, 'We're all of us alone, pal.' And, slinging her bag over her shoulder, headed for the door.
'You didn't finish your coffee,' he called after her. 'Something wrong with it?'
'It was truly fine.' Moira held up the back of a hand. 'Got all my nail varnish off, no problem.' About half an hour later, she surrendered to the blue signs. On the motorway the rain was coming harder, or maybe she was just driving faster into it. At a service area somewhere around Lancaster, she found a phone, stood under its perspex umbrella, called her agent in Glasgow and explained where she was.
'Previous experience, Malcolm, told me not to call until I was well on the road, or you'd instantly come up with a good reason why I wasn't to cross the border.'
'Never mind that. I have been telephoned,' Malcolm said ponderously, the Old Testament voice, 'by the Earl's man.'
'Hoping you were fully recovered.'
'Right…' she said cautiously.
'And most apologetic about the abrupt termination of your performance the other night by the inexplicable precipitation from the walls of approximately a hundred stags' heads. Now, was that not an extraordinary thing to happen?'
'Several people had to be treated for minor lacerations, and there were two broken arms.'
'So naturally the Earl wanted to reassure himself that you had not been damaged in any way.'
'I'm fine. Just fine.'
'Because you seemed to have disappeared. Along with one of his guests, a gentleman called, er, Macbeth.'
'Sorry,' Moira said. 'No more money.' She hung up and ran back into the rain, black hair streaming behind her, before he could say anything about witchy women. The psychic thing.
A millstone, a fucking albatross.
She started the car, the eight-year-old BMW with a suitcase in the boot, the suitcase jammed up against the Ovation guitar steeping in its black case like Dracula in his coffin – we only come out at night, me and that guitar, together. With sometimes devastating results.
The damned psychic thing.
If you really could control it, it would be fine. No, forget fine, try bearable. It would be bearable.
But going down that old, dark path towards the possibility of some kind of control. Well, you took an impulsive step down there, the once, and you found all these little side-paths beckoning, tiny coloured lanterns in the distance – follow me, I'm the one.
You dabbled. I said to you never to dabble.
The coloured lanterns, the insistent, whispering voices.
The comb has not forgiven you. You have some damage to repair.
Yes, Mammy. She drove well, she thought, smoothly, with concentration. Down into England.
The way – many years ago, a loss of innocence ago – you travelled to the University in Manchester for all of four months before, one night, this local folk group, Matt Castle's Band played the student union.
Matt on the Pennine Pipes, an amazing noise. Growing up in Scotland, you tended to dismiss the pipes as ceremonial, militaristic.
Matt just blows your head away.
The Pennine Pipes are black and spidery, the bag itself with a dark sheen, like a huge insect's inflated abdomen. Matt plays seated, the bag in his lap, none of this wrestling with a tartan octopus routine.
'Where d'you get these things?'
'Like a set, would you, luv?'
'I wouldn't have the nerve, Mr Castle. They look like they'd bite.'
An hour and a couple of pints later he's admitting you can't buy them. There are no other Pennine Pipes. Perhaps there used to be, once, a long, long time ago. But now, just these, the ones he made himself.
How to describe the sound…
Sometimes like a lonely bird on the edge of the night. And then, in a lower register, not an external thing at all, but something calling from deep inside the body, the notes pulled through tube and bowel.
'The Romans brought bagpipes with them. The Utriculus. Whether they were here before that, nobody knows. I like to think so, though, lass. It's important to me. I'm an English Celt.'
Within a month you're singing with the band, trying to match the pipes…which you can't of course, could anyone?
But the contest is productive: Matt Castle's Band, fifteen years semi-professional around the Greater Manchester folk clubs, is suddenly hot, the band offered its first nationwide tour – OK, just the small halls and the universities, but what it could lead to… maybe the chance – the only chance they'll ever get at their time of life – to turn full-time professional.
Only this tour, it has got to be with Moira Cairns, eighteen years old, first-year English Lit. student. Oh, the chemistry: three middle-aged guys and a teenage siren. No Moira and the deal's off.
Typically, the only pressure Matt applies is for you to take care of your own future, stick with your studies. 'Think about this, lass. If it all comes to nowt, where does that leave you…?'
And yet, how badly he needs you to be in the band.
'I can go back. I can be a mature student.'
'You won't, though. Think twenty years ahead when me and Willie and Eric are looking forward to our pensions and you're still peddling your guitar around and your looks are starting to fade off…'
Blunt, that's Matt.
About some things, anyway. There was always a lot going on underneath.
Moira shifted uncomfortably in her seat and caught sight of herself in the driving mirror. Were those deep gullies under her eyes entirely down to lack of sleep? She thought, Even five, six years ago I could be up all night and drinking with Kenny Savage and his mates and I'd still look OK.
More or less. The further south she drove, the better the weather became. Down past Preston it wasn't raining any more and a cold sun hardened up the Pennines, the shelf of grey hills known as the backbone of England.
Some way to go yet. Fifty, sixty miles, maybe more. If she was halfway down the backbone of England, then Bridelow must be the arse-end, before the Pennines turned into the shapelier, more tourist-friendly Peak District.
Moira switched motorways, the traffic building up, lots of heavy goods vehicles. Like driving down a greasy metal corridor. Then the Pennines were back in the windscreen, moorland in smudgy charcoal behind the slip-roads and the factories. Somewhere up there: the peat.
I have to do this, Matt had written. It's as if my whole career's been leading up to it. It just knocked me sideways, the thought that this chap, the bogman, was around when they were perhaps playing the original Pennine pipes.
Time swam. She was driving not in her car but in Matt's old minibus, her last night with the band. Matt talking tersely about piping to the Moss, how the experience released him.
And he'd written, It was as if he'd heard me playing. I don't know how to put this, but as if I'd played the pipes and sort of charmed him out of the Moss. As if we'd responded to something inside us both. Now that's a bit bloody pretentious, isn't it, lass?
And Moira could almost hear his cawing laugh.
She came off the motorway and ten minutes later, getting swept into naked countryside that was anything but green, she thought, Shit, what am I doing here? I don't belong here. I walked out on the guy fifteen years ago.
… traitorous cow…
Hadn't escaped her notice that one thing Lottie had not done was invite her to the funeral.
Always a space between her and Lottie. Never was quite the same after Moira found the nerve to get her on one side during her second pregnancy and warn her to take it easy, have plenty of rest – Lottie smiling at this solemn kid of nineteen, explaining how she'd carried on working until the week before Dic was born.
Never was quite the same with Lottie, after the termination and the hysterectomy.
The road began to climb steeply. It hadn't rained here, but it was cold, the tops of stone walls and fences sugared with frost.
Jesus, I am nervous.
It was gone 2 p.m., the funeral arranged for 4.30. Strange time. At this point in the year they'd be losing the light by then.
Her month was dry. She hadn't eaten or drunk anything since the two aborted sips of the filthy coffee in the Lake District, and no time now for a pub lunch.
The sky was a blank screen, the outlines of the hills now iron-hard against it.
Lottie was jealous back then, though she'd never let it show.
The countryside was in ragged layers of grey, the only colour a splash of royal blue on the side of some poor dead sheep decomposing by the roadside, tufts of its wool blown into a discarded coil of barbed wire. The sky harsh, blanched, without sympathy.
Unquintessential England. As hard and hostile as it could get. No water-meadows, thatched cottages or bluebell woods.
No reason for Lottie to be jealous. Was there? Well, nothing happened, did it? Matt was always the gentleman.
Can't get used to this. I need to see him buried.
In front of her, a reservoir, stone sides, a stone tower. Cold slate water. She followed the road across it, along the rim of the dam, slowing for a black flatbed lorry loaded with metal kegs, the only other vehicle she'd seen in three or four miles.
Across the cab, in flowing white letters, it said, BRIDELOW BEERS
The road narrowed, steepened. It was not such a good road, erosion on the edges, holes in the tarmac with coarse grass or stiff reeds shafting through. No houses in sight, no barns, not even many sheep.
And then suddenly she crested the hill, the horizon took a dive and the ground dipped and sagged in front of her, like dirty underfelt when you stripped away a carpet,
'Christ!' Moira hit the brakes.
The road had become a causeway. Either side of it – like a yawning estuary, sprawling mudflats – was something she could recognize: peatbog, hundreds of acres of it.
There was a crossroads and a four-way signpost, and the sign pointing straight ahead, straight at the bog, said BRIDELOW 2, but there was no need, she could see the place.
Dead ahead. 'Hey, Matt,' Moira breathed, a warm pressure behind her eyes. 'You were right. This is something.'
Like a rocky island down there, across the bog. But the rocks were stone cottages and at the high point they sheered up into the walls of a huge, blackened, glowering church with a tower and battlements.
Behind it, against a sky like taut, stretched linen, reared the ramparts of the moor.
Unconscious of what she was doing until it was done, her fingers found the cassette poking out of the mouth of the player.
She held her breath. There was an airbag wheeze, a trembling second of silence, and then the piping filled up the car.
Moira began to shiver uncontrollably, and it shook out all those tears long repressed.
She let the car find its way across the causeway.
On the other side was a shambling grey building with a cobbled forecourt. The pub. She took one look at it and turned away, eyes awash.
So she saw the village through tears. A cliff face resolved into a terraced row, with little front gardens, white doorsteps, houses divided by entries like narrow, miniature railway tunnels. Then there were small dim shops: a hardware kind of store, its window full of unglamorous one-time essentials like buckets and sponges and clothespegs, as if nobody had told the owner most of his customers would now have automatic washing machines; a fish and chip shop with some six-year-old's impression of a happy-looking halibut painted on a wooden screen inside the window; a post office with a stubborn red telephone box in front – British Telecom had now replaced most of them with shoddy, American-looking phone booths, that, thankfully, had forgotten about Bridelow.
The streetlamps were black and iron, old gaslamps. Maybe a man would come around at night with a pole to light them.
Well, it was conceivable. Much was conceivable here.
Moira saw an old woman in a doorway; she wore a fraying grey cardigan and a beret: she was as much a part of that doorway as the grey lintel stones.
Peat preserves, Matt had said.
From Dawber's Book of Bridelow: RELIGION (ii) That Bridelow was a place of pre-Christian worship is beyond doubt. As has already been noted in this book, there are a number of small stone circles dating back to Neolithic times on the moor less than a mile from the village. The original purpose of these monuments remains a matter for conjecture, although there have been suggestions that some are astronomically-oriented.
As for the village itself, the siting of the church on a presumed prehistoric burial mound is not the only evidence of earlier forms of worship. Indeed…
'Steady Pop, just take it ve… ry steady.'
'No, leave me, please, I'll be fine, if I can just…'
'God, I never realised. How could you let it get to this and say nothing? How could you?'
Hans hissed, 'Shut up!' with a savagery that shocked her. He pulled away and ducked into the church porch, and Cathy was left staring at Our Sheila who was grinning vacuously, both thumbs jammed into her gaping vagina.
Cathy turned away and saw why her father had been so abrupt: a large man was bearing down on them, weaving skilfully between the gravestones like a seasoned skier on a slalom.
'Catherine!' he roared. 'How wonderful!'
'Joel,' Cathy said wanly.
'So. You've come all this way for Matt Castle's burial. And you're looking well. You're looking… terrific. Now.' He stepped back, beamed. 'Did I spot your esteemed father…?'
'In here, Joel.'
He was slumped on the oak bench inside the porch looking, Cathy thought, absolutely awful, the pain now permanently chiselled into his forehead. Joel Beard didn't appear to notice.
'Hans, I've been approached by two young chaps with guitars who apparently were among Matt Castle's many proteges in Manchester. They say they'd like to do an appropriate song during the service, a tribute. I didn't see any problem about that, but how would the relatives feel, do you think?'
Cathy's father looked up at his curate and managed to nod.
'I'll… Yes, we must consult Lottie, obviously. Perhaps, Cathy…'
Cathy said, 'Of course. I'll ring her now. And I'll come and tell you, Joel, OK?' Why couldn't the big jerk just clear off?
But, no, he had to stand around in the porch like some sort of ecclesiastical bouncer, smiling in a useful sort of way, his head almost scraping the door frame.
'Can we expect any Press, do you think? Television?'
Cathy said, 'With all respect to the dead, Joel, I don't think Matt Castle was as famous as all that. Folkies, no matter how distinguished, tend to be little known outside what they call Roots Music circles.'
'Ah.' Joel nodded. 'I see.' With those tight blond curls, Cathy thought, he resembled a kind of macho cherub.
'Staying the night, Catherine?'
'Probably. The roads are going to be quite nasty, I gather. Black ice forecast. In fact,' she added hopefully, 'I wouldn't hang around too long after the funeral if I were you.'
'Not a problem,' Joel said. 'I have accommodation.'
'Oh?' Damn. 'Where?'
'Why…' Joel Beard spread his long arms expansively. 'Here, of course.'
Hans sat up on the oak bench, eyes burning. 'Joel, I do wish you wouldn't. It's disused. It's filthy. It's… it's damp.'
'Won't be by tonight. I've asked the good Mr Beckett to supply me with an electric heater.'
'Hell,' Cathy said. 'Not the wine-cellar.' It was a small, square, stone room below the vestry where they stored the communion wine and a few of the church valuables. It was always kept locked.
'Ah, now, Catherine, this is a latter-day misnomer. The records show that it was specifically constructed as emergency overnight accommodation for priests. Did you know, for instance, that in 1835 the snow was so thick that the Bishop himself, on a pastoral visit, was stranded in Bridelow for over two weeks? When he was offered accommodation at the inn he insisted he should remain here because, he said, he might never have a better chance to be as close to God.'
'Sort of thing a bishop would say,' said Cathy.
'Ah, yes, but…'
'And then he'd lock himself in and get quietly pissed on the communion wine.'
Avoiding her father's pain-soaked eyes, but happy to stare blandly into Joel Beard's disapproving ones, Cathy thought, I really don't know why 1 say things like that. It must be you, Joel, God's yobbo; you bring out the sacrilegious in us all. The digital wall-clock in the admin office at the Field Centre said 14.46.
'Er…' Alice murmured casually into the filing cabinet 'as it's Friday and Dr Hall's not likely to be back from that funeral and there's not much happening, I thought I might…'
'No chance,' Chrissie snapped. 'Forget it.'
Alice's head rose ostrich-like from the files. 'Well…!' she said, deeply huffed.
Done it now, Chrissie thought. Well, bollocks, she's had it coming for a long time. 'I'm sorry, Alice,' she said formally, 'but I don't think, for security reasons, that I should be left alone here after dark.'
Alice sniffed. 'Never said that before.'
'All right, I know the college is only a hundred yards away and someone could probably hear me scream, but that's not really the point. There are important papers here and… and petty cash, too.'
She'd caught one of the research students in here when she returned from lunch. The youth had been messing about in one of the cupboards and was unpleasantly cocky when she informed him that he was supposed to have permission.
'Nothing to do with him, of course.' Alice smirked. 'Because you're not silly like that, are you?'
'I beg your pardon?'
'Him! In there. The one with no… personal bits.'
'Don't be ridiculous,' Chrissie mumbled, head down so that Alice would not see her blush. How stupid she'd been the other night, thinking…
'It was just a thought,' Alice said. She opened the bottom drawer of the smallest filing cabinet and brought out her make-up bag.
… when obviously it couldn't have been… what you thought. You were just more frightened than you cared to admit, going in there on your own…
'Going anywhere tonight?'
… it was just the way the thing was lying, and the projecting… item was just some sort of probe or peg to hold it together…
'What? Sorry, Alice…'
'I said, are you going anywhere tonight?'
'Oh, I thought I'd have a night in,' Chrissie said. 'Watch a bit of telly.'
She didn't move. She was still aching from last night. Roger had taken her to dinner at a small, dark restaurant she'd never noticed before, in Buxton. And then, because his wife was on nights, had accompanied her back to her bungalow.
Roger's eyes had been crinkly – and glittering.
His 'stress', as experienced at the motel, had obviously not been a long-term problem. Gosh, no…
'I wonder,' Alice said, 'if Mrs Hall will be with him at the funeral.'
'I think he likes to keep different areas of his life separate,' Chrissie said carefully. Lottie said, shaking out her black gloves, 'To be quite honest, I wish he was being cremated.'
Dic didn't say anything. He'd been looking uncomfortable since the undertakers had arrived with Matt's coffin. For some reason, they'd turned up a clear hour and a quarter before the funeral.
'I don't like graves,' Lottie said, talking for the sake of talking. 'I don't like everybody standing around a hole in the ground, and you all walk away and they discreetly fill in the earth when you've gone. I'd rather close my eyes in a crematorium and when I open them again, it's vanished. And I don't like all the flowers lying out there until they shrivel up and die too or you take them away, and what do you do with them?'
Dic, black-suited, glaring moodily out of the window, his hands in his hip-pockets. Lottie just carried on talking, far too quickly.
'And also, you see, in a normal situation, what happens is the funeral cars arrive, and they all park outside the house, with the hearse in front, and all the relatives pile in and the procession moves off to the church.'
'Would've been daft,' Dic said, 'when it's not even two minutes' walk.'
'Which means… I mean, in the normal way, it means the coffin doesn't leave the back of the hearse until it reaches the church door. Not like this… it's quite ridiculous in this day and age.'
The two of them standing alone in the pub's lofty back kitchen.
Alone except for Matt's coffin, dark pine, occupying the full length of the refectory table.
'But I mean, what on earth was I supposed to say to them?' Lottie said. 'You're early – go and drive him around the reservoirs for an hour?'
The relatives would be here soon, some from quite a distance, some with young children.
'I keep thinking,' Dic said, his voice all dried up, 'that I ought to have a last look at him. Pay my respects.'
'You had your chance,' Lottie said, more severely than she meant to. 'When he was in the funeral home. You didn't want to go.'
Her voice softened. 'Well, now's not the time. Don't worry. That's not your dad, that poor shell of a thing in there. That's not how he'd want you to remember him.'
God, she thought, with a bitter smile, but I'm coping well with this.
Of course, half the Mothers' Union had been round, offering to help with the preparations and the tea and the buffet. And she'd said, very politely, No. No, thank you. It's very kind of you, but I can look after my own. And the old dears had shaken their heads. Well, what else could they expect of somebody who'd turn down Ma Wagstaff's patent herbal sedative…
Yes. She was coping.
Then Dic shattered everything. He said, 'Mum, I've got to know. What happened with that nurse?
Lottie dropped a glove.
'At the hospital. The night he died.'
'Who told you about that?' Picking up the glove, pulling it on, and the other one.
'Oh, Mum, everybody knows about it.'
'No, they don't,' she snapped.
'They might not here, but it was all round the Infirmary.
Jeff's girlfriend knew, who's on Admissions in Casualty.'
'They've got no damn right to gossip about that kind of thing!'
'God, you choose your bloody times, my lad.'
'I'm sorry, Mum.'
'Not as if she was hurt. She had a shock, that was all. He didn't know where he was. He was drugged up to the eyeballs. She was a young nurse, too inexperienced to be on a ward like that, but you know the way hospitals are now.'
'They said he attacked her.'
'He didn't attack her. God almighty, a dying man, a man literally on his last legs…?'
Dic said, unwilling to let it go, 'They said he called her, this nurse, they said he called her… Moira.'
Lottie put her gloved hands on the pine box, about where Matt's head would be, as if she could smooth his hair through the wood, say, Look, it's OK, really, I understand.
'Leave it, will you, Dic,' she said very quietly. 'Just leave it.'
'She's not corning today, is she? The Cairns woman.'
'No,' Lottie said. 'She's not.'
'Good,' said Dic. Cautious as a field mouse, little Willie Wagstaff peeped around the door, sniffed the air and then tiptoed into the dimness of Ma's parlour.
The curtains were drawn for Matt, as were the curtains in nearly all the houses in Bridelow, but at Ma's this was more of a problem, the place all cluttered up as usual with jars and bottles and big cats called Bob and Jim.
He crept over to the table. In its centre was a large aspirin bottle, the contents a lot more intriguing and colourful than aspirins.
The principal colour was red. In the bottom of the bottle was a single red berry, most likely from the straggly mountain ash tree by the back gate. All the berries had vanished from that bugger weeks and weeks ago, but this one looked as bright and fresh as if it was early September.
Also in the bottle was about a yard of red cotton thread, all scrimped up. One end of the thread had been pulled out of the bottle and then a fat cork shoved in so that about half an inch of thread hung down the outside.
The bottle had been topped up with water that looked suspiciously yellowish, the tangle of red cotton soaked through
'By the 'ell,' Willie said through his teeth. 'Nothin' left to chance, eh?'
'You put that down! Now!'
Willie nearly dropped it. Ma's eyes had appeared in the doorway, followed by Ma. Too dim to see her properly; she was in a very long coat and a hat that looked like a plate of black puddings.
'Bloody hell, Ma, scared the life out of me.'
'Corning in here wi'out knocking. Messing wi' things as don't concern you.'
'Me messing!' He gestured at the bottle. 'I bet that's not spring water, neither.'
'Used to be!' Ma glared indignantly at him. 'Been through me now. That strengthens it.'
'Oh, aye? I thought you were losing your touch.'
Ma stumped across to the table, snatched up the bottle and carried it over to the ramshackle dresser where her handbag lay, the size and shape of an old-fashioned doctor's bag. She was about to stow the bottle away then stopped. 'Who's carrying him, then?'
'Me. Eric. Frank Manifold Senior. Maybe young Dic.'
'That Lottie,' Ma said. 'She's a fool to herself, that girl. If she'd let the Mothers' Union give her a hand, we'd all be sleeping easier.'
'Eh?' He watched Ma passing the aspirin bottle from hand to hand, thoughtfully. 'Oh, now look, Ma.. – just forget it. I am not… Anyway, there'll be no chance, Lottie'll be watching us like a bloody hawk.'
'Aye, p'raps I'll not ask you,' Ma said, to his relief. The thought of opening Matt's coffin turned his guts to jelly.
'And anyway, why d'you need a thing like that? I thought it were all sorted out.'
'You thought' Ma was contemptuous. 'Who're you to think, Willie Wagstaff?'
'Ma, I'm fifty-four years old!' Willie's fingers had started up a hornpipe on the coins in the hip pocket of his shiny black funeral pants.
'And never grown up,' Ma said.
'This is grown-up?'
Ma bent and put the bottle down on the edge of the hearth. The fire was just smoke, no red, all banked up with slack to keep it in until Ma returned after the funeral.
She straightened up, wincing just a bit – not as sprightly as she was, but what could you expect – and faced him, hands clamped on the coat around where her bony old hips would be.
'It's like damp,' Ma snapped. 'Once you get an inch or two up your wall, you're in trouble. If your wall's a bit weak, or a bit rotted, it'll spread all the faster. It'll feed off… rot and corruption. And sickness too.'
'Ma…' Willie didn't want to know this. He never had, she knew that.
Ma picked up his thoughts, like they'd dropped neatly in front of her dustpan and brush. 'Comes a time, Willie Wagstaff, when things can't be avoided no longer. He were a good man, Matt Castle, but dint know what he were messing with. Or who.'
'Probably dint even know he were messing wi' owt.'
'And that wife of his, she were on guard day and night, nobody could get near. He were crying out for help, were Matt, by the end, and nobody could get near. Well…'
'Matt's dead, Ma,' Willie said warningly.
Ma picked up the aspirin bottle. 'And that,' she said, ramming the bottle deep into the bag, 'is why he needs protection. And not only him, obviously. This is crucially important, our Willie.'
'Oh, bloody hell,' said Willie. It had always been his way, with Ma, to pretend he didn't believe in any of this. Found it expedient, as a rule.
'A time ago, lad, not long after you left school, we had some trouble. D'you remember? Wi' a man?'
'I do and I don't,' Willie said evasively. Meaning he'd always found it best not to get involved in what the village traditionally regarded as woman's work, no matter how close to home.
Ma said, 'He were clever. I'll say that for him. Knew his stuff. Knew what he were after. But he were bad news. Wanted to use us. Had to be repelled.'
Willie did believe, though, at the bottom of him. Most of them did, despite all the jokes.
'What about him?"
Ma's lips tightened, then she said, 'They're allus looking for an opening, and this one stood out a bloody mile. And Matt Castle dint help, chipping away at it, making it bigger.'
'This musical thing he were working on. T' Bogman.'
'Another way in, Willie. Weren't doing that on his own, were he?'
Willie went quiet. He knew Matt had been consulting with some writer, but the man never came to Bridelow, Matt always went to the man. Until the final few weeks when he couldn't drive himself any more.
He looked at his mother with her big, daft funeral hat and dared to feel compassion. She didn't need this, her time of life.
'Look, don't get me wrong, Ma…'
Ma Wagstaff's fearsome eyes flared, but they couldn't hold the fire for very long nowadays.
'… but you've bin at this for a fair few years now…'
'More than fifty,' Ma said wistfully.
'So, like… like I were saying to Milly… don't you ever get to, like… retire I mean, is there nobody else can take over?'
Ma straightened her hat. 'There is one,' she said biblically, 'who will come after me.'
'But what 'asn't come yet, like,' Willie said, stepping carefully. You could push it just so far with Ma, and then…
The eyes switched from dipped to full-beam. 'Now, look, you cheeky little bugger! When I need your advice, that's when they'll be nailing me up an' all.'
Willie held up both hands, backed off towards the door.
'Which is not yet! Got that?'
'Oh, aye,' said Willie.
Outside in the hard, white daylight, he looked across at the church.
'On me way, Matt,' Willie said with a sniff and a sigh, rubbing his hands in the cold. 'I hope they've nailed you down, me old mate. Good and tight.'
Shit, could this be the right place?
Realistically – no.
First off, there was no elevator. The stairway, when he managed to find it, was real narrow, the steps greasy. He didn't even like to think what that smell was, but if he was unfortunate enough to be accommodated in this block he'd surely be kicking somebody's ass to get the goddamn drains checked out.
Hardly seemed likely she'd trust her fortunes to a guy working out of a dump like this. But when he made the third landing, there was the sign on the door, and the gold lettering said,
THE M. W. KAUFMANN AGENCY. PLEASE KNOCK AND ENTER.
Which he did, and inside it was actually a little better than he'd guessed it would be. Clean, anyhow, with a deep pink carpet and wall-to-wall file-cabinets. Also, one of those ancient knee hole desks up against the window. And the knees in the hole were not, he noticed, in there because they needed to be concealed.
She was about eighteen, with ringlets and big eyes. She swivelled her chair around and looked at him the way, to his eternal gratitude, women always had.
'I… uh.. He stood in the doorway for a couple of seconds, trying to salvage some breath. This guy Kaufmann had to be pretty damn fit, working here.
'Mr Macbeth, is it?'
He nodded dumbly.
'Do excuse the stairs,' she said. 'Mr Kaufmann represents quite a number of singers.'
'Huh?' Doubtless there was some underlying logic here concerning singers and breath-control, but he was too bushed to figure it out. He hung around in the doorway while she went off to consult with M. W. Kaufmann in his inner sanctum.
Thinking, So you did this again, Macbeth. Put on a suit and tie this time, cancelled your lunch appointment, got busted for speeding by a cop with an accent so thick it sounded like he hadn't got around to swallowing his breakfast. You really did all of this. Over a woman. Again. Maybe, he thought, as the kid beckoned him in, maybe this is what they call a mid-life crisis. Sure. Like all the other mid-life crises I been having since I turned twenty-nine.
'Mr Macbeth,' M. W. Kaufmann said. 'I am Malcolm Kaufmann.'
They shook hands, and, waving him to a chair, Kaufmann said, 'This all seems rather, er, irregular.'
'I'm an irregular kind of guy,' Macbeth said winningly.
Malcolm Kaufmann looked less than won. He was a small, foxy-eyed person with stiff hair the unnatural colour of light-tan shoes.
The secretary was hanging around, eyeing up Macbeth without visible embarrassment. 'Thank you, Fiona.' Kaufmann waved her out, eyeing up Macbeth himself but in a more discriminating fashion.
'So,' he said. 'You're in television, I understand.'
Macbeth confessed he was, planning to build up the image a little. Then he changed his mind and built it up a lot. How he was over here for the international Celtic conference, but also on account of his company was tossing around an idea for a major mini-series… piece of shlock about this American guy, doesn't know his ass from his sporran, comes over to Scotland to look up his Celtic roots and before he knows it he's besotted with this, uh, mysterious Scottish lady.
'I see,' Kaufmann said.
Yeah, I guess you do at that, Macbeth was thinking. Besotted with a beautiful, mysterious lady who sings like a fallen angel and has wild, black hair all down her back with just one single, long-established strand of grey. Under the spell of an enchantress who can make the earth move, and the walls and the ceiling, and after you meet her you don't sleep too good any more.
He said, 'Did Moira ever act?'
'Ah.' Kaufmann leaned back in his chair, tilting it against the wall, tapping his rather prominent front teeth with a ballpoint pen. 'Well, her first love, naturally, is her music, but I do believe…' Clearly searching his memory for the time she'd done a walk-on for some local soap.
Macbeth helped him out. 'Certainly has the charisma, don't you think?'
'Indeed, indeed. The same, er, quality, perhaps, as that apparent in… who shall I…? Cher…? Does that comparison do her justice, would you say?'
'Spoken like a good agent, Malcolm.'
Kaufmann's eyes narrowed. 'Don't be deceived by the surroundings, Mr Macbeth. I am a good agent. You say… that you encountered Moira at the Earl's recent Celtic gathering. That would be on the evening when her performance was unaccountably disrupted.'
'Right,' Macbeth said. 'Unaccountably disrupted.'
'By what appears to have been an earth tremor…'
'Which, when it happened, I don't recall having felt.'
'Maybe I'm insensitive that way,' Macbeth said.
'But you don't really think so.'
Macbeth shrugged. 'Like you say, she has charisma.'
They both nodded.
'Of course,' Macbeth said, 'this is early days. See, first off, what I'd really like is to meet with Moira over lunch before I leave here… discuss things informally.'
'And how long will you be here?'
'Two weeks, at the outside.'
'Well, I shall no doubt be in touch with her very shortly.' Kaufmann smoothed down his unconvincing hair. 'And I shall naturally inform her of your interest. Then perhaps the three of us might…'
'Yeah, that'd be, uh, that'd be just… She in town right now?'
'I fear not.'
'See, I thought if she was doing a gig someplace, I'd kind of like to be in the audience.'
Kaufmann smiled. 'This sudden interest in Moira… this is entirely professional, of course.'
'I'm a very professional kind of guy. However, I've long been a fan. Of the music. But also… Malcolm, this is kind of sensitive…'
'Which, as you pointed out to me a few moments ago, you are not.'
'Yeah, well, when I, uh, encountered the lady that night, I was a mite overwhelmed, I guess, by the essential, uh, Celtishness, if that's the word, of the occasion and, if I'm being honest, by the experience of Moira herself, and so… well, I believe I said a few things left her thinking – as you doubtless are thinking right now – what a Grade A dork this person is.'
'Oh, yes,' said Kaufmann. He paused. 'She can certainly be quite disconcerting.'
'Thank you for that. So I'd like to meet with her informally and maybe convince her that, in less inhibiting circumstances…'
'I see. Well, sadly, Moira is not working tonight. Or in the city at present. She has a personal matter to attend to. And though, as her agent, I am obviously aware at all times of her whereabouts, no, I'm afraid I can't tell you where she is. That really would be irregular.'
'Ah… right," Macbeth said.
'Perhaps you could leave a number with Fiona, where we can contact you.' The agent's face was blank.
'Right,' Macbeth said gloomily.
Joel Beard had been standing there for a couple of minutes, over by the window in the Rector's study, his mouth slightly open.
Hans,' he said urgently, as if the church was on fire, 'Hans, quickly, who on earth is that?'
The Rector couldn't manage anything quickly any more, but, yes, he too had seen the hooded figure. It had vanished now behind the church tower.
'I'm sorry, Joel?'
'Over there. Didn't you see it?'
'No, I mean… all kinds of women pass through that gate.'
Joel turned to him, a 'Got you' smile on his large, unlined face. 'I don't think I mentioned the gate, did I, Hans? And I don't think I mentioned a woman.'
'Well, obviously I assumed…' Hans grimaced and bent to his worse knee, feigning pain for once. Bloody man. Joel had spent three half-days with Hans, being shown around, shaking a few hands. Big, cheerful, amiable character, anxious to learn.
'I wouldn't be surprised,' Joel said in his flat, calm Yorkshire voice, 'if there weren't quite a lot of things you haven't noticed, Things that go on, hereabouts.'
'… the hell are you talking about?'
'Hell?' said Joel. 'Yes I think I am talking about hell. For instance, Sam Davis, the young chap who was here morning…'
Hans stared at him. 'How do you know about that?'
'When he came out, his Land Rover wouldn't start.' Joel flashed his teeth. 'I was around. I fixed it. We had a chat.'
'Mechanic too, eh?' the Rector said. 'You're obviously an endlessly useful man to have about the place.'
Joel, deaf to all sarcasm, said, 'I told Sam I'd go along to the farm, talk to his wife. And perhaps… perhaps do what I can to protect them.'
'Joel, if there's any protecting to be done in this parish…'
God in heaven, this was the man's first full day in Bridelow, and he was taking over!
'Oh, I realised, of course, that you'd be along there yourself if it wasn't for your, er, leg. I explained all this to Sam, of course I did.'
'Made my excuses, did you?'
'Hans…' Joel Beard wore a hefty gold-plated crucifix on his chest. Joel, the avenging angel. For the first time, Hans was getting an inkling of how disruptive this man could turn out to be.
'Hans, I'm only trying to help,' Joel said, like a social worker addressing some uppity pensioner.
'The problem is, Hans, people sometimes don't realise the amount of sheer legwork involved in ministering to a rural parish. Admit it, now, you've needed help for quite some while, and been too proud to ask for it. Well, naturally, we all admire you for that, but there's a job of work to be done here, you know that.'
The Rector said coldly, 'I really don't know what you're talking about.'
'Perhaps,' Joel said gently, 'that's because you're too close to it. You know what I think? I think these filthy rites on the moors are only the tip of the iceberg.'
He glanced back out of the window to the place where the hooded woman had disappeared. Stay away, Hans pleaded inside his head. Stay out of sight…for God's sake… whoever you are.
'There's been talk, you know,' Joel said into the glass pane. 'I have to be frank, it's the only way I can be. And I think it's only fair you should know. A good deal of talk. At diocese level.'
Hans sat down suddenly, carelessly, in his armchair – and felt the pain might hurl him at the ceiling. 'Listen,' he gasped, gripping the chair arms, holding himself down. 'Has it ever occurred to you for one blessed moment that perhaps there are things you don't understand? I know you were at St Oswald's. I know the sort of bull-at-a-gate Christianity they go in for…'
'I only know what's in my heart.' Joel almost chanting, his eyes squeezed to slits, Joel the seer, Joel the prophet. 'I know that God is living in my heart, and therefore what I feel to be right and good must be right and good because it is His Word.'
God save us, Hans thought, from Born Again Christians cunning enough to get into the business proper. And God help me to restrain this man's excesses. Leave him alone! Can't you see what you're doing to him?
Cathy, in the hall, ear to the study door. Dressed for the funeral, black jumper and skirt, coat over her arm.
Half an hour ago she'd sneaked down to the wine-cellar to discover that Joel had set up a camp bed on the stone flags and a card-table with candles, like a makeshift altar.
A bit eerie. A lot disturbing.
What the hell was this bloke trying to achieve, digging himself in, like a big mole, under the very heart of Bridelow? 'Talk,' Hans said. 'You say there's been talk. What kind of talk?'
Joel walked back to the centre of the room, stood in front of the piano, his hands behind his back, the polished cross flashing from the black of his cassock. Like a cheap medallion, Hans thought from the sour darkness of his pain.
'I'm not a humble man,' Joel said.
Hans, coughing, nearly choked.
'I know this,' Joel said. 'And I pray one day Almighty God will let me come to humility in my own way. But not…yet.'
His hands whipped round from behind his back. One was an open palm and the other a fist. They came together with a small explosion in the still, fusty air of the Rector's study.
'Not yet.' Joel Beard said softly, turning back to the window. Still, presumably, no sign of the woman in black.
Whichever of them it was, Hans thought, she would do well to depart quickly and discreetly, the way they could when they wanted to.
'It's not the time, you see, for humility.' Joel standing behind Hans's chair now, blocking his light. 'The clergy's been humble and self-effacing for so long that it amounts to downright indolence. It's time, I believe, to remember the other Christ. The one who ejected the traders and the money lenders from the temple. There's worse than that here. Isn't there?'
Joel spat out, 'It's the Devil's lair!'
'It's…' Hans tried to get out of his chair, felt suddenly dizzy.
'That's what the talk's about.' Joel's eyes burning in the afternoon gloom. 'Satan walking openly in the street. Satan walking, bold as brass, to the very door of this church, where that filthy whore parades her… her parts.'
'No.' Hans felt old and ineffectual. 'It's not true.'
'Yes! There's a cult of Satan, making blood sacrifices on the moors, and this is where it's emanating from. God only knows how long it's flourished here.' Cathy breathed in, hard.
Half an hour ago, Joel had caught her spying. Stood and watched her coming up the steps from the cellar, smiling at her from the vestry doorway. Cathy, red-faced, mumbling, 'Just seeing if there was anything I could do. To, er, to make you a bit more comfortable down there.'
Could have bitten her tongue off. She supposed lots of women would find him awfully attractive, with the tight golden curls, the wide smile – and that physique. Perhaps she really was gay.
Certainly she hated the man now. How could he say these things?
… that filthy whore parades her parts…
You're insane! She wanted to fling open the study door and scream it at him. Joel said reasonably, 'We're not asking you to do anything yourself. Obviously, you've had to live with these people for a very long time. Big part of your life. And we all realise you're not well…'
'And who?' Hans asked wearily, as if he didn't know, 'are we?'
Joel, for once, was silent.
'The Bishop? Our newly appointed archdeacon? Perhaps he fancies you, Joel, have you thought about that?'
Joel Beard turned away in distaste. 'Christ says…'
'But… but you're not Christ, Joel,' Hans said, horrified at the hollow weakness of his own voice. He slumped back into the chair, into the endless cavern of his pain, his eyes closed. The Rev. Joel Beard laughed agreeably. 'We'll crack this thing together, Rector. You and me and God.'
Hans heard him rubbing his hands. 'Well. Time's getting on. Funeral to conduct. Though I can't think why you left it until so late in the day.'
'Family request,' Hans mumbled, lying. 'Some relatives had… long way to travel.'
'Hmm. I see. Well, come on, old chap.' Joel's strong Christian hand on his shoulder. 'Soon be over.'
From behind the door, Cathy scurried away, pulling on her coat. He'd caught her once today. He'd never catch her again. The two of them stood at the bottom end of the churchyard, not far from the lych-gate. There was a monument here on its own, stark and pointed, like an obelisk, one word indented on a dressed-stone plaque.
'It was always pretty scary, Shaw said, 'to think that one day I'd be under that too.'
Therese, in her ancient fox-fur coat, walked all round the monument. 'Is it a vault?'
'Something like that. I didn't take too much notice when they stuck my father in there. I'm sure that one of the reasons I was determined to unload the brewery was to avoid being buried here. I mean, I didn't think about it at the time, but it must have been at the back of my mind. To break the family ties with Bridelow, get the hell out of here. For good. I mean… not have to come to people's funerals who you hardly knew, because you're a Horridge. I reckon the old man would have sold out himself if he'd had half a chance.'
'Where would you like to be buried?'
'Somewhere warm. If it has to be in this country I'd prefer to be cremated.'
'I wouldn't mind.'
'Being buried here,' Therese said. 'I like vaults.' She smiled, her eyes glinted. 'You can get out of them.'
Shaw shuddered, a feeling he was growing to enjoy. She looked very edible today, as ever. However, for the first time, he rather hoped she was not naked under that coat. It was so cold, though, that he didn't really imagine she could be. She'd attached a scarf-thing to it today, with the fox's head on the end. Shaw, who'd ridden to hounds two or three times whilst staying with friends, didn't find this offensive but suspected there were people in Bridelow who would; they appeared to have strong views about killing animals for pleasure.
She said, 'Have you ever seen him, your father?'
He knew her well enough by now to know exactly what she meant by that, but he pretended he didn't. 'Of course I've seen him. He didn't die until I was twenty-five. Come on, let's get a drink before the show starts.'
'It's your family vault, after all,' Therese said. 'You've got rights of access. Why don't we pop in and visit him one…'
'For God's sake, Tess…' Not his bloody father, the sanctimonious old sod.
'I've told you before,' she said coldly. 'I don't like to be called Tess.' Then she turned her head and looked up into his face, and the fox's glass eyes were looking at him too. 'We could ask him, you see.'
He felt the chill wind raising his hairline even more, wished he'd worn his stylish new Homburg. She was playing with his mind again. Sometimes it was difficult to sleep.
'We could ask him if you were right. That he really did want to get out of Bridelow. That he would've had no objections at all to Gannons taking over the brewery. Give your mother something to think about.'
'I'd rather not, if you don't mind,' Shaw said. He was thinking about last summer, a warm day in August, when he'd found out about another side of Therese. Over dinner one night in Manchester, he'd giggled nervously and said to her, 'You know, I'm beginning to think you must be some sort of vampire, only ever corning out at night.'
'Would you like that – if I was a vampire?'
'I don't know. What would it mean?'
'I could make you undead, couldn't I?'
'Er… haven't you got to be dead before you can be undead?'
She'd put down her glass and looked at him, red wine glistening on her lips, face still and golden in the moving candlelight, like a mask from some Egyptian tomb.
'And what,' she said, 'makes you think you aren't?' And he began to shake with desire, a new kind of desire which began at the bottom of his spine.
But he'd kept on at her in the car – it was a Range Rover this time, belonging, she said, to a friend – as she whizzed them down Deansgate around 1 a.m. What did she do at weekends, in the daytime? Social work, she said.
And it was true; two days later they were out on the moors. He was following Therese in gloriously tight jeans and there were two friends called Rhona and Rob and a bunch of people Therese described loosely as 'offenders'.
Rhona, who was quite attractive, despite having a sort of crewcut, was apparently a professional social worker with the local authority. Rob, a lean, hard-looking man, was – amazingly – a policeman, a detective sergeant. You had to admire her cheek, being friends with a copper after all the cars and things she'd stolen.
They'd parked their vehicles in a long lay-by off the Sheffield road and after two hours of hard walking, Shaw's legs were starting to ache.
'Where are we going exactly?'
'Not far now,' Therese assured him. The six 'offenders', who were of both sexes and ranged in age from teens to about sixty, were fairly silent the whole way.
After a further few minutes, Therese stopped. They were on a kind of plateau, offering a magnificent view of miles of sunlit moorland and, more distantly, a huge expanse of darkness which he assumed was the Moss, with the hills behind it reaching up to Kinder Scout.
'Gosh, look,' Shaw said, 'there's the Bridelow road. We've come a hell of a long way round. If we'd just gone through the churchyard and carried on up the moor we'd have been up here in about half an hour.'
'It was better to come this way,' Therese said. 'Don't whinge, Shaw.'
There were stubby stones around where she was standing, arranged in a rough sort of circle, or maybe an egg-shape; it was hard to tell, they were so overgrown.
One of the older offenders was on his knees. He was probably exhausted. He had his arms around one of the bigger stones, a thing about two and a half feet high, and he seemed to be kissing it.
'What sort of offenders are they?' Shaw whispered.
'Just people who society considers maladjusted,' Therese said. 'It's stupid. They all have special qualities nobody seems to want to recognize.'
Rob said, 'We're helping to rehabilitate them.'
Therese had taken a few objects from her backpack – odd things, photographs in frames, a small pair of trainers, a large penknife – and arranged them around the circle, up against the stones.
They had a rough sort of picnic outside the circle of stones, with a whole cooked chicken, which everybody pulled bits off, and red wine. Afterwards, they all sat around in the springy yellow grass, not talking, the sun going down, Shaw starting to feel a little drunk, a little sleepy.
He was aware that Rob and Rhona had entered the circle and were murmuring to themselves in low voices. They seemed to have taken all their clothes off. They began to touch each other and then to have sex. Shaw was deeply shocked but kept quiet about it. It went on for some time. Until suddenly, dreamily, a plump, spotty, middle-aged woman called Andrea stood up and joined Rob and Rhona in the circle and began to behave as though there were some other people in there too.
'Hello, David,' she said joyfully, the first time she'd spoken all afternoon. 'All right, Kevin?'
She giggled. 'Yes,' she said. 'Me too. Do you like it here? It's nice, isn't it?'
At that stage Rhona and Rob left her and came out and sat with Therese and Shaw. Flies and midges buzzed around Andrea in the dusk. Shaw seemed to fall asleep. When he awoke he saw Andrea on her knees in the circle with her arms around what looked like two dusty shadows.
'Isn't it heart-warming?' Therese was whispering, as if they were watching a weepy from the back stalls. 'She's becoming reconciled to the loss of her brothers.'
'What happened to them?'
'They died,' Therese said. 'A long time ago. She killed them. With a penknife. They were only little. 'Course she was only a child herself. It was such a shame, they put her away for a long time.'
He didn't remember how they got back to the cars except that it was dark by then and it didn't seem to take nearly as long as it had taken them to get to the circle. In the churchyard, Therese said, 'Is she here – your mother?'
'No, she… she thinks she's got that Taiwanese flu. I've tendered her apologies.'
'Funny, isn't it, the way she won't come into Bridelow?
'She should leave. She's no connections here.'
'Why won't she leave?'
'I don't know,' Shaw said, but he did. His mother couldn't bear to be supplanted by Therese. His mother did not like Therese. This was understandable. Sometimes he wasn't sure that the word 'like' precisely conveyed his own feelings.
Her dark hair, swept back today, was mostly inside the collar of the fur coat. She wore a deep purple lipstick.
Nor, he thought, was 'love' appropriate. So why…
Therese nodded back towards the village. Shaw looked his watch: three minutes to four, and the light was weakening.
Therese said, 'It's coming.' Meaning the funeral procession.
Shaw shuddered again, with a cold pleasure that made him afraid of her and of himself.
'You know,' Therese said, 'I think it's time you met father. Properly.'
'Is he dead?' Shaw asked fearfully.
Everything that happened, the dreadful inevitability of it all, Ernie Dawber would remember in horribly exquisite detail. Like a series of grim cameos. Or the meticulously etched illustrations in the pre-war picture-book from which he used to tell stories to the youngest children on Friday afternoons, enjoying the measured resonance of his own headmasterly tones and then holding up the book to what was left of the light so they could all see the pictures.
Cosy, back then. Friday afternoons in mid-autumn, with Mr Dawber and The Brothers Grimm. Home to buttered toast for tea.
Now it was another Friday afternoon. But this time the text was being read to Ernie and he could see all the pictures, the pages turning over in a terrible, considered rhythm, until he wanted to leap up from his seat in the back row, crying out, Stop… stop!
He didn't leap up much any more. Sometimes, lately, he felt unsteady and disconnected in his head. But when he went to the doc's for some pills for it, the doc had made him have tests. Sorry he'd gone now.
No leaping up, anyroad. Nowt he could do except to witness it, for this was all he was now: the observer. The local historian, dry and factual. Not for him to comment or to judge. Nothing that happened on this day would ever be recorded, anyway, in The Book of Bridelow. And so was best forgotten.
As if ever he could. Cosy, too (the first picture) in the bar at The Man before the funeral, having a whisky for the cold, with his half of Black, his mind charting the changes from that warm evening when Matt Castle had brought them hope.
Although, unknown to him at the time, the Change must have begun on the bright March morning when the roadmen found the bog body.
Hand clenching on his glass of Black, now condemned as gnat's piss by them as knows. The only light in the bar is greenish-blue, from the old gas-mantle Matt Castle reinstated, childishly happy when he found it could still be made to work.
Such small things seemed to delight Matt, painstakingly patching up frail memories of his childhood.
Unaware that he, too, was part of the Change.
Behind the bar, Stan Burrows in a black waistcoat, says passively, 'Tough about Gus Bibby, eh?'
'Why? What's up?'
'You not heard, Ernie? He's closing up the Stores.'
'I could see it coming, me. Just not up to it no more. Bent double half the time. I went in for a bucket last week, had to climb up and get it meself. 'Sides which, he's selling nowt. What can you buy in Gus's you can't get in Macclesfield twenty per cent cheaper?'
'It's a matter of principle, Stan. We're glad enough to shop at Gus Bibby's when there's snow or floods and you can't get across the Moss. Anyway, what about his son?'
'How many days a year can't you get across t'Moss since they've built that road up? Nay, it's price of progress, int it?'
'Progress? Ernie nearly choking on his so-so half of Black.
Stan saying, 'Nay, Bibby's'll shut and it'll stay shut. Who's going t'buy that place?'
'What about his son?'
'He'll not come back, will he? Got a good job wi' Gas Board in Stockport. Would you come back?'
'Aye,' said Ernie. 'I would.'
'How many's like you, though, Ernie? Any more. Be honest. How many?' Second picture.
Halfway up the street, church behind him, looking down towards The Man. From up here, the pub looks as if it's built on the Moss itself.
A bitter wind has blown through Bridelow, snatching the leaves from the trees and bleaching the colour from the faces inside the front porches. The faces hovering, ghostly in the shadows, the bodies invisible in black.
The villagers start to step from their doorways; the coffin's coming.
A fair turn-out, thanks to Matt's folk-music friends from the Manchester circuit and outsiders with an interest in Bridelow like Dr Roger Hall. And the former brewery workers who failed to find employment in Buxton, Macclesfield, Glossop, or even Manchester and Sheffield; they're all here, except for the ones hunched over their fires with their Beecham's Powders and a bad case of Taiwanese flu, the like of which would never have got Across the Moss in the old days.
Ernie fancies he can hear wretched coughing from behind the drawn curtains, as if the virus has spread to the stones themselves. Turn the page, lad.
Up by the arched lych-gate now, watching people stepping down to the cobbles to join the ragged tail of the procession.
The blinds are down at the Post Office, soon to be the only shop remaining in Bridelow. Ernie hardly recognizes black-clad Milly Gill, who normally looks like a walking botanical garden. Is she in mourning just for Matt Castle, or for Bridelow itself?
The coffin's at a funny angle because of the respective heights of the men carrying it, from little Willie to gangling Frank. Are Willie and Milly Gill back together? Ernie hopes so; they need each other, time like this.
Lottie Castle follows immediately behind and, by 'eck, mourning becomes her, she's never looked as fine, the red hair swept back under a neat, black pillbox hat with a little veil, generous mouth set hard. With her, half a pace behind, is the lad, Dic, a leather case under his arm. Go on, turn over, you've got to look…
The coffin on a wooden bier beneath the Autumn Cross, the Rector hunched stiffly before it, his strong hair slumped over his forehead, not quite hiding pearls of sweat, and the lines in his face like an engraving.
Behind the Rector bobs the new curate, curly-haired lad, built like a brick privy. Bit of a firebrand, by all accounts.
He'll be all right. He'll settle down. Won't he?
At the side, by the choir stalls, is Hans's lass, Catherine, who seems all of a sudden to have lost her youth. Anxiety on her firm, plain face; worried about her dad, and with good reason. Needs a long rest, that lad.
Two youngsters with guitars who Ernie doesn't recognize sing a wistful but forgettable ballad, stop and look around afterwards before realising congregations aren't supposed to applaud, especially at a funeral.
Then the Rector gets down to it.
'Lord, we're here to thank you for the life of Matthew Castle, and to pray that his soul might…'
Ernie, in the centre of the rearmost pew, locates Ma Wagstaff without much difficulty – that's quite a hat Ma's got on, with those big black balls on it. Anyway, it's through Ma that he spots… the mystery woman. Otherwise he never would have noticed her, all in black like that and in the shadow of the pillar.
Ma turns around just once, with that famous penetrating stare. Thought at first the old girl was looking at him. And then he sees the black, hooded figure to his left, on the little seat wedged up against the stone pillar.
By 'eck. They're not usually as public as this about it, these women. Pretty place, this church. Norman, was it, those huge archways? And candles here and there, like in a Catholic church.
Warm stained glass with Garden of Eden-type pictures full of flowers and fruit.
And the cross that hung above the carved wooden screen dividing the nave from whatever the altar area was called.
The cross was of green wood. Or at least wood that had been green last summer. Woven boughs, some with shrivelled, dead leaves still hanging from them. A cross from the woods and the hedgerows. Yeah, nice. And strange. One of several strange things in here – like the German Shepherd dog sitting stoically on a pew next to a small boy.
Well, why not?
But still just a wee bit weird.
Jesus, she'd be feeling at home here next. But she still kept the cloak about her; it was pretty damn cold in here and going to be a good deal colder outside, when the darkness came down.
Underneath the cloak, the jeans and jumper she'd travelled down in. No place to change. Wouldn't worry Matt how she looked, but jeans might not be viewed as entirely respectful at a funeral in these parts; keep them covered.
Also…I don't want this place to know me. Don't want to be identified by Lottie or Willie or Dic or anybody who ever bought a Castle Band album.
Not yet, OK?.
Locking the car, she'd glanced up into the thickening sky, and thought, Before this burial's over, it's going to be fully dark. Matt Castle going out of the dark and into the last black hole, and the peaty soil heaped upon him under cover of the night.
But no bad thing, the dark.
I can't face anybody, she'd thought, standing alone in the muddy parking area behind the church, pulling up the deep hood until her face was lost, traitorous cow, I'll stay at the back, out of sight, I'll pay my respects in my own way. And then I'll get the hell out, and nobody'll be the wiser.
She'd stared up at the church, at its dour, crenellated walls, at its Gothic stained-glass windows showing their dark sides to the sky, taking the light and giving out nothing. At all the pop-eyed stone gargoyles grinning foolishly down on her.
Followed the walls to the tower and the edge of the churchyard where the moor began in ochre tufts and gorse bushes, and in the distance there was a clump of rocks like a toad, and if you blinked the toad would be quivering, having leapt and landed five yards closer.
… there's something here that knows me already.
No people around at that time, only the sensation of them behind the drawn curtains. Not peering through the cracks at the stranger and the stranger's dusty BMW, nothing so obvious.
'This is a knowing place,' she'd found herself saying aloud.
Then, all too damn conscious of looking very like an extremely witchy woman, she'd passed through a wooden wicket gate under a steep, stone archway, to walk a while among Bridelow's dead.
There, at the top of the churchyard, was the hole awaiting Matt, the area immediately around it covered with bright emerald matting, luridly unconvincing artificial grass. She stood on it, on the very edge of the hole, staring down into the black, rooty soil. And saw again the smoke-choked mouth of the great fireplace at the Earl's castle, the clawing thing her mind had constructed there.
Mammy, how was he when he died, can you tell me that?
Backing away from the open grave, thinking, There are people here who can tell me that. And I can't ask.
Standing several yards from the church doorway now and feeling strongly that someone was watching out for her. But knowing from experience that this feeling of being watched wasn't necessarily a case of someone but something. That the watcher could be something in the air, something that existed purely to watch.
Spooking herself. Down here in England, where she had no heritage and there should be no reverberations.
'Aw, fuck this,' she'd said aloud, turning towards the church doorway, looking up… directly into the massively exaggerated, gaping pussy of the Sheelagh na gig.
'Shit,' Moira said. 'Was you, wasn't it?'
The Sheelagh. The exhibitionist. The stone effigy of a woman, compressed to the dimensions of a gargoyle. Thrusting out her privates and leering about it. A blatant fertility symbol (or something) almost always found in the stonework of churches, mostly in Ireland.
But rarely as prominent as this.
'Got yourself a prime spot, here, hen,' said Moira. She'd walked under the Sheelagh na gig, through the porch and into the church, feeling better now she knew who'd been watching her. This was OK, this was not the white-haired, white-faced man who'd tried to steal the comb and (maybe…) brought the bloody house down. This was something older, more benevolent (maybe…).
She'd been the first in church. She'd sat here alone inside her own dark shroud, concealed by a pillar, until…
Until Matt arrived.
'… we'll all of us remember the day Matt returned,' the Minister said. 'The gratitude felt by the whole village that its second most important institution was to be saved…
He's not well, this minister, Moira thought. And he's worried. A real sense of oppression coming off him. And there shouldn't be that in here. This is abnormal.
The old lady knows, the one in the really bizarre hat. Hans leads them out into the churchyard, the pace all the more funereal because he can hardly walk.
As they near the doors, Ernie Dawber, standing up in his pew, sees the curate, Joel Beard, stride forward to take the Rector's arm. Then there's a rush of footsteps down the aisle and he sees Catherine squeeze past the coffin resting on the shoulders of Willie and Eric, Frank Senior and Young Frank and practically throw herself between the two clergymen, dashing the curate's hand aside and snatching her father's arm, clasping it.
By 'eck. No love lost there and she doesn't care who knows it.
The pews are emptying from front to back, which means Ernie will be the last out, except for the Mystery Woman. He glances behind just once, as he joins the end of the procession, but she's not there.
Sometimes they just disappear, these people. The next picture is so black at first, because of the sky, that it's almost like a woodcut.
The graveyard packed like a dark fairground. But a circle of space at the top, where the moor looms above the rectangular hole in the soil, which, when the lamplight flares, is like the opening of a shaft.
Alfred Beckett, verger and organist, has lit a metal paraffin lantern which he holds up on a pole, hanging it over the grave as Hans completes the burial rite, his own version, some of it turned about, but all the old lines there.
'Man born of woman hath but a short time…'
As the phrases fade, like a curlew it begins.
Ernie gasps, muffling his mouth with a leather-gloved hand, clutching a Victorian marble cross for support. A hush enclosing the churchyard as the cold and homeless notes roam the air.
He straightens up against the cross, brushing in relief at his overcoat. It's the lad. Dic. Matt's coffin on the ground at the edge of the grave and Dic standing by it, the Pennine Pipes under his arm and the wilderness music swirling up into the cold.
Only the lad. For just a few seconds…
Ernie moving closer. The lad plays well. His dad'd be proud. Tries to see Lottie's face, but her head's turned away.
Someone weeping behind him.
Can't see the coffin any more. The four bearers lined up on either side of Dic, concealing the grave. Lamplight shows him the fingers of Willie Wagstaff's left hand starting to move against his thigh, a slow beat, in time with the piped lament.
Ernie finds he's standing next to the lamp-bearer, Alf Beckett, when somebody – likely a woman – whispers, 'Put it out, Alf.'
'Put lamp out.'
Silently, Alf Beckett lowers the pole to the ground, unhooks the lantern, lays it on the grass at his feet, shuffling around to put himself in front of it so that no light is cast into the grave.
'Fine. Ta, lad.'
Quite soon, behind the pipes, there's a scraping and a scuffling on the ground, like mice or rats. Ernie tries to shut it out. He's not supposed to hear this. He looks up, away from it, and the only face he can see clearly is the Rector's, upturned to the sky, to what light remains.
The Rector also knows he is not supposed to hear or to see. He has his eyes tightly closed.
'Get it over with,' Ernie hisses. 'Get it bloody done!'
Raises his eyes above the little graveside scrum but doesn't close them. Sees the black shapes of the sparse trees on the edge of the churchyard, where it meets the moor. The trees trembling. Has this withering, shrivelling sense of something blowing towards them, off the moor, off the Moss.
Irrational. His nerves. Like the night when he was scared the Moss would swallow the sun and it would never come up again.
Come on, settle down, calm yourself, there's nowt you can do except keep your mouth shut and your eyes averted. Nowt here for the Book of Bridelow.
Dic keeps on piping, the same melancholy tune, over and over again, but erratic now, off-key; he's getting tired… but the noises behind him go on, the scuffling on the ground, and now a jarring creak and an intake of breath.
And then all hell…
'Stop! Let me through!'
Rough hands thrusting Ernie aside.
'Mr Beckett, where's the lamp? Stand back, will you. Stand back, I said, or somebody… will… get… hurt.'
The lantern snatched up, its gassy-white flame slanting, flaring in the furious eyes of the Rev. Joel Beard, smoke rolling from the funnel.
Hands grab at him to hold him back from the grave, but Joel, snarling, is big and fuelled-up with rage, the metal cross swinging as his cassocked chest swells and his elbows slam back.
The lamp flies up into the night and Joel catches it by its base as it falls, pushing Alf Beckett so that Alf spins sideways into Dic Castle and the Pennine Pipes make a squirming, ruptured noise, subsiding into empty, impotent blowing and wheezing.
The Rev. Joel Beard steps to where the coffin of Matt Castle lies at the grave's edge, and he lifts the lantern high.
She was not among those weeping when the Pennine Pipes began.
It got to her in other ways…
Hanging back behind the crowd, still as the headstones around her, Moira felt confused, puzzled… the plucking at something inside her, starting this small, familiar tingle in her lower abdomen.
OK, she would have known anyway that it wasn't Matt she could hear, there wasn't the same lilting, light-as-air technique, the inimitable agility. Would have been no mistaking that.
The Roman numerals on the church clock, lit-up, said 5.30. It would be dark at 5.30 this time of year. But the darkness had the icy, velvet quality of midnight, and whoever had organized this service had known it was going to end like this.
Sure as hell was the strangest funeral she'd ever been to, the minister and the principal mourners in a distant lamplit huddle, the freezing air over the entire churchyard somehow electric with this almost feverish, dreamlike tension, and the piping going on and on and on, like in a time-loop… so that you wound up mentally pinching yourself, asking, is this real?
Like, where am I? Did I drive across these unknown hills into some dream dimension?
Needing at last to break through, maybe talk to someone, hear the sound of her own voice, anybody's voice, she moved closer, symbolically tossing back the hood of her cloak… at the moment the lantern went down.
She saw the big shapes of the trees at the end of the churchyard. Below them, shadows intertwined. The amorphous tableau at the top of the small rise where Matt's grave was to be. From whence came the insistent, never-ending piping but no sounds of a funeral service, no suggestion of anyone leading the proceedings.
Only – under the pipes, as she drew close – a whispering, as if there was more than one person whispering but they weren't listening to each other, the voices rustling together like wind-dried leaves.
And she caught a passing perfume, a sick, sad smell.
Then, to her left, a small commotion. An expulsion of breath from a yard or so away, a dragging on her cloak and she was almost pulled down.
'Stop!' A man's voice, strong, authoritarian. 'Let me through': For just a second everything froze, and then there was this instinctive communal resistance, a tightening of the clutch of bodies around her. The whispering intensified, new urgency in it, the dead leaves really crackling now.
A scrabbling now, by her feet; some guy had been pushed over, rolled on to the cloak. He found his feet, she reclaimed the cloak. Somewhere nearby there was a struggle going on.
She didn't move. The lamp appeared again, bouncing wildly in the air, like some will-o'-the-wisp thing. In the spinning light she got a split-second picture of… must be Matt's boy, Dic Castle, playing the pipes, the bag trapped in an elbow, his face red with effort, and Willie Wagstaff next to Dic, Willie's eyes flitting anxiously, from side to side, and she could almost feel the rhythm of the little guy's famously impressionable fingers in her head, thud, thud…
Thud, thud… And then the oil-lamp went up again, was held steady.
And Moira looked down, oh, Jesus, into Matt Castle's face framed in quilted white.
The smell. The perfume of the dead. The coffin lid off. His hair gone. Grave-dirt spilled on his closed eyes.
The way you never want to see them, the way you can't bear to remember them. And still you can't turn away your head; it won't move.
What have they done…?
Moira began to shiver. She closed her eyes, and this was worse, like waking up in the fast lane, her senses lurching out of control, cracked images oscillating in the steamy half-light between perceived reality and illusion, the place where the whispers went.
… vaporous arms reaching from the smoky maw of a great fireplace…
… the splintering white of a skull-storm…
… dancing lights on the moor… a rock like an encroaching toad… pop-eyed gargoyles belching blood… an eruption of steaming intestine on stone…
All these reflecting one to another like in the shards of a shattered mirror, while tiny, vicious, chattering voices gnawed at her eardrums and she felt something sucking around her shoes pulling her down, and she knew that if she didn't open her eyes she'd be screaming like a loony.
But when she did it was no better. She blinked in pain.
He lay there in his coffin. Matt Castle, not in a shroud but a plain, white T-shirt. And his grey-white hands, crossed over his chest, were fumbling at it.
Oh, God, oh, Jesus, his damned hands were…
'How dare you! How dare you!'
The man holding up the lantern, the big cleric she'd seen in the church earlier, this man's face bleached in the lamplight with rage and shock.
Below him, the old lady with the bizarre hat, sleeves pushed up and both arms in the coffin, pressing something into the dead hands of Man Castle, crossed over his breast.
It was her hands moving, not his.
Moira saw a frightened, angry glazing in the eyes of the big man as he bent roughly down with the lamp, forced himself between the old woman and the body in the coffin.
She thought she heard him sob, or it might have been her.
The big minister guy had put his own hand in there… Holy Christ, is this real…?… and brought it out, something clutched into a fist.
'Put that back…' The old woman's eyes flashing green-gold, like a cat's, in the lantern-light.
'This is… unpardonable…' Yeah, he was sobbing, the big man; sickened, shattered, furious at what he was doing.
'Joel…' The minister, the Rector, was there, on the other side of the grave, his face all twisted up, the fair-haired girl still holding on to his arm. 'Please. Put it back. I'll explain to you, I promise…'
'How… How can…'
'Turn away, Joel. Please. It isn't what you… Just turn away.'
The big clergyman lifted his left hand to the lamp. He was holding up a small bottle. Something moved in it, liquid. Moira glimpsed red.
'Joel…Give it to me…You don't understand…'
She saw that Joel was breathing rapidly now, a kind of wild, petulant hysteria there. She saw him rise to his full height, saw his arm pull back.
The Rector screamed, 'No!', shook out of the girl's grip, threw himself across the empty grave, one shoe reaching the phoney nylon grass mat on the other side, inches from the coffin…
… as Joel, breathing violently, hurled the bottle above all the heads towards the moor beyond the trees. Then he turned, put down the lamp and stumbled back into the crowd, his hands flailing.
Heard him clumping away, his outraged breathing. His sobs.
'Grab him, somebody, please…' The girl, and she meant the Rector. People pushing past Moira, reaching out for the minister as the false grass slid from under his shoe and he almost rolled into the open grave. Several minutes later, the graveyard had quietly emptied, except for the group around the empty coffin, Mostly women and not whispering any more. At the centre was the one with the hat. She was the oldest of them. Two of the others replaced the coffin lid.
Moira had backed beyond the lamplight, was a short distance away, leaning up against this tall cross in the Celtic style. Trying to breathe.
Oh, God. Oh, Holy Jesus. What the fuck am I into here?
One of the women at the graveside was Lottie Castle.
Lottie's voice was very quiet, very controlled, carefully folded up tight. 'I can't believe… that any of this has happened.'
'Lottie…'It was Willie, coming up behind her.
'I know,' Willie said. 'I'm sorry.'
'I'll never forgive you, Willie. Or that… her.'
'She only wanted… Oh, Jesus Christ,' Willie wailed.
'This is awful. This is a right bloody mess. I can't tell you. Oh, God, Matt…Why'd it have to be Matt?'
'Willie,' the old girl in the hat demanded. 'Stop that skrikin' and fetch me that bottle back.'
'Ma, nobody's going to find that bloody bottle tonight. If ever.'
'Then we'll have t'do what we can.' She placed both hands on the coffin. 'Pass us me bag, Joyce, it's down behind that cross.' Moira tensed; at her feet was a thick vinyl shopping bag.
Lottie's leather boot slammed down hard on the coffin between the old woman's hands. 'You,' Lottie said, 'have done about enough for one day.'
The old woman's hat fell off. She looked startled. Like nobody ever spoke to her this way.
'You don't understand, girl.'
Moira sensed an even further drop in the temperature of the night air between them. 'No,' Lottie said. 'You're right. I don't understand any of this. I don't want to. Matt thought he did. He thought he should. Well, what good did it do him? Tell me that. I thought you'd try something. I told Willie to warn you off. It goes against everything I… everything I don't believe.'
'Please, lass,' the old woman coaxed. 'Let us get on with it, best we can. Let's try and put things straight before…'
'No. That's it. Finish. You've blown it, Mrs Wagstaff. You've turned the burial of my husband into a bloody circus. You even… involved my son in your pathetic, superstitious… Anyway, that's it. It ends here. Willie, you and Eric and the Franks are going to put that poor man in the ground.'
The old woman looked up at her. 'I beg of you, Mrs Castle…'
'Ha! The famous Ma Wagstaff begging? Don't make me laugh. Don't make it worse. Just get out of my way, you silly old bag.'
Lottie stood on the fake grass behind the coffin and raised a boot. 'Now. Have I got to push it in myself?'
She stopped. 'Where's Dic?'
Willie said, 'I told him to help them get Rector home. I thought it'd be best. Lad'd 'ad enough.'
One of the other women with Ma Wagstaff said hesitantly, 'Is he all right? Rector?'
'I don't know,' Willie said. 'Lottie, look… what Ma's on about… I know how bloody awful it seems. Hate it meself…'
'Then put my husband in the ground, Willie Wagstaff. And you…' Lottie stared contemptuously at Ma Wagstaff. 'If I ever see you near this grave again, I swear I'll wring your stringy old neck for you.'
She stood and folded her arms and waited. Moira knew she wouldn't move until the last shovelful was trampled down.
When Ma Wagstaff looked at her she turned her back.
'Right, then.' Willie had a rope. He threw one end across the grave and another man caught it. 'OK, Frank. Where's t'other rope? Let's do this proper. I'm sorry, Ma, she's right. Nowt else you can do now. Let's get it filled in.'
Ma Wagstaff stood up, put on the hat with the black balls, dented now. She said, 'Well, that's it. It's started.'
'There were more of um here. At least one. I could tell. I could feel um. Like black damp.'
'Go home. Ma. Stoke thi' fire up, make a cuppa, eh? I'll be 'round later. See you're all right. Now, don't you look at me like that, I'm not a kid no more, I'm fifty-four… going on seventy, after today.'
'Black seed's sown,' Ma Wagstaff said ominously. 'Bury him tight and pray for us all.'
The old woman walked unsteadily away, her back bent. Like she'd been beaten, mugged, Moira thought. Several other women followed her silently down the cemetery path.
The church clock, shining bluish in the sky, said 5.42.
When the women reached the shadow of the cross where Moira stood. Ma Wagstaff stopped, stiffened, stared up at her.
As Moira silently handed her the shopping bag, old embers kindled briefly in Ma's eyes. Neither spoke. Moira didn't know her.
And yet she did. Hans lay stiffly on the old sofa in the Rectory sitting room. They'd put cushions under his knees, taken off his dog-collar. His eyes were wide open but Ernie Dawber could tell they wouldn't focus.
Hans kept trying to tell them something, but his mouth wasn't shaping the words.
'Can't fee… fee…'
'Pop, stay quiet. Let's put your overcoat over your legs. How's that? Mr Dawber, don't you think we should get the doctor to him?'
'I do. You go and make us some tea, Catherine. Dic, ring for an ambulance.'
When they'd gone, Ernie leaned over Hans. 'Don't try and talk, just nod, all right? Are you trying to say there's bits of you you can't feel? Hey up, you don't have to nod that hard, just tilt your jaw slightly. Is it your arm? Your shoulder?'
Hans pushed an elbow back into the sofa, trying to raise himself. 'Chest. Shoulders.'
'Now, then…' Ernie raised a warning finger. 'Listen, lad, we've known each other a long time, me and thee. I'll be frank with you. I'm not a doctor, but my feeling is you've had a bit of a heart attack.'
The Rector squirmed in protest.
'Ah, ah! Don't get alarmed, now, I've seen this before. It's nowt to get panicked about. What you are is a classic case of a man who's been pushing himself too far for too long. I know this is not what you'd call an easy one, this parish, for a clergyman, and you've handled things with tremendous skill, Hans, and courage, over the years, anybody here'll agree with that…'
The Rector's eyes flashed frustration.
'Aye, I know. It's not the best of times to get poorly, what, with… one thing and another. And that Joel… by 'eck, he's a rum bugger, that lad. Impetuous? Well… But, Hans, be assured, they'll cope, the Mothers' Union. They will cope. They've had enough practice. Over the years.'
Wished he felt half as confident as he sounded. The trouble with Bridelow was so much had been left unsaid for so long that nobody questioned the way the mechanisms operated any more. It was just how things were done, no fuss, no ceremony, until there was a crisis… and they found the stand-by machinery was all gunged up through lack of use.
When they heard the warble of the ambulance, Hans grabbed hold of Ernie's wrist and began to talk. 'I've buggered things, Ernie.'
'Don't be daft. Don't worry about Joel. This time next week he'll think it was all a bad dream.'
The Rector's dry face puckered.
'Don't think so? Oh, aye. Folk do, y'know. Things heal quick in Brid'lo. The thing about it… and I've been thinking about this a lot – and writing it down. Started a book – don't say owt about it, God's sake – Dawber's secret Book of Bridelow. Not for publication, like, Ma Wagstaff'd have a fit… just to bring all the strands together, reason it out for meself…'
'No, look…' Hans blinked hard.
'No, the thing about Bridelow… it's so prosaic. Know what I mean? Not sensational. No dressing up… or dressing down, for that matter. Nowt to make a picture spread in the News of the World. Joel? Nobody'd believe him, would they? You think about it.'
He patted the Rector's hand. 'No, better still, don't think about it. Get yourself a bit of a rest. I'll handle things. Brid'lo born, Brid'lo bred. Leave it to Uncle Ernie.'
This had been his forte as a headmaster. Getting the kids to trust him. Even when he hadn't the foggiest idea what he was doing.
As the ambulance men crunched up the path, Hans said, 'Shurrup, you old fool and listen. It's Joel.'
'Like I said, we'll handle him.'
'No. You don't understand. Know where he's… where he's going to spend the night. Do you?'
'Back in Sheffield if he's got any sense.'
'No. He's… made up a bed. Little cellar under the church. Ernie… Don't let him. Not now. Not after this.'
'Oh,' said Ernie. 'By 'eck. You spent a night down there once, didn't you?'
She told him that not only had she never eaten here, she'd never even been inside the joint before. And he, having stayed in better hotels most of his life, felt – as usual – like an over privileged asshole.
She had the grouse, first time for that too. (Didn't Scots eat grouse on a regular basis, like Eskimos and seal meat?) He joined her, a new experience for him also. The grouse wasn't so great, as well as which, it looked like a real bird, which made him feel guilty.
Afterwards, looking up from the sweet trolley, she said, 'I suppose you'll be wanting your pound of flesh, then.'
'Aw, come on, Fiona. I can buy a girl dinner without the question of flesh coming into it.'
'I should be so lucky.' She smiled enticingly. 'I was referring to Moira. You'll want to know about Moira.'
'Well,' he said, 'yeah. But only if this isn't gonna get you into any kind of, uh…'
'Shit?' said Fiona. 'I don't think so. I see all Mr Kaufmann's receipts, he never comes here. Anyway, it's nice to live dangerously for a change. I bet you live your whole life dangerously.'
'Me?' For one and a half years after leaving college he'd been a trainee assistant director. The very next day he was an executive producer. Mom's company. 'Uh, well, not so's you'd notice.'
'You do look kind of dangerous, Mungo.'
'Looks can be deceptive.' Last thing he planned was to seduce this one.
'Irish,' she said. 'You look Irish, somehow.'
'So people keep telling me.'
'Mungo,' she said. 'Aw, hey, that's really incredible. Mungo Macbeth.'
'Of the Manhattan Macbeths. My Mom's real proud of that.' Giving her the condensed autobiography. 'From being a small kid, I learned how the actual King Macbeth was really a good guy whose name was unjustly blackened by this English hack playwright.'
'That's true, actually,' Fiona said. 'He wisny a bad guy.'
'I'm told they also used to play pipe-band records to me in my cradle,' Macbeth said, screwing up his nose. 'But that made me cry, so they hired this genuine Scottish nanny, used to sing me Gaelic lullabies. That part I remember. That was great. That was how I got into the music'
'My dad used to sing me Tom Jones,' Fiona said glumly.' "The Green Green Grass of Home". Not so great.'
'My dad never got to sing me anything,' Macbeth said. 'He didn't last that long. He was kind of jettisoned by my mother's family before I was born. They are the Macbeths. My dad's name was Smith. I mean, Smith? Forget it. So, anyhow, this trip came up, she said. Go… go feel the true power of your Celtic heritage.'
'You feeling it?'
'I'm feeling a jerk is what I'm feeling. I won't say she was expecting a delegation from the clan Macbeth to turn out for me at the airport in full Highland costume, but you get the general picture.'
'Out of interest, have you actually seen anybody in a kilt since you got here? Apart from at the Earl's do?'
'So what'll you tell her when you get home? Hey, would it be OK for me to have the profiteroles?'
'And just a coffee for me,' he said to the waiter. 'Make that two – I'll wait. What do I tell Mom? I'll say I had a peculiarly Celtic experience. I'll say it was too deep and personal to talk about.'
'Oh, wow,' Fiona said, rolling her big eyes. Problem was that tonight she didn't look eighteen any more. She was in a tight red dress – well, some of her was in it. Macbeth thought hard about Moira Cairns to take his mind off this comparatively minor but far from discountable temptation.
'I'll tell her I met a real witch,' he said. 'One of the weird sisters.'
'Aw, she's no' a witch,' Fiona said scornfully.
'No? What is she?'
'She's what my granny used to call fey. OK, maybe a bit more than that. Like, one day she was very annoyed with Mr Kaufmann… I mean she's usually quite annoyed with him but this was something… Anyway, here they are, raging away at each other, and she's about to storm out the door and then she just turns round, like she's gonny say something else, only she canny find the words. And then… one of the damn filing cabinets starts to shake and… I'm no' kidd'n' here… all four drawers come shoot'n' out at once. Really incredible. Awesome silence afterwards.'
'Coulda been an earth tremor.'
'That was what Mr Kaufmann said. But he still went all white, y'know? I mean, that filing cabinet was locked, I'm certain it was.'
'I can sympathize.' Macbeth shuddered, his mind making a white skull out of the tureen on an adjacent table. 'Listen, Fiona, I'm a little shaky on Moira's early career. She was at college in Manchester which is where she joined this local band, right?'
'Matt Castle's band. Matt Castle just died.'
'Oh, shit, really?' Remembering something mindlessly insulting he'd said about Matt Castle just after they met. What a shithead. A wonder she spoke to him at all after that.
The waiter brought Fiona's profiteroles. 'Hey, great,' Fiona said. 'So then she was approached about joining this rock band. Offered a lot of money, big money even for the time, to make two albums.'
'The Philosopher's Stone,' Macbeth said. 'But they only made one album.'
'Right. She split before they could get around to the second one. But, see, the word is that the reason they wanted her, apart from her voice, was that… You remember Max Goff, who owned Epidemic Records?'
'He was murdered, year or so ago. Some psychopath kid with a grudge.'
'Right,' Fiona said.
'I didn't know she was with his outfit. It was CBS put out the album in the States.'
'Well, the word is, Mungo…' Fiona leaned conspiratorially across the table, '… that the real reason Max Goff wanted her in the band was he'd heard she was psychic. He was very into all that. Like, he already had a couple of guys signed to Epidemic who were also psychics and he wanted to put them all together in a band, see what happened. Of course Moira didny know this, she thought the guy just liked the way she sang, right?'
'And what happened? I mean, that first album, that was terrific. I wore mine out.'
'Aye, but it all got very heavy, with drugs and stuff, and Moira broke her contract, came back to Scotland, went solo. Signed up with Mr Kaufmann, who's… well, he's no' exactly part of the rock scene.'
'I wondered about that.'
'The other singers on Mr Kaufmann's books are, like, mostly, y'know, nightclub or operatic or kind of Jimmy Shand type of outfits.'
Fiona dug into a profiterole; cream spurted. 'See, Moira made it clear she wisny gonny have anything to do with the rock scene ever again. And that's how it's been. She just does traditional folk concerts and selected cabaret-type dates. Really boring. Hell of a waste.'
'It's very intriguing. What do you think happened?'
Fiona shrugged. 'Most likely she just got in with a bad crowd. I used to think, well, maybe she was doing drugs in a big way. Heroin or something. And realised it was, like, a one- way street, y'know?'
'But you don't think that now?'
She shook her head. 'I know her better now. She's too strong. She widny touch drugs – not the kind that might get any kind of hold on her, anyway. I think it's more likely she just rejected the psychic stuff, the way they were fooling about, Max Goff and these guys. She knows what it can do, right? Like, if one person can shoot all the drawers out of a filing cabinet, what's gonny happen wi' four or five of them…?'
'This is fascinating, Fiona.' The kid was smarter than he'd figured. 'You're saying maybe she came back to Scotland to, kind of, put herself in psychic quarantine. Maybe scared of what she could do.'
'I'm only guessing,' Fiona said, 'but how come she'll no play any of the old songs any more? I think she wants to put all that stuff behind her. But can you do that? Being psychic, I mean, it's no' like a jumper you can take back to Marks and Spencer. Drink your coffee, Mungo, 's gonny get cold.'
He drank his coffee, not tasting it. He'd been fooling himself that this thing about Moira was purely… well, more than physical… romantic, maybe. She was beautiful and intelligent, and he loved her music from way back. But maybe it went deeper. Maybe this was a woman who he'd instinctively known had been closer to… what? The meaning of things?
Things that having money and influence and famous friends couldn't let you into?
Time of life, he thought, staring absently into Fiona's cleavage. Or maybe I really do have Celtic roots.
'Mungo,' she said. 'Can I ask you something?'
'Go ahead.' He could guess.
'All this stuff about a miniseries…'
'Kaufmann told you about that?'
'I keep my ear to the ground.'
Or the door. He grinned. 'Yeah?'
'Was that on the level?'
'You mean, are we gonna go ahead with a film about, uh…'
'An American guy who comes over here to trace his roots and…'
'… falls in love with this beautiful…'
'Aw, hey,' she said. 'I think that's sweet.'
'So maybe you'll help me.'
'Tell me where I find her.'
'I don't know,' Fiona said. 'Really.'
From Dawber's Secret Book of Bridelow (unpublished):
The oldest woman in Bridelow commands, as you would expect, considerable respect, as well as a certain affection.
Ma Wagstaff? No, I am afraid I refer to Our Sheila who displays her all above the church porch.
The so-called Sheelagh na gig (the spelling varies) is found – inexplicably – in the fabric of ancient churches throughout the British Isles: a survival of an older religion, some say, or a warning against heathen excess. Usually it is lazily dismissed as 'some sort of fertility symbol'.
The shapes and sizes vary, but the image is the same: a female shamelessly exposing her most private parts. Pornography, I am glad to say, it isn't. The faces of these ancient icons are normally grotesque in the extreme, their bodies compressed and ludicrous.
Our Sheila, however, is a merry lass with an almost discernible glint in her bulging stone eyes and a grin which is more innocent than lewd.
Do not dismiss her as a mere 'fertility symbol'. She has much to say about the true nature of Bridelow.
Round about 6.30, Chrissie had got a phone call from the police. Would she mind popping over to the Field Centre?
When she'd arrived the place was all lights. Police car and a van outside, an unmarked Rover pulling in behind her.
When the two CID men from the Rover walked across, they looked as if they'd been laughing. Now, facing her across her own desk, they were straight-faced but not exactly grim.
'I'm Detective Inspector Gary Ashton,' the tall one said. 'This is DS Hawkins' – waving a hand at the chubby one in the anorak. 'Now… Miss White.'
'Chrissie,' she said.
'Lovely: He was a fit-looking bloke, short grey hair and a trenchcoat. Fancy that… even with policemen, fashion goes in circles.
'If you've been trying to get hold of Dr Hall,' she said helpfully, 'he went to a funeral, but it should be well over by now.'
'Thank you. We know,' Ashton said. 'He left early, apparently, and went home. He's on his way. Now, just to get our times right, when exactly did you go home?'
Oh, sugar, Chrissie thought. 'We finish at four forty-five,' she said.
Actually she'd left at 4.15. Just before four, Alice had fallen back on the irrefutable – claiming she had one of her migraines coming on. Chrissie had stuck it for fifteen minutes on her own and then thought, sod it, and gone to fetch her coat.
'Four forty-five,' Ashton said. 'Right.' They could tell when you were lying, couldn't they? If he could, he didn't seem too concerned.
'Now,' he said. 'You're responsible for locking up, are you?'
'I do it if there's nobody else. I wouldn't say I'm responsible. There's the caretaker, he comes on at five. And then a private security firm comes round a few times at night… that's just since he's been here. They were worried there might be a few, you know… weirdo types, wanting to have a look. Or something. What's happened, then? Has there been a break-in?'
'So when you left, everything was locked up. What d'you do with the keys?'
'The front and back door keys we drop off at the caretaker's office at the main college building. The keys to the bogman section… we keep those in here, I'm afraid. Is that bad? In one of the filing cabinets – but that's always locked at night, of course.'
If this chap's an inspector, she realised, it's got to be more than just a break-in.
'And the big doors at the back?'
'We never open them. Well, only when… when the bogman arrived in a van. They brought him straight in that way.'
'Do you go round and check those doors, Chrissie, before you leave? Round the outside, I mean.'
'Do I buggery,' said Chrissie. 'I'm an office manager, not a flaming night watchman. Look, come on, what's this all about? What's happened?'
Ashton smiled. 'So you didn't see or hear anything suspicious before you left?'
'No. Not tonight.' Oops.
'What d'you mean, not tonight?'
'Well… I thought I heard a noise in there, where… he is… a couple of nights ago, but it was nothing. Probably a bird on the roof.'
'You didn't raise the alarm?'
'What for? It was locked. I knew nobody could get in through those doors without making a hell of a racket, so there didn't seem…'
'Somebody got in tonight, Miss White.'
'Oh, hell,' said Chrissie. 'They didn't damage him, did they? Roger'll go hairless.' She was cold. The BMW beckoned.
She could, after all, simply drive away from this.
Nobody invited you, girl.
Frost on the cobbles. No one else on the street. Curtains drawn, chimneys palely smoking.
Ah, the burden of guilt and regret. All he'd done for you, all he meant to you, and the thought that you'd never see him again.
Well, you saw him.
Problem with this place was there was nowhere you could even get a cup of coffee… except the pub.
She stood and stared at it from across the road. It was a large, shambling building set back from the street, with a field behind it and nothing behind that but peat. Dark sooty stone. Windows on three floors, none of the upper ones lit. Outside was a single light with an iron shade, a converted gaslamp, quite a feeble glow, just enough to light up the sign above the door: The Man I'th Moss. In black. No picture.
Didn't look like Lottie Castle's kind of place. Lottie was big sofas and art-nouveau prints.
Moira stepped lightly across the cobbles, peered through the doorway. Only a dozen or so people in the bar, Lottie not among them. Willie was there, with Eric Marsden. The big dollop of hair over Eric's forehead had gone grey but he looked no more mournful than he always had. Eric: the quiet one. In every band there was always a quiet one.
Go in then, shall I?
Why, it's Moira…
Come to help us re-form the band?
Just one problem. We had to bury Matt.
Never mind. Have a drink, lass.
She turned away, gathering her cloak about her. Moved quietly across the forecourt to the steeply sloping village street.
There was a guy leaning against the end wall of a stone terrace, smoking a cigarette. She kept her distance, walked down the middle of the street, along the cobbles.
Nothing for you here. Go back to what you know. The fancy clubs and the small halls. You can play that scene until you're quite old, long as the voice holds out. Save up the pennies. In twenty years you can retire to a luxury caravan, like the Duchess. Sea views. All your albums collected under the coffee table.
As she came abreast of him, the guy against the wall turned and looked at her, muttered something. Sounded like 'Fucking hell'.
Then he tossed his cigarette into the road at her feet. 'And they tell me,' he said, 'that this used to be a respectable neighbourhood.'
'Who's that?' Too dark to make out his features.
'You don't know me.'
'But you know me, huh?'
'Yeah,' he said. 'But not nearly as well as my dad did.'
'Oh,' Moira said.
His voice had sounded different when she last heard it. Like high, pre-pubertal.
'Dic,' she said. 'You want to go somewhere and discuss all this?'
He laughed. A short laugh. Matt's laugh, A cawing.
'Well?' she said.
'I'm thinking,' he said from deep within his shadow.
''Cause I don't mind,' Moira said. 'I'm easy.'
'Yeah,' he said, 'we all knew that.'
Moira paused. 'That was your chance, Dic. I threw you that one. You gave the predictable, adolescent answer. So go fuck yourself, OK?'
She turned away, moved quickly up the street, clack, clack, clack on the cobbles. As good a way as any to do your exit.
Grabbing the chance to go out angry; it helped. On either side of her were the gateposts of the stone cottages, a black cat on one, watching her like it knew her well. Lights behind curtains, lights from an electrified gaslamp projecting from an end wall, and over them all, like another moon, the illuminated church clock. Take it all in, you won't see it again. Bye-bye, Bridelow.
'All right!' It rang harshly from the cobbles like an iron bar thrown into the street.
It didn't stop her.
'Yeah, OK!' Running feet.
She carried on walking, turned towards the lych-gate, the corpse gate, but passed it by and entered the parking area behind the church, where it was very dark.
She was taking her keys out of her bag when he caught up with her.
'I'm sorry. All right?'
'Good. You'll be able to sleep.' Fitted the key in the car door. 'Night, Dic. Give my love to your mother.'
'Hey,' she said gently. 'I'm leaving, OK? You know your dad was screwing me, what can I say to that?'
'I want to talk about it.'
'Well, I'm no' talking here, it's cold and I'm no' going to the pub, so maybe you should just go away and think about it instead, huh? Call me sometime. Fix it up with my agent. I'm tired. I'm cold.'
'Where will you go?'
'And what the fuck does that have to do with you? I shall find a nice, anonymous hotel somewhere…'
'Look,' Dic said. 'There is somewhere we can talk. Somewhere warm.'
'Cosy.' Moira got into the car. 'Goodnight.'
She started the engine, switched on the lights, wound down the window- 'By the way. Your playing, it was… Well, you're getting there.'
'I don't want to get there,' he said without emotion. 'I just wanted to please him.'
'Aye,' Moira said.
'It never did, though.'
'No,' she said.
A dumpy, elderly man walked through the headlamp beams. He wore a long raincoat and a trilby bat, like Donald's, only in better shape. 'Good evening,' he said politely, as he passed. The lights were on in the church, am be ring the pillars in the nave. A suitcase stood by the font.
Ernie Dawber watched the new curate manhandling a metal paraffin stove into the vestry.
'All right, lad?'
Joel Beard, alarmed, set down the stove with a clang.
'Ernie Dawber, lad. We met the other day, with Hans.'
'Ah, yes.' The curate recovered, stood up straight. He was wearing his cassock and the huge pectoral cross. 'Look, I'm sure you mean well, Mr Dawber, but I'd rather not discuss anything tonight, if you don't mind.'
'Beg your pardon?'
'The funeral, Mr Dawber. What happened at the funeral. You were about to tell me how innocuous it all was. I'm saying I'd rather not discuss it.'
'Well, I think we should discuss it, Mr Beard. Because it looks like you're in charge now.'
Joel Beard looked bewildered. He'd obviously rushed away from the graveside, dashed down to his little cell to recover and didn't yet know about Hans.
Ernie told him.
'Oh,' Joel said. 'Oh, my Lord.'
'Is he going to be all right?'
'Happen,' said Ernie. 'If he gets some rest. If he doesn't spend all his time worrying what the bloody hell's going on back in Bridelow.'
Joel Beard gave him a hard look for swearing in church.
'Now look, lad,' Ernie said. 'Pull yourself together. You're not really going to kip down there?'
'I am.' Joel rested an arm on the edge of the font. 'It's quite clear to me that it's become even more important to sleep in God's pocket. You were there today, I think, Mr Dawber. You saw what went on.'
'I saw a big, soft bugger making a bloody fool of himself,' said Ernie stoutly. 'Now, come on, it's getting cold. Pick up your suitcase; you can stay in my spare room for tonight, and we'll have a bit of a chat.'
Joel Beard made no reply. He stood very call and very still, the amber lights turning his tight curls into a golden crown.
'Good night, Mr Dawber,' he said. The double doors crashed back. Roger Hall burst in, and he was white to the edges of his beard.
Chrissie was sitting at her desk, the senior detective, Ashton, casually propping his bum against it, hands deep into his trenchcoat pockets, the detective-sergeant playing with the zip on his anorak.
Roger just stood in the doorway breathing like a trainee asthmatic. He was wearing casual gear, the polo shirt and the golfing trousers. 'All right, what's happened?' Staring all round the room and finally noticing her. 'Chrissie…?'
'Don't look at me like that, Dr Hall. I know less than you.' Obviously. Being the minion.
'How much did they tell you on the phone, Dr Hall? Ashton asked, corning to his feet.
'Just… Just that… Is this on the level? It s not a joke?'
Ashton shook his head. 'Doesn't look like it, I'm afraid sir.
Roger glared across the office at the metal door. It was shut. 'It's unbelievable.' Shaking his head. 'What happened to the so-called security patrol?'
'We'll be talking to the company, sir, have no doubts.
Meantime, we didn't like to touch anything until you got here, so it you'd be good enough to take us through…'
Roger nodded dumbly. Chrissie was almost feeling sorry for him. His face was like a crumpled flour bag. He looked like a parent who'd just learned his child had been found on a railway line. In fact, to him, if somebody had vandalized his beloved bogman, this was probably worse
Which is why Chrissie didn't quite feel sorry for him.
The two detectives, Ashton and the chubby one in the anorak, waited while Roger went to unlock his personal high-security cabinet. He brought out both keys. The detectives followed him to the ante-room and then all three of them went through to the inner lab.
Chrissie stayed behind, elbows on her desk, chin propped in her hands, waiting for the eruption. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry on his behalf.
'No…!' Roger's voice echoing back. 'Look…Inspector, is it?'
'Gary Ashton, sir. Greater Manchester.'
'I'm… I just can't believe this has happened. What I… Look, let me do some checks. It's possible… unlikely, but possible… that there's a rational explanation. I've been away for a few days this week. It's conceivable, I suppose, that something was arranged and by some incredible oversight I wasn't informed.'
'You mean whoever it was forgot to inform the caretaker they'd be dropping in, sir? After dark?'
'No. You're right. Clutching at straws, I suppose. God almighty, this is… How did they actually get in?'
'Quite professionally done, sir. The rear doors were forced, both sets, but forced by somebody who knew how, if you see what I mean.'
Chrissie heard a clang. Roger's fist hitting the metal table.
'If you wouldn't mind, sir… fingerprints.'
'Sorry. It's just… if anything, any one thing, had been specifically calculated to fucking ruin me, this..
'Ruin you, Dr Hall?'
'I… We had a lot riding on it. You don't get your hands on one of these very often.'
'How valuable would you say? I mean, I realise you can't…'
'Invaluable. And yet nor valuable at all to most people. You could hardly stick it in your hall like a Rodin. It's beyond me, the whole thing. And yet…'
Chrissie's head shot up out of her hands. Never!
'Well, sir, I expect you have photographs. I'll also need to know what kind of vehicle would be required, assuming it has been removed from immediate area.'
Bloody hell! Chrissie stood up. She found she was shaking.
'We'll obviously be searching the grounds pretty thoroughly. But if you wanted to get it away without damaging it…would it need any special conditions? Refrigeration?
'It's in peat. Inspector. Peat's a preservative. That's how he survived for two thousand years.'
'Of course. Sorry. Stupid of me. Anyway… We're clearly not looking for young tearaways here, so have you any idea, any notion at all, who in the wide world would go to so much trouble to…'
'Steal a two-thousand-year-old corpse.'
'Old as that? Well. Wouldn't be much use for medical research then? So what are we looking for? Bit of a nutter? A rich eccentric collector? I'll be honest, Dr Hall, I've not come across anything quite like this. It's a one-off.'
'It's unbelievable,' Roger said for about the fifteenth time, and Chrissie heard him pacing the echoing empty lab.
The girl who opened the Rectory door was sipping red soup off the top of an overflowing mug. She watched both of them cautiously over the rim.
'Sorry,' Dic said. 'It's an awkward time.'
She swallowed hot soup, winced. 'No problem. I'm on my own.'
'That's what I thought. We, er, we needed somewhere to talk… Sorry… your dad, is he… How is he?'
'They say it's a minor heart attack.' Tomato soup adhering to her lips. 'I'm not allowed to see him until tomorrow, he has to have rest. Ma Wagstaff says not to worry. He'll be OK.'
She sounded like this was supposed to be a reliable medical opinion. 'This is Moira Cairns,' Dic said.
'Hello,' Catherine Gruber said limply.
Moira sensed she was worried sick. The porch light was a naked bulb. Above it, the gaping orifice, spread by stone thumbs, was deepened by the hard, unsubtle shadows it threw.
The Sheelagh na gig, lit for drama, grinning lasciviously at Joel Beard. And he was appalled to think that everyone entering the church to worship God should have to pass beneath this obscenity.
Tradition, the antiquarians said. Our heritage. Olde Englande.
Joel Beard saw beyond all this, saw it only as symbolic of the legacy of evil he had been chosen to destroy.
A few minutes ago, he'd telephoned the Archdeacon from the kiosk in front of the Post Office, giving him a carefully edited summary of the evening's events in Bridelow. Not mentioning the appalling incident at the graveside with the bottle – which the Archdeacon might have judged to be, at this stage, an over-reaction on his part.
'Well, poor Hans,' the Archdeacon had said easily and insincerely. 'I think he should have a few months off, don't you? Perhaps some sort of semi-retirement. I shall speak to the Bishop. In fact I think I'll go and see him. Meanwhile you must take over, Joel. Do what you feel is necessary.'
'I have your support?'
'My support spiritually – and… and physically, I hope. I shall come to see you. Drop in on you. Very soon. Meanwhile, tread carefully, Joel. Will you live at the Rectory now?'
'The girl's still there, Simon. Hans's daughter. She'll have to go back to Oxford quite soon, I'd guess. But then there's Hans himself, when he leaves hospital.'
'Don't worry. We'll find him somewhere to convalesce. Meanwhile…'
'… I shall sleep in the church. In the priest's cell.'
'All alone down there? My God, Joel, you're a brave man.'
'It's God's House!' Joel had said, even he feeling, with a rare stab of embarrassment, that this was a naive response.
And was it God's House?
And which God?
As he entered the church of St Bride under the spread thighs of the leering Sheelagh, he experienced the unpleasant illusion of being sucked into…
'Long-haired girls,' Dic Castle said bitterly. 'Always the long, dark hair.'
Moira said, 'I can't believe this.'
'No,' she said firmly.
The minister's daughter had left them alone in the Rectory sitting room. Dic had wanted her to stay, like he needed a chaperone with this Scottish whore, but she wouldn't. They could hear her banging at a piano somewhere, ragtime numbers, with a lot of bum notes. Letting them know she wasn't listening at the door.
'He never touched me sexually,' Moira said. 'He never came near. On stage, it was always him on one side, me on the other, Eric and Willie in between but a yard or two back. That was how it was on stage. That was how it was in the van. That was how it was.'
Somewhere, walls away, Catherine Gruber went into the 'Maple Leaf Rag', savaging the ivories, getting something out of her system…
'And you clearly don't believe me.' Moira was sitting on a cushion by the fireplace. Paper had been laid in it, a lattice of wood and a few pieces of coal.
Dic said, 'Followed him once. After a charity gig. She was waiting for him in the car park. About twenty-one, twenty-two. About my age. Long, dark hair.'
'When was this?'
'Fucking little groupies,' Dic said. He was semi-sprawled across a sofa, clutching a cushion. 'At his age. Er… 'bout a year ago, just before he… before it was diagnosed.'
Dic had a lean face, full lips like Matt. Dark red hair, like Lottie. Still had a few spots. 'And, yeah,' he said, 'I do know she wasn't the first.' Staring at Moira in her jeans and her fluffy white angora sweater, hands clasped around her knees, black hair down to her elbows.
'Because you still think the first was me. Sure. And you know something… Gimme a cigarette, will you?'
He tossed the cushion aside, got out a crumpled pack of Silk Cut and a book of matches. 'Didn't know you smoked.'
'Tonight,' she said, taking a cigarette, tearing off a match, 'I smoke.'
The minister's daughter was playing 'The Entertainer', sluggishly.
Moira said, 'Just answer me this. Earlier tonight, at your dad's funeral, at the graveside… I mean, how'd you feel about that?'
His face closed up, hard as stone. 'I just played the pipes. Badly. I didn't see anything.'
She nodded. 'OK.'
'So I don't know what you're talking about.'
'I understand. We'll forget that, then.'
He lit his own cigarette, said through the smoke, 'Mum said you wouldn't be coming anyway.'
'She didn't know.'
'You seen her?'
'No. And that's not because… Listen, I'm gonna say this. There was a time when I felt bad. Twenty, fifteen years ago. When I felt bad because I never came on to him, not even after a gig in some faraway city when we were pissed. And I felt bad that I was twenty years younger and I was taking off nationally, and he was maybe never going to.'
'I bet you did.' Dic sneered. 'I bet that really cut you up.'
She ignored it. 'I was thinking, if we'd slept together, just the once, to kind of get it over, bring down that final barrier… You got the vaguest idea what I'm saying?'
He just looked at her through the smoke.
'Anyway,' Moira said, 'we didn't. It never happened. Maybe that's another piece of guilt I'm carrying around. I don't know.'
The piano music stopped. Dic lay back on the sofa, hands clasped behind his head. Outside, the wind was getting up, spraying dead leaves at the windows.
There was a polite knock on the door and Cathy came in.
'I'm making some tea, if…'
'Oh, yeah, thanks.' Dic sitting up, looking sheepish.
'Be ten minutes,' Cathy said.
Moira said as the door closed, 'Lottie. Your mother. She know about this?'
'We never discussed it."
'But you think she knows, right?"
'This girl. This so-called girl of Matt's. You know who she was?'
'No. I tried to find out from people at the folk club – The Bear, you remember the joint? Nobody seemed to know her.'
'So how do you know they were…?'
'Because they went straight into this shop doorway. Would've taken a jack to prise them apart.'
'Right,' Moira said sadly. 'And she looked… like me?'
'Yeah. Superficially. Like you used to look.'
'Thanks a lot.'
Dic picked up the cushion and hurled it with all his strength at a bare wall. 'I didn't mean it like that, OK? I don't mean a fucking thing I say. I just like insulting people, yeah?'
'Sure,' Moira said. This wasn't getting either of them anywhere. She wished she'd stuck to her original plan and never agreed to come here with him. So he had problems. They'd made him stand there playing the pipes while they messed with his dad's body in its coffin. She could feel the confusion and the rage billowing out of him.
'Dic…' She was going to regret this.
No, she wasn't. She wasn't going to say anything either of them might regret. She gathered up her cloak from the carpet.
'I'm away, all right?' The hissing sound disturbed him. And the occasional popping. And the blue glow.
It came from the circular wick of the paraffin stove. Intense, slightly hellish, ice-blue needles pricking the dark, the close stone walls shimmering like the inside of a cave lit by a cold and alien sea-glare.
Joel turned the flame up fully until it was flaccid and yellow, and then he blew it out. The stove was having little or no effect anyway. His original plan had been to bring an electric heater down here, but there was no power point, and the nearest one in the church was too far away for Alfred Beckett's extension lead to reach.
Joel lit a candle.
With the stove out, the temperature must be plunging, but at least it didn't look as cold.
He sat on the side of the camp-bed, with the double duvet wound around him.
Cold he could live with, anyway, insulated by years of refereeing schoolboy rugby matches. Cold he could almost relish.
He'd taken off his boots but added an extra pair of rugby socks. When he lay down, his feet – projecting from the bottom of the bed – would touch the stone blocks of the far wall. That was how cramped this cell was.
But discomfort was good. It was a holy place. Above him the nave of St Bride's, around him its ancient foundations. Rock of Ages. A blessed place, a sanctuary where bishops – well, at least one bishop – had passed the dark, cold hours in sacred solitude.
If he hadn't been so bone-tired, so sated with righteous rage, Joel might have spent the night in holy vigil, on his knees on the stone floor, like some mediaeval knight. Praying for divine aid in the deliverance of Bridelow from its own dark dragon.
But his body and his mind were both demanding sleep… a state often at its most elusive when most needed. He was also rather appalled to find his loins apparently yearning for the comfort of a woman. Before his conversion, Joel had exploited his God-given glamour at every opportunity – and there had been many. Now he did not deny himself the yearning, only its habitual, casual assuagement.
He told himself this unseemly erection in the House of God was merely a side-effect of the cold and the pressure of the duvet.
His watch told him it was not yet 10 p.m. But tomorrow, he felt, would be a long day. So he would allow his body sleep.
When he blew out the candle and lay back, the paraffin stench hung over him like a chloroform cloth. He must not sleep in this air. Clutching the duvet around him, he arose into the absolute darkness, followed his nose to the stinking heater and pulled it two yards to the oaken door. Bent almost double, he carried the appliance into the little tunnel which led to the stairway.
And then, leaving it out there, shuffled back to his cell. Locking the thick and ancient door of his sanctuary against the pagan night. Falling uncomfortably into the rickety bed.
Tread carefully, Joel.
What did the Archdeacon mean by that? Joel would tread with the courage and determination of the first Christians to walk these hills. Those who had driven the heathens from their place of worship and built upon it this church.
And whose holy task, because of the isolation of the place and the inbred superstition of the natives, had yet to be completed..
With God's help, Joel Beard would drive out the infidel. For ever. Cathy was pouring boiling water out of a big white teapot, down the sink. 'Forgot to put the bloody tea in. I'm a bit impractical.'
'Well, don't bother for me,' Moira said. 'I have to go.'
'You're the singer, aren't you?' Cathy filled the kettle, plugged it into an old-fashioned fifteen-amp wall-socket. It was that kind of kitchen, thirty years out of date but would never be antique. Moira said wearily, yes, she was the singer.
Cathy said, 'Still, I bet you don't play the piano as good as me:
Moira grinned. 'How long you known Dic?'
'Years. On and off. He'd come up to Bridelow with his father at weekends. I used to fancy him rotten at one time.'
Cathy shrugged. 'That was when we were the same age,' she said elliptically.
Moira looked at her. A little overweight; pale, wispy hair pulled back off a face that was too young, yet, to reflect Cathy's cute sense of irony.
'When we came in, you said you thought your father was knackered. You said it'd do him good to get out of this place for a while.'
'I said that, did I?'
Try again. 'You were born here?'
'So they tell me. I don't live here at present. I'm in Oxford.'
'Studying,' Cathy said. 'The principal occupation in Oxford, next to watching daytime telly and getting pissed.'
'What are you studying? Oh, hey, forget it. I'm tired of walking all around things. What I really want to know is what happened at Matt's funeral that fucked your dad up so bad. And who's the other minister, the big guy, and how come you don't like him. Also, who's the crone who fumbles in coffins, and why was your daddy letting it go on. That's for starters.'
Cathy straightened up at the sink. 'You can't do that.'
'You can't just come into Bridelow and ask questions like that straight out.'
'Oh. Really. Well, I'll be leaving then.'
'OK,' Cathy said lightly.
The avalanche of liquid peat hit him like effluent in a flooded drain and then it was swirling around him and he was like a seabird trapped in an oil-slick, his wings glued to his body. If he struggled it would tear his wings from his shoulders and enter his body and choke him. He could taste it already in his throat and his nose.
But, even as it filled his dream, he knew that the tide of peat was only a metaphor for the long centuries of accumulated Godless filth in this village.
He knew also that he did have wings that could carry him far above it.
For he was an angel.
And if he remained still and held his light within him the noxious tide could never overwhelm him.
Joel dreamed on.
Although the stone room around him was cold, the black peat in the dream was warm. He remained still and the peat settled around him like cushions.
Inside his dreaming self, the light kept on burning. Its heat was intense and its flame, like the one inside the paraffin heater, became a tight, blue jet arising from a circle. It heated up the peat too.
In his dream he was naked and the peat was as warm and sensuous as woman-skin against him. Moira waited for her by the Rectory gate.
It was bitterly cold. She imagined the walls of the village cottages tightening under the frost.
Cathy came round the side of the house, a coat around her shoulders. 'How'd you know I'd come after you?'
'You're like old Ma Wagstaff, you are. You know that?'
'The crone, yes.'
'I hope not,' Moira said. Well, dammit… Willie's old mother? And he never said. All those years and he never said a word.
'I'm trying to understand it all,' Cathy said. 'Somebody has to work it all out before we lose it. Most people here don't bother any more. It's just history. I suppose that's been part of the problem.'
Moira realised she was just going to have to do some listening, see what came together. The church clock shone out blue-white and cold, as if it was the source of the frost.
'The old ways,' Moira said. 'Sometimes they don't seem exactly relevant. And people get scared for their kids. Yeh, you're right, they don't want to understand, most of them. But can you blame them?'
'It's not even as if it's particularly simple. Not like Buddhism or Jehovah's Witness-ism,' Cathy said. 'Not like you can hand out a pamphlet and say, "Here it is, it's all there." I mean, you can spend years and years prising up little stones all over the place trying to detect bits of patterns '
Cathy fell silent, and Moira found she was listening to the night The night was humming faintly – a tune she knew. People like me, she thought, we travel different roads, responding to the soundless songs and the invisible lights.
It's all too powerful… the heritage… maybe you should go away and when you get back your problems will be in perspective…go somewhere bland… St Moritz, Tunbridge Wells…
Ah, Duchess, you old witch.
She said, 'So what is the history of this place? I mean, the relevant bits.'
'You need to talk to Mr Dawber. He's our local historian.'
'And what would he tell me?'
'Probably about the Celts driven out of the lowlands by the Romans first and then the Saxons.'
'The English Celts? From Cheshire and Lancashire?'
'And Shropshire and North Wales. It was all one in those days. They fled up here, and into the Peak District, and because the land was so crap nobody tried too hard to turn them out. And besides, they'd set up other defences.'
'Well… not like Hadrian's Wall or Offa's Dyke.'
'The kind of defences you can't see,' Moira said.
'The kind of defences most people can't see,' corrected Cathy. She looked up into the cold sky. Moira saw that all the clouds had flown, leaving a real planetarium of a night.
Cathy said, 'She'd kill me if she knew I was telling you all this.'
'Ma Wagstaff, of course.'
'And what makes you so sure she doesn't know?'
'Oh, God,' Cathy said. 'You are like her. I knew it as soon as I saw you at the door.'
'It's the green teeth and the pointy hat,' said Moira.
'I don't know what it is, but when you've lived around here for a good piece of your life you get so you can recognize it.'
'But your old man's the minister.'
'And a bloody good one,' Cathy snapped. 'The best.'
' Right, Moira said. 'I'd like to meet him when he's feeling better.'
'We'll see.' Cathy walked past her, out of the Rectory gates, stood in the middle of the street looking up at the church. 'It's a sensitive business, being Rector of Bridelow. How to play it. And if it's working, if it's trundling along… I mean, things have always sorted themselves out in Bridelow. It's been a really liberal-minded, balanced sort of community. A lot of natural wisdom around, however you want to define wisdom.'
The moonlight glimmered in her fair hair, giving her a silvery distinction. Then Moira realised it wasn't the moonlight at all, the moon was negligible tonight, a wafer. It was the light from the illuminated church clock.
'They call it the Beacon of the Moss,' Cathy said.
'The church clock. That's interesting, don't you think? It's not been there a century yet and already it's part of the legend. That's Bridelow for you.'
'You mean everything gets absorbed into the tradition?'
'Mmm. Now, Joel Beard… that's the big curate with the curly hair, the one and only Joel Beard, Saint Joel. Now, Joel's really thick. He thinks he's stumbled into the Devil's backyard. He thinks he's been called by God to fight Satan in Bridelow because this is where he can do it one-to-one. In the blue corner Saint Joel, in the red corner The Evil One, wearing a glittery robe washed and ironed by Ma Wagstaff and the twelve other members of the Mothers' Union.'
'The Mothers' Union?' Moira laughed in delight.
'Thirteen members,' Cathy said. 'There've always been thirteen members. I mean, they don't dance naked in the moonlight or anything – which, bearing in mind the average age of the Mothers, is a mercy for everyone.'
'Oh, Jesus,' said Moira, 'this is wonderful.'
'It used to be rather wonderful,' Cathy said. 'But it's all started to go wrong. Even Ma's not sure why. Hey, look, have you anywhere to stay tonight? I mean, you want to stay here? There's a spare room.'
This kid would never say she didn't want to be in the house alone.
'Thank you,' Moira said. 'I think I'd like that.' Dic, who didn't drink much, had gone back to his father's pub and sunk four swift and joyless pints of Bridelow Black, sitting on his own at the back of the bar.
At one stage he became aware of Young Frank pulling out the stool on the other side of his table. 'Steady on, lad.' Tapping Dic's fifth pint with the side of a big thumb. 'It's not what it were, this stuff, but it'll still spoil your breakfast.'
Dic said, 'Fuck off, Frank.'
Frank got his darts out of his back pocket. 'Game of arrows?' Dic shook his head, making Frank's image sway and loom like something on a fairground ride.
'Come on, lad.' Frank's grating voice rising and fading out of the pub hubbub like a radio coming untuned. 'Life's gorra go on. You can't say you weren't expecting it. He were a good bloke, but he's better off dead than how he were, you got t'admit that.'
'Frank!' Dic clambered to his feet, sank the rest of his pint, most of it going into his shirtfront. 'Fucking leave it, will you?'
And then he was weaving and stumbling between the tables and out into the night.
He stood in the doorway a while, getting his breath together, then he strode across the forecourt and on to the street. The cobbles gleamed, frosty already, in the light of the big clock in the sky, shining like the earth from the moon in those old space pictures.
Dic began to moonwalk up the street, taking big strides, crashing into the phone box outside the post office, giggling like a daft sod. Coming up by the church, where he'd talked to Moira Cairns – there was her BMW, still parked there. Moira Cairns… Wouldn't mind poking that sometime, give her one for his old man. Maybe she owed him one, part of his inheritance.
He wished he had his pipes with him. Give them a fucking tune. Give them a real tune. Bastards. What were they at? What were they fucking at down there? Hands in Dad's coffin, sick bastards.
Standing by the lych-gate with its cover like a picture-postcard well and a seat inside. Went in, sat down. Out of the blue light in here, anyroad. Right under the church but the sloping roof blocked it out. Dic nestled in the darkness, feeling warm. Closed his eyes and felt the bench slipping under him, like dropping down a platform lift into a velvet mineshaft. Dic threw his arms out, stretched his head back, accepting he was pissed but feeling relaxed for the first time since he didn't know…
He giggled. There was a hand on his thigh.
It moved delicately up to his groin like a big spider.
'Feels good,' Dic said, pretty sure he'd fallen asleep on the bench. Lips on the side of his neck and his nostrils were full of the most glorious soiled and sexy perfume.
The hand sliding his zip down, easing something out.
He pulled in his arms, hands coming together around the back of a head and soft hair. Hair so long that it was brushing the tip of his cock.
'Moira,' Dic whispered. From Dawber's Secret Book of Bridelow (unpublished):
Although there has never been any excavation, it is presumed that the 'low' or mound on which St Bride's Church is built was a barrow or tumulus dating back to the Bronze Age and may later have been a place of Celtic worship.
Similar mounds have been found to enclose chambers, which some believe to have been used not so much for burial purposes as for solitary meditation or initiation into the religious mysteries. Some tribes of American Indians, I believe, fashioned underground chambers for similar purposes.
There has been speculation mat the small cell-like room reached by a narrow stairway from the vestry occupies the space of this original chamber. The official explanation for this room is that it was constructed as overnight accommodation for itinerant priests who came to preach at St Bride's and were unable, because of adverse weather, to return that night across the Moss. However, there are few recorded instances of this being necessary, and when, in 1835, a visiting bishop announced his intention of spending the night there 'to be closer to God' he eventually had to be found a room at The Man I'th Moss after being discovered naked and distressed in the snow-covered churchyard at three o'clock in the morning!
The Moss was like a warm bath, and he left it with regret.
Knowing, all the same, that he must. That there was nothing to be accomplished by wallowing.
So he strode out. And when he glanced behind him, what he saw took away his breath.
For it was no longer a black and steaming peat bog but a vast, sparkling lake, an ecstatic expanse of blue and silver reaching serenely to the far hills.
Its water was alive. Quiescent, undemanding, but surely a radiant, living element. No, not merely living… undying. Immortal.
And the water was a womanly element. Light and placid, recumbent. Generous, if she had a mind to be. If you pleased her.
He felt tufts of grass crisp and warm under his wet feet and was embarrassed, thinking he would surely besmirch it with filthy peat deposits from his bog-soiled body. But when he looked down at himself he saw that his skin was fresh and clean – not from the bog, but from the lake, of course.
And he was naked. Of course. Quite natural.
He stood at the tip of a peninsula. He thought at first it was a green island because the mound which rose, soft as a breast, from its centre was concealing the hills behind. But as he ascended the rise, new slopes purpled into being, and when he reached the summit, the surrounding hills were an amphitheatre.
In the middle of which he stood.
Appraised. 'Shade the light! Shade it, damn you!'
' Your hand, jacket, anything… You poor little sod, you're really frightened, aren't you…?'
'No, it's just…'
'Don't be… Easier than you expected, surely, wasn't it? Soil's lovely and loose, obviously replaced in haste, everyone shit-scared, like you. Look, why don't you get the ropes? We can have this one out and into the Range Rover before we start on the other, OK?'
'All right. Now?'
'Got a firm grip, have we? You let it go and -I promise you, cock – we'll put you down there and bury you alive.'
' Yes, all right, yes, I've got it.'
'OK, now. Pull.'
'Oh…agh… Where shall I…?'
'Just at the side will do. Right. Fine. Now, let's have the lid off.'
'Have a little look at him, eh? Hah! See that… not even nailed down, they really were in a panic, weren't they? To think I was once almost in awe of these little people. How wrong can… Oh, now… Oh, look at that.'
'Go on. Have a better look. Get closer. Put your fingers on his eyes.'
'I can't, I…Oh, God, how did I get into this?'
'No good asking Him, my friend, you've cut all your ties in that direction.. Ernie Dawber was soon aware of Something Happening in the churchyard.
A light sleeper, Ernie. Eyes and ears of the community, twenty-four hours a day. The headmaster's house overlooked the playground on the one side, and from the landing window there was no hiding-place at all for a pair of eight-year-olds sharing a packet of Embassy Gold.
Ernie's replacement as head teacher came from Glossop and had not been prepared for such dedication. In fact he'd said, more or less, that if they made him live over the shop, as it were, they could stick the job. He was a good lad, though, generally speaking, so the Education Authority had accepted his terms, allowed him to commute from Across the Moss… and sold the house to Ernie.
Who couldn't have had a better retirement present. He was always on hand – and more than pleased – to take groups of kids on nature rambles or do a spot of relief teaching in the classroom in an emergency.
And he could still watch the generations pass by. Through the landing window… the schoolyard. While through the back bedroom window, on the other side of the house… the graveyard. Full circle.
So all it took was the clink of a shovel, and Ernie Dawber was awake and up at the window.
They were being very quiet about it – as usual. He couldn't see much, just shadows criss-crossing through torchbeams, up at the top end, where the churchyard met the moor. Where Matt Castle had finally been planted and the earth piled at last on top of him.
Ernie watched for just over half an hour, and then the torches were extinguished.
'By 'eck,' he said, half-admiringly, hopping over the freezing oilcloth back to bed, 'tha's got a nerve. Ma.'
He remembered Joel Beard. What, really, could he have done? If their stupid curate was determined to spend the night in the little cellar under the church, how could he stop him?
Maybe the Rector's fears were unfounded. Maybe his experience and that of the Bishop all those years ago… Well, they were sensitive men. Not all clergymen were, by any means, and this lad certainly looked, well, not dense exactly, that wasn't quite the word. Dogmatic, set in his beliefs. Blind to other realities.
But at least, tucked up in his cell, he wouldn't be aware of what was happening up in the churchyard.
And that was a small mercy, Ernie thought, getting into bed. He felt a trifle dizzy but decided to disregard it. He thought he recognized the naked woman on the hill. There was something about her, the way she looked at him, the way she smiled.
The way she seemed to say, Are you man enough?
He stood above her. Confident of his superior strength, his muscular limbs, his halo of golden curls. Their power over women. Oh, he was man enough.
For had he not fallen into the black peat and emerged from clear water, as clear as the Sea of Galilee? And had not the peat been washed from him?
Now the female lay in the grass before him, close to the summit of the green mound, her legs spread. He knew what she wanted.
Her wild hair was spread over the grass. Hair which reflected the light, changing like water. Hair which rippled like the lake.
He smiled his most superior smile. 'I know what you want.' Disdainful.
And if there was no disdain in the reaction of his body, this was another demonstration of his power. Proof that he certainly was man enough.
But, gently, she shook her head.
First, you must recognize me for what I am. And then worship me. The lights were tiny, some distance away, a short procession of them. Torches, lanterns, Tilley lamps; whatever, people were carrying them, and they were carrying them openly across Sam Davis's farmland, and Sam gripped the bedroom window ledge, bloody mad now.
'I'm gettin' shotgun…'
'Shurrup,' he rasped. 'You'll wake kids.'
'I'm not letting you.' He heard her pull the cord to the light over the bed.
'Look…' Sam turned his back on the window. Esther, all white-faced and rabbit-eyed, sitting up in bed, blankets clutched to her chin. 'They're makin' a bloody fool o' me, yon buggers,' he whispered. 'Don't even hide their bloody lights no more.'
'We should never've come here.'
'Oh, don't bloody start wi' that again.'
'Why d'you think it were so cheap? It's a bad place, Sam.'
'It's the best we'll bloody get.'
'Nobody wanted it, and I don't just mean the land.'
'Aye,' he said. 'I know you don't mean the bloody land, rubbish as it is.'
'I'm scared,' she said, all small-voiced. 'It's an awful thing t'be scared of your own home, Sam.'
He snatched a glance out of the window; the lights had stopped moving, they'd be clustered up there in a circle of their own around what was left of the stone circle.
'Aren't you scared? Really. Aren't y-'
'Listen. What it does to me… it just makes me tampin' mad. Been goin' on weeks, months… and what have I done about it? Tell me that? Am I going t'stand here for ever, like an owd woman, frickened t'dearth?'
'You went to the vicar. That new feller's coming tomorrow. You said he were coming tomorrow.'
'Waste of bloody time. And the coppers. I keep telling yer. Couldn't even charge um wi' trespass 'cause it's got to be trespass wi' intent to do summat illegal, and worshipping the devil int even a criminal offence no more – sooner bloody nick you for a bald tyre. Bastards. Useless bastards. All of um.'
Kept saying it. Kept repeating it because he could hardly believe it, the things you could get away with. Was he supposed to sit around, with his finger up his arse, while them bastards up there were shagging each other front and back and sacrificing his beasts? No bloody way!
'You go out there,' Esther said, 'and I'm ringing the police, and I'll ring the bloody vicarage too and tell um where you are, I don't care what time of night it is.'
'Oh, shit!' Sam advanced on the bed, spreading his arms wide, cold by now in just his underpants. 'Bloody hell, woman. What do you suggest I do, then?'
'Come back to bed,' Esther said, trying her best to smile through the nerves that were making her face twitch. 'Please, Sam. Don't look. Just thank God they're up there and we're down here. Please. We'll talk about it tomorrow.'
'Well, thanks very much for your contribution.' Sam sighed. '"We'll talk about it tomorrow." Fucking Nora.'
He took one last glance.
The circle of light did not move.
'I've had it wi' talk,' Sam said. First you must recognize me. For what I am.
'Recognize you?' He laughed. 'For what you are?'
He stood above her, looking down on her. The elongated shadow of his penis divided her lolling breasts like a sword.
'I know what you are,' he said. 'I know precisely what you are.'
He saw a blue calm in her eyes that was as deep as the lake, and for a moment it threatened to dilute his resolve.
Then he heard himself say, 'How dare you?'
She lay below him, placid, compliant.
'You're just a whore. How dare you seek my recognition? You're just a… a cunt.'
In an act of explicit contempt he lowered himself upon her, and her hands moved to her crotch, thumbs extended, to open herself for him. He's… quite small, isn't he? I somehow expected him to be bigger. More impressive.'
'Quite manageable, really. Oh my, earth to earth, peat to peat… it would have been rather less easy to get at him in a week or two. Watch it now, be careful of his eyes. Mustn't be blase.'
'I'm not. It's just I'm actually not as worried about, you know, touching this one. It doesn't seem like a real body, somehow. More like a fossil.'
'Lay him gently. You've done well so far. I'm proud of you. But lay him gently, he's ours now. And remember… never forget…'
'I know… I'll feel so much better afterwards.'
'Shut up. Join hands. In a circle. Around the body.' It was not a rape; she was a whore, and a heathen whore. When he plunged into her, he found her as moist as black peat and packed just as tightly around him.
Light into darkness.
Not to be enjoyed. It was necessary.
'Whore,' he gasped with every breath. 'Whore… whore… whore…'
Lifting his head to seek out her eyes, looking for a reaction, searching for some pain in them.
'Whore.' Saw her mouth stretched into a static rictus of agony.
'Wh…' Tighter still around him.
Dry as stone.
Too late; he thrust again. Into stone.
The pain was blinding. Immeasurable. The pain was a white-hot wire driven through the tip of his penis and up through his pelvis into his spine.
His back arched, his breath set solid in his throat. And he found her eyes.
Little grey pebbles. And her mouth, stretched and twisted not in agony but ancient derision, a forever grin. '…in the midst of death we are alive..
('Go on… two handfuls… stop… not on his face…shine the light… there…')
'Behold, I shew you a mystery. We shall not sleep, but we shall be changed. In a moment. In the twinkling of an eye. At the last trump -for the trumpet shall sound. And the dead shall be raised.'
'… AND THE DEAD SHALL BE RAISED!'
('OK, now fill in the grave… quickly, quickly, quickly…')
'Dust to dust, to ashes, to earth.
'DUST TO ASHES TO EARTH!'
('Now stamp it down, all of you. Together…')
'And the dead shall be raised corrupted… and we shall be changed.'
'… WE SHALL BE CHANGED.'
('Douse the lights. Douse them!')
Another hard, white day, and she didn't like the look of it. It had no expression; there was a threat here most folk wouldn't see.
Not good weather, not bad weather. Nowt wrong with bad weather; you couldn't very well live in Bridelow if you couldn't put up wi' spot or two of rain every other day or a bit of wind to make your fire smoke and your eyes water. Or blizzards. Or thunder and lightning.
But this was no weather. Just cold air at night and a threat.
Everything black or white. Black night with white stars. White day with black trees, black moor, black moss.
Cold and still. Round about this time of year there should be some colour and movement in the sky, even if it was only clouds in dirty shades of yellow chasing each other round the chimney pots.
Shades. There should be shades.
Ma Wagstaff stood in her back kitchen, hands on woollen-skirted hips.
She was vexed with them cats too. She'd washed their bowl, first thing, and doled out a helping of the very latest variety of gourmet cat food Willie'd brought her from that posh supermarket in Buxton – shrimp and mussel in oyster sauce. And the fickle little devils had sat there and stared at it, then stared at her. 'Well, that's it,' Ma growled. 'If you want owt else you can gerout and hunt for it.'
But the cats didn't want to go out. They mooched around, all moody, ignoring each other, looking up at Ma as if was her fault.
As Ma unbent, the cat food can in one hand, a fork in the other, her back suddenly creaked and then she couldn't stand up for the pain that started sawing down her spine like a bread knife.
Then the front door went, half a knock, somebody who couldn't reach the knocker. As Ma hobbled through the living room, the white light seemed to be laughing heartlessly at her, filling the front window and slashing at the jars and bottles.
The door was jammed and opened with a shudder that continued all the way up Ma's spine to the base of her skull.
'Now then,' Ma said.
On the doorstep was her youngest grandson with that big dog of his. Always went for a walk together before school.
Benjie said nowt, grinned up at her, gap-toothed, something clutched in one hand.
'Well, well,' said Ma, smiling through the agony. 'Where'd you find that?'
'Chief found it,' said Benjie proudly. 'Jus' this mornin', up by t'moor.'
'Ta.' Ma took the bottle and fetched the child in for a chocolate biscuit from the tin. The bottle wasn't broken, but the cork was half out and the glass was misted. The bit of red thread that hung outside for the spirit to grasp was soaked through and stuck to the bottle.
"Ey!' Benjie said suddenly. 'Guess what.'
'I'm too owd for guessin' games, lad.'
'Bogman's bin took!'
'It were on radio. Bogman's bin stole.'
'Oh,' said Ma, vaguely, 'has he?'
The child looked disappointed. 'Are you not surprised?
'Oh, I am,' Ma said. 'I'm right flabbergasted. Look, just get that stool and climb up theer and fetch us biscuit tin. Me owd back's play in' up a bit.'
Ma held up the bottle to the cruel light. Useless.
'Will it still work?' asked Benjie innocently, arms full of wooden stool. Ma had to smile; what did he know about witch-bottles?
'Would it ever've worked, lad?' She shook her head ruefully, wondering if she'd be able to stand up straight before teatime. 'That's what I keep askin' meself.'
Fine lot of use she was. She ought to be out there, finding out exactly what they were up against – even if it killed her – before two thousand and more years of care and watchfulness came to ruin.
Oh, she could feel it… mornings like this, everything still and exposed.
She looked down at young Benjie, chomping on his chocolate biscuit. It will kill me, she thought. I'm old and feeble and me back's giving way. I've let things slip all these years, pottered about the place curing sick babbies and cows, and not seeing the danger. And now there's only me with the strength inside. But I'm too old and buggered to go out and find um.
It'll come to me, though, one night. Ma thought, with uncustomary dread. When it's good and ready.
But will I be? Joel Beard awoke screaming and sweating, coughing and choking on the paraffin air.
He sat on the edge of the camp bed, with the duvet wrapped around him, moaning and rocking backwards and forwards in the darkness for several minutes before his fingers were sufficiently steady to find the candle on its tray and the matches.
He lit the candle and, almost immediately, it went out. He lit it again and it flared briefly, with a curious shower of sparks, before the wick snapped, carrying the flame to the metal tray, where it lasted just long enough for Joel to grab his cross, his clothes and his boots and make it to the door.
On his way through the tunnel to the steps, he knocked over the paraffin heater, with a clatter and crash of tin and glass, and didn't stop to set it upright.
At the top of the steps he was almost dazzled by the white dawn, awakening the kneeling saints and prophets, the angelic hosts and the jewel-coloured Christs in the windows.
He dressed in the vestry, where he found a mildewed cassock and put that on over his vest and underpants. But he did not feel fully dressed until his cross was heavy against his chest.
The air in the nave felt half-frozen; he could smell upon it the bitter stench of autumn, raw decay. But no paraffin. And the cold was negligible compared with the atmosphere in last night's dungeon.
He unbolted the church door, stood at the entrance to the porch breathing in the early morning air – seven o'clockish, couldn't be certain, left his watch in the dungeon, wasn't going back for it – and he did not look up, as he said, 'You're finished, you bitch.'
And then went quickly down, between the graves, to the gardener's shed, up against the perimeter wall.
The shed was locked, a padlock through the hasp. He had no key. He shook the door irritably and glared in through the shed's cobwebbed window. He could see what he wanted, a gleaming edge of the aluminium window-cleaning ladder, on its side, stretching the length of the shed. He also saw in the window the reflection of a face that was not his own.
Joel was jolted and, for a moment, could not turn round.
The face was a woman's. It had long, dark hair, steady, hard eyes and black whore's lips. The lips were stretched in a tight, shining grin which the eyes did not reflect.
Remembered pain speared Joel's spine as he turned, half-hypnotized by the horror of it, turning as he would turn to stare full into the face of the Gorgon knowing it would turn him into stone, like the angels frozen to the graves.
He saw the still figure of a woman on the other side of the church wall, the village street below her. Her back was turned to him. Slowly, she began to walk away, and because the wall blocked her lower half she seemed at first to be floating. Her long, black hair swayed as she moved, and in the hair he saw a single thin, ice-white strand.
Joel felt a twisted revulsion. Twisted because there was inside it a slender wafer of cold desire, like the seam of white in the hair of the woman who walked away.
He watched her, not aware of breathing. She was wearing something long and black. He watched her until she was no more, and not once did she turn round.
Joel sobbed once, felt the savage strength of rage. He bunched a fist and drove it through the shed window. Ernie Dawber had heard about the bogman on the morning news. So he wasn't exactly surprised when,' round about 10.30, he heard a car pulling up irritably in the schoolhouse drive.
Hadn't given much thought to how he was going to handle this one. Too busy making notes for a daft book that would never get published.
The page he was writing, an introduction, began:
Bridelow might be said to operate on two levels. It has what you might call an underlife, sometimes discernible at dusk when all's still and the beacon is about to light up…
He looked up from the paper and the room went rapidly in and out of focus and swayed. Bugger. Not again. Damn.
He pushed his chair back, swept all the papers from his desk into an open boxfile and went to let the man in.
'A raw day, Dr Hall.'
A word, Mr Dawber, if you're not… too busy.'
Innuendo. It was going to be all innuendo this time, he could tell.
'I'm a retired man. I'm not supposed to be busy. Come in. Sit down. Cup of tea? Or something a little…'
'No, thank you. Nothing.' Oh, very starchy. 'It's interesting that you don't seem at all surprised to see me, Mr Dawber.'
'I'm not daft,' Ernie said. 'That's how I got to be a headmaster.'
Underneath Hall's open Barbour jacket was a suit and tie. An official visit.
'Well, at least shut the door,' Ernie said. 'It's the worst kind of cold out there.'
The archaeologist consented at last to come into the study. Ernie closed the boxfile and placed it carefully under his chair. 'Look around,' he said. 'You don't need a search warrant.'
'I haven't said anything to the police,' Hall said. 'Not yet. I'm giving you a chance either to bring it back or tell me where it is.'
Ernie didn't insult him by asking what he was talking about. 'Dr Hall, this is a very serious allegation.'
'Don't worry, I know enough about the libel laws not to make it in public. That's why I've come to see you. If we can keep it between the two of us and the, er… if it comes back undamaged, that'll probably be as far as it goes.'
'Now look, you don't really trunk…?'
'Oh, I don't for one minute think you were personally involved. Besides, you were at the funeral, I saw you. Wouldn't have been time.'
'So I'm just the mastermind. The brains behind the heist. That it?'
'Something like that.'
'All right,' said Ernie Dawber. 'I'll be straight with you. Yes, I did come to you on behalf of the village and urge you to put that thing back in the bog. That was me, and I meant it. But – and I'll say this very slowly, Dr Hall – I do not know who stole the bogman from the Field Centre. I'll say it to you and I'll say it again before a court of law.'
And he truly didn't know. Nobody ever knew these things apart from those concerned.
Had his suspicions, who wouldn't have?
But nothing black and white. Ma Wagstaff was right. There was never anything in black and white in Bridelow, which was how it was that balance and harmony could always be gently adjusted, like the tone and contrast on a television set.
Shades of things.
Oh, aye, naturally, he had his suspicions. Nowt wrong with suspicions. Suspicions never hanged anyone.
Roger Hall had changed colour. His beard-rimmed lips gone tight and white. Dr Hall's tonal balance was way out.
'It's here, Dawber. I know it's here.'
'You're welcome to search…'
'I don't mean this house. I mean in Bridelow. Somebody has it…'
'Don't be daft.'
'That's if it hasn't already been put back in the bog. And if it has, we'll find it. I can have two coach loads of students down here before lunch. We'll comb that moss, inch by inch, and when we find the area that's been disturbed…'
'I wish I could help you, Dr Hall.'
'No, you don't.'
Ernie Dawber nodded. That was true enough. No, he didn't. Joel lugged the ladder through the graveyard and into the church, dragging it along the nave, putting it up finally against a stone pillar next to the rood screen. He shook the ladder to steady it, then began, with a cold determination, to climb.
In his ankle-length black cassock, this was not easy. Close to the top, he hung on with one aching, bruised and bloodstained hand, the big, gilded cross swinging out from his chest, while he rummaged under the cassock for his Swiss Army knife, using his teeth to extract its longest, sharpest blade.
The topmost branches of the Autumn Cross were almost in his face. It was about six feet long, crudely woven of oak and ash with, mashed up inside for stuffing, thousands of dead leaves and twigs, part of a bird's nest, shrivelled berries and hard, brown acorns.
Fashioned in public, he'd been told, on the field behind The Man I'th Moss, with great ceremony, and the children gathering foliage for its innards.
'Oh, Lord,' Joel roared into the rafters, 'help me rid your house for ever of this primeval slime!'
He leaned out from the ladder, one foot hanging in space, tiny shards of glass still gleaming amidst the still-bright blood on the hand gripping a rung. His fatigue fell away; he felt fit and supple and had the intoxicating sensation of grace in his movements.
Orange baling-twine bound the frame of the cross to a rusted hook sunk into a cross-beam. He swung his knife-arm in a great arc and slashed it through.
'Filth!' he screamed.
The Autumn Cross fell at once, and Joel watched it tumble and was glad.
The sapless, weightless artefact fell with a dry, slithering hiss. Like a serpent in the grass, he thought, satisfaction setting firm in the muscles of his stomach, his head filled with a wild light.
He did recoil slightly, throwing the lightweight ladder into a tilt, as the so-called cross burst apart on the stone flags, fragments of leaves and powdery dust rising all around until the belly of the church was filled up with a dry and brackish-smelling sepia mist.
Joel coughed and watched the filthy pagan detritus as it settled. A bigger job than usual for the women on the Mothers' Union cleaning rota.
He hoped the foul bitches would choke on the dust.
With a nod to Our Sheila, Moira slipped quietly into St Bride's church just before 10 a.m.
To be alone. To confront the spirit of Bridelow. Maybe find something of Matt Castle here.
Special place. Matt had said, a long, long time ago on a snowy night in Manchester. It's got… part of what I've been trying to find in the music. That's where it is… where it was all along.
Cathy Gruber had persuaded her to stay the night in the guest room. She'd slept surprisingly well, no awful dreams of Matt in his coffin. And awoken with – all too rare these days – with a sense of direction: she would discover Matt, trace the source of the inspiration. Which was the essence of the village.
Bridelow, last refuge of the English Celts.
A more pure, undiluted strain than you'll find anywhere in Western Europe.
She stopped in the church porch.
Who said that? Who said that?
The American said it. Macbeth.
Macbeth? Yeah, quoting somebody… some writer addressing the Celtic conference. Stanhope, Stansfield, some name like that… from the North of England.
She felt like a small token in a board-game, manoeuvred into place by the deft fingers of some huge, invisible, cunning player.
And she knew that if she was to tap into Matt's imagination, she was also going to have to confront his demons.
As she walked – cautious now – out of the porch, into the body of the church, something whooshed down the aisle and collided with her at chest-level.
'Hey!' Moira grinned in some relief, holding, at arm's length, a small boy.
'Gerroff!' Kid was in tears.
'You OK? You hurt yourself?'
The child tore himself away from her, wailing, and hurled himself through the door, an arm flung across his eyes, like he'd been blown back by an explosion.
Moira's grin faded.
Something had changed.
The place looked bare and draughty. Even through the stained-glass windows, the light seemed ashen and austere. On a table near the entrance, next to the piles of hymn books, al1 the lanterns and candlesticks had been carelessly stacked, as if for spring cleaning. One of the slender, coloured candles had rolled off the edge and lay snapped in two on the stone flags.
She picked up the two halves, held one in each hand a moment then placed them on the table and wandered up the central aisle of a church which seemed so much bigger than yesterday at Matt's funeral, so much less intimate, less friendly.
Something was crunched under her shoe. She looked down and saw curled-up leaves and broken twigs, shrivelled berries and bracken and acorns and all the rustic rubble of autumn scattered everywhere.
Like a savage wind had blown through the nave in the night. Looking up, she saw what was missing, what the mess around her ankles was.
Somebody smashed the Autumn Cross.
'No accident, this,' Moira said aloud. Shivered and wrapped her arms around her sweatered breasts. It was still cold, but after what she'd learned last night, she'd left the black cloak at the Rectory. This was obviously not a place in need of a spare witchy woman.
She stood by the rood screen and looked back down the naked church. She looked down at the mess all around her, on the stone floor and the scratched and homely pews. Saw, for a moment, a scattering of bleached white skulls. But she knew almost at once that it wasn't the same.
Or at least that she was not to blame this time.
This was a rape.
She experienced a moment of awe. I walked into someone else's conflict.
But it was not quite someone else's conflict. There was a connection, and the connection was Matt Castle.
Last night, she'd said to Cathy, just as abrupt as the girl had been, 'Why did they open Matt's coffin? What was in that bottle?'
'Ah.' Cathy's eyes cast down over the steaming mug of chocolate. 'You saw that.'
'Don't get me wrong, I'm not normally an intrusive person, but Matt meant a lot to me.'
'Dic obviously thinks so.'
'Oh. You heard that. I wondered if maybe you had one of those pianos that plays itself.'
'Those pianos don't play bum notes.' Cathy looked offended. 'No, I didn't have my ear to the door. Dic and I went for a drink the other night. I drove, he got a bit pissed. He said his father…'
'The boy's way off. There was nothing more complicated than friendship between me and Matt. He never…'
He never touched me.
Moira stumbled and fell into a dusty pew. Sat staring into the vaulted ceiling where the cross had been, but seeing nothing.
He never touched me.
That was true. Never a friendly kiss. Never a celebratory hug when a gig had gone down well or the first album had gone into profit. Never touched me sexually. He never came near.
But he looked.
Often she'd feel his moody gaze and turn and catch his eyes, and she'd smile and he wouldn't, and then he'd look away.
She bent painfully over the prayer-book shelf.
Clink. From outside, the sound of a chisel on stone.
I was thinking, if we'd slept together, just once, to kind of get it over, bring down that final barrier…
No. Wouldn't have got anything over. Would have started something bad. You knew that really, just as you really knew what was going on inside Matt Castle and chose to ignore it. Just a crush; he'll get over it. He didn't. He couldn't. He made you leave the band, before…
The clinking from outside was coming harder. Maybe they were demolishing the joint entirely.
Too choked to think about this any more, stomach tight and painful, Moira stood up, made her way slowly down the aisle to the doors. But when she grasped the ring-handles, the doors wouldn't open.
'Owd on! You'll have me off.' Sound of someone creaking his way down a wooden ladder up against the doors.
She leaned her back against the doors, took a few deep breaths, and called out after a few seconds, 'OK?'
'Aye.' The porch doors opened, and there was a smallish guy in his sixties, flat cap and a boiler-suit. Big, soft moustache, like a hearth brush. 'Sorry, lass, dint know there were anybody in theer.'
He held a mallet and a masonry chisel. There were chips of grey stone and crumbly old concrete around the foot of the step-ladder.
'Storm damage?' Moira said.
'You repairing storm damage?'
'Summat like that.'
But then, looking up at the wall above the porch, she saw where the chippings had come from.
From the stones supporting the Exhibitionist. The Sheelagh na gig. Our Sheila.
'You're taking her down?'
'Aye.' He didn't sound too happy.
He gave her a level look. 'Alfred Beckett, verger, organist, dogsbody. Who are you?'
She grinned. Fuck it, she was here now, in the open, uncloaked. 'Moira. Moira Cairns. Used to work with… Matt Castle.'
The name felt different. A different, darker Matt Castle.
'Matt Castle, eh?' said Alfred Beckett. 'Right. 'Course.' He seemed to relax a little. 'How do.' He stuck out a stubby hand and Moira took it, stone dust and all. He had a firm grip; it pulled her back into what people took for the real world.
'So, Mr Beckett…' She glanced up at the ancient woman squashed into a stone plaque, fingers up her fanny. A few strokes of the chisel away from a serious loss of status.
'Aye,' Mr Beckett said, like a ragged sigh, and Moira saw he wasn't far from tears. He said he was following instructions. Didn't want to do it. Hated doing it. But he wasn't in an arguing position, was he? Vergers being a good way down the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
'And if I don't do it,' he said, 'he'll do it hisself. And he won't be as careful as me.'
'Mr Beard,' Moira said.
'Aye. He'll smash her, like…'
'Like the Autumn Cross.'
'I'll see she's all right,' Alfred Beckett said. 'I'll keep her safe until such time as…'
He sighed, fished a packet of Arrowmint chewing gum out of the top pocket of his boiler-suit. Moira accepted a segment and they stood together chewing silently for a minute or so.
Then Mr Beckett said, 'Aye. It's a bugger.'
A scrap of cement fell from Our Sheila.
Moira said, 'But isn't she – excuse me, I'm no' an expert in these matters – isn't she protected in some way?'
'No, lass, she's…'
'I meant, isn't she a feature of a listed historic building?'
'Oh,' said Alfred Beckett. 'Aye. Happen. But Mr Beard reckons she's not safe and could fall on somebody's head. Same as she's not done for the past umpteen centuries.'
'Aye,' Moira said eventually. 'It's a bugger all right.' 'Now then. Why aren't you at school?'
Benjie threw his arms around Ma's waist and burrowed his head into her pinny. He started to sob.
She pulled him into the kitchen, shut the back door. 'Now, lad. What's matter? Tell owd Ma.'
Ma Wagstaff sat her grandson on the kitchen stool. Spine still giving her gyp, she reached up for a bottle of her special licorice toffees. Never been known not to work.
When it was out, Ma said, 'The bugger.'
Benjie with his swollen eyes and his wet cheeks bulging with toffee.
'The unfeeling, spiteful bugger,' Ma said.
Biggest thing that had ever happened to Benjie, Ernest Dawber putting him in charge of the Autumn Cross – a whole afternoon, inspecting the twigs and branches, acorns, bits of old birds' nests and stuff the other kids had brought, saying what was to go into the cross, what was right for it, what wasn't good enough. Standing proudly, top of the aisle, the day Alfred Beckett had come with his ladder, and the cross, all trimmed and finished, had been hoisted into place, and everybody cheering.
Biggest thing ever happened to the lad.
'Leave him to me,' Ma said. 'I'll sort that bugger out meself, just you see if I don't.'
Benjie stared at her, wildly shaking his head, couldn't speak for the toffee.
'Gone far enough,' Ma said. 'Got to be told a few things. For his own good, if nowt else.'
'No!' Benjie blurted. 'Don't go near it, Ma.'
Ma was taken aback. 'Eh?'
'…'s getting bigger, Ma. Every day, 's getting bigger.'
'What is, lad?'
'The dragon!' The little lad started crying again, scrambling down from the stool, clutching Ma round the waist again, wailing, 'You've not to… You've not to!'
Mystified, but determined to get to the bottom of this, Ma detached his small hands from her pinny, squatted down, with much pain, to his height. 'Now then. Summat you've not told me. Eh? Come on.' She held his shoulders, straightening him up, feeding him some strength, not that she'd much to spare these days. 'Come on. Tell owd Ma all about it.'
He stared into her face, eyes all stretched with terror. 'Bigger, Ma… 's bigger.'
'He might look big to you, Benjie,' Ma said gently. 'But he's only a man.'
'No. 's a dragon!'
"s a dragon.' So the new curate was in combat with the Forces of Evil.
As represented by Our Sheila and the Autumn Cross.
And whatever Willie's Ma was doing inside Matt Castle's coffin.
Last night – early this morning – as the dregs of hot chocolate were rinsed from the mugs, she'd at last got it out of Cathy, what it was all about – or as much of it as Cathy knew.
'So, the coffin's on the ground and the light's been lowered, and the lid is open…'
'I didn't see it!'
'And your friend, old Mrs Wagstaff has her hands inside… and I'm wondering if maybe the old biddy has a passing interest in necrophilia…'
'That's a terrible thing to say!'
'I know… so tell me. What's going on, huh?'
'It was… I think it was… a witch bottle.'
'I thought you said she wasny a witch.'
'It's just a term. It's a very old precautionary thing. To trap an evil spirit…?'
'No… I don't know. Maybe if there was one around. In there with him.'
'In the coffin?'
'I don't know… it's no good asking me. You're going to have to talk to Ma. If she'll talk to you.' And Lottie. Today it was important to talk to Lottie, because Lottie was not part of this place, had not been returning, like Matt, to the bosom of a tradition which was older than Christianity.
… a more pure, undiluted strain… than you'll find anywhere in Western Europe…
Moira had come through the lych-gate, was standing at the top of the cobbled street, the cottages like boulders either side under a blank, unyielding sky – a sky as hard as a whitewashed wall.
… this writer… Stanton, Stanhope…
… he's on his feet, and is he mad… this guy's face is… this guy's face is… this guy's face is…
The plump woman in the village Post Office looked like a chief Girl Guide, whatever they called them now. Also, although she wore no wedding ring, she struck Moira as a member of the Mothers' Union.
'I wonder, um, could you help me? I'm looking for Willie Wagstaff.' She'd forgotten to ask Cathy where Willie lived, and Cathy had set out to drive fifteen miles to the hospital to visit her dad.
'Willie? Have you been to his house?'
Moira smiled. 'Well, no, that s…'
'Sorry, luv, I'm not very bright this morning.' The postmistress rolled her eyes. 'Go across street, turn left and after about thirty yards you'll come to an entry. Go in there, and you'll see a cottage either side of you and it's the one on the left.'
Moira bought ten postage stamps and two packets of Arrowmint chewing gum in case she ran into Alfred Beckett again.
There was no answer at Willie's house, a narrow little cottage backing on to other people's yards. Moira wondered if he lived alone. She squashed her nose to the front window. There was a bowl of flowers in it, with ferns. A woman's touch. Females had always been drawn to Willie, born to be mothered. In the old days, it used to be said that otherwise worldly mature ladies would turn to blancmange when little Mr Wagstaff smiled coyly and let them put him to bed.
Moira was not that mature, yet. The reason she needed Willie was to talk about Matt, and also to meet his mother. She came out of the entry, unsure what to do next. There was no one else in the place she knew, except…
At the bottom of the village street, Moira found herself facing the pub, the last building, apart from a couple of wooden sheds, before the street widened into the causeway across the peatbog.
This was the difficult one.
Against the white morning, the pub looked hulking and sinister, like a gaol or a workhouse. Stonework so murky that in places it might have been stained by the peat. Outside on the forecourt, a man in an apron was cleaning windows.
A red-haired woman appeared in the porch, handed the man a steaming mug of tea or coffee, stopped and stared across the forecourt. Waited in the doorway, watching Moira.
You ready for this, hen? 'They're not Ancient Monuments, these circles. Ancient, possibly. Monuments… well, hardly.'
Joel Beard kicked at a stubby stone.
'No signs pointing um out, anyroad,' said Sam Davis. 'Not even proper tracks.'
'That's because they're not in the care of any Government or local authority department. Unlike, say, Stonehenge, where you have high-security fences and tunnel-access. Which is why these places are so open to abuse.'
The Reverend Beard, in his dark green Goretex jacket and his hiking boots, striding through the waist-high bracken. Action priest, Sam thought cynically.
'Lights, you say?'
Although they were less than a hundred yards from the first circle, it wasn't even visible yet. This was the most direct route from Sam's farmhouse, but he reckoned that mob last night must have come in from behind. over the hill.
'Cocky bastards,' Sam said, breathing harder, keeping pace with difficulty, due to shorter legs. 'Bold as brass. If wife hadn't kicked up, I'd've been up theer last night.'
Sam bunched his fingers into fists. 'I'd give um bloody devil worship.'
'I know how you feel,' the minister said, 'but you did the right thing in coming to me. This is my job. This is what I'm trained for.'
Sam Davis watched the big blond man flexing his lips, baring his teeth, steaming at the mouth in the cold air. It was all Esther's fault, this, making him drag the Church into it.
'Look, Mr Beard…'
'Aye. Thing is, I don't want to turn this into some big bloody crusade. All I want is these buggers off me property. Know what I mean?'
The Reverend Beard stopped in his tracks. 'Sam, have you ever had foot-and-mouth disease on your land?'
'God. Be all I need.'
'Swine fever? Fowl pest? Sheep scab?'
'Give us a chance, I've only been farming two year.'
'The point I'm making,' Joel Beard said patiently, moving on, as the bracken came to an end and the ground levelled out, 'is that when a farmer's land is infected by a contagious disease, it's not simply a question of getting rid of the afflicted livestock. There are well-established procedures. For the purpose of, shall we say, decontamination.'
'Aye, but… let's get down to some basic facts, Joel. Who exactly are these fellers? Your mate, the Vicar… now he reckoned it's just kids, right?'
… could probably tuck a couple under each arm…
'Kids?' said Joel Beard.
'For kicks,' Sam said. 'Like drink. Drugs. Shoplifting. Kicks.'
'Hans Gruber said that?'
Sam shrugged. 'Summat like that. Right, this is it.'
'I beg your pardon…'
'The main circle. You're in t'middle of it, Joel. Told you it weren't much.'
Around them, sunk into tufts of dry, yellow grace, were these seven small stones, stained with mosses and lichens, none more than a couple of feet high, in a circle about fifteen feet in diameter. Sam found it hard to credit them being here, in this formation, for about four thousand years.
'Don't know much about these things meself,' Sam said. 'Some folk reckon they was primitive astronomical observatories. You could stand in um and see where t'sun were risin'. Or summat.'
Personally, he didn't give a shit. By his left boot were two flat stone slabs, pushed together. The ground had clearly been disturbed. There were blackened twigs and ashes on the slabs.
'… but what that's got to do wi' bloody sacrifices is…'
The Reverend Joel Beard shot up, like a charge of electricity had gone through him, and then, yelling 'Get back!', seized Sam Davis by the shoulders and shoved him out of the circle.
'What the…?' Sam struggled out of Joel's grip, stumbled back into the bracken.
Joel was still in the circle, swaying like a drunk, swallowing big, hollow breaths through his mouth. His body bent into a fighting stance, hands clawed, eyes blinking.
Sam Davis stared at him. He was going to kill Esther for landing him with this big tosser.
'There's evil here,' Joel said.
Stupid sod looked ready for war. All that bothered Sam was how close the battlefield was to his kids. Down below, half a mile away, his farmhouse and its barns and buildings looked rickety and pathetic, like matchstick models he could kick over with the tip of his welly.
Joel Beard had closed his eyes. The sun, shuffling about behind weak clouds, had actually given him a faint halo.
For getting on ten minutes, Joel didn't move, except, at one point, to lift up both hands, on outstretched arms, as if he was waiting, Sam thought, for somebody to pass him a sack of coal. Then he spoke.
'I give you notice, Satan,' Joel said in a powerful voice, 'to depart from this place.' He'd unzipped his jacket to reveal a metal cross you could have used to shoe a horse.
Then he raised his hands so that they were parallel to his body and began to push at the air like this mime artist Sam had once seen on telly, pretending he was behind a pane of plate glass.
'Bloody Nora,' Sam muttered to himself, crouching down among the ferns, unnerved by the whole thing but determined not to show it, even to himself. 'Got a right fuckin' nutter 'ere.' Shaw Horridge watched them through binoculars from the Range Rover. It was parked on a moorland plateau about half a mile away. The binoculars, being Shaw's own, were very good ones.
The Range Rover belonged to a squat, greasy little man who lived in Sheffield and was unemployed. He called himself Asmodeus or something stupid out of The Omen.
'They're moving on, I think,' Shaw said.
Asmodeus had a beard so sparse you could count the hairs. He had the seat pushed back and his feet on the dashboard. 'Good,' he said, as if he didn't really care.
Shaw lowered his binoculars. 'What would you do if they came up here with spades and things?'
'I'd be very annoyed indeed,' Asmodeus said in his flat, drawly voice. 'I'd be absolutely furious. So would Therese, wouldn't you, darling?'
Therese was stretched out on the rear seat, painting her fingernails black. Shaw scowled. He didn't like Asmodeus calling her darling. He didn't at all like Asmodeus, who was unemployed and yet could afford a newish Range Rover.
And yet he was still in awe of him, having seen him by night, this little slob with putrid breath and a pot-belly, not yet out of his twenties and yet able to change things.
And he was excited.
'But what would you do?'
Asmodeus grinned at him through the open window. 'You're a little devil, aren't you, Shaw? What would you do?'
Shaw said, because Therese was there, 'Kill them.'
'Whaaay! You hear that, Therese? Shaw thinks he'd kill them.'
Therese lifted newly painted nails into the light. 'Well,' she said, 'we might need the priest, but I must say that little farmer's beginning to get on my nerves.'
'Tell you what, Shaw,' Asmodeus said. 'We'll give you an easier one. How about that?' They sat at one end of a refectory table, near an Aga-type kitchen stove, their reflections warped in the shiny sides of its hot-plate covers. Moira kind of jumpy inside, but Lottie pouring tea with steady hands, businesslike, in control.
And this was less than twenty-four hours after the set-to at Matt's graveside, Lottie laying into Willie and Willie's Ma and the other crones, while the minister was helped away into the vibrating night.
Over fifteen years since they'd been face to face. Lottie's hair was shorter. Her face was harder, more closed-up. Out on the forecourt, it had been, 'Hello, Moira', very nonchalant, like their meetings were still everyday events – no fuss, no tears, no embrace, no surprise.
No doubt Dic had told her Moira was around.
She sipped her tea and said Lottie was looking well, in spite of…
'You too,' Lottie said, flat-voiced. 'I always knew you'd become beautiful when you got past thirty. Listen… thanks.'
'For not coming when he wrote to you.'
'I was tied up.'
'Sure,' Lottie said. 'But thanks anyway. Things were complicated enough. Better this way.'
'His music,' Lottie said. 'His project. His beloved bogman. Now stolen, I believe.'
'Lottie, maybe I'm stupid, but I'm not with you.'
'It was on the radio this morning. Thieves broke into the University Field Centre out near Congleton and lifted the Man in the Moss. I find it quite amusing, but Matt would've been devastated. Like somebody kidnapping his father.'
'Somebody stole the bogman? Just like that?'
Lottie almost smiled. 'Hardly matters now, though, does it? Listen, I'll take you down in a bit, show you his music room. He left some stuff for you.'
'Tapes. Listen, I'm not pushing, Moira, but I think you should do it.'
'Do it?' She was starting to feel very foolish.
'Get together with Willie and Eric and Dic and record his bogman music. I don't know if it's any good or not, I haven't heard much of it, but Matt saw it as his personal… summit? His big thing? Life's work?'
Moira looked hard at her, this austere, handsome woman, fifty-odd years old. Looked for the old indomitable spark in the eyes. Truth was, she was still indomitable, but the eyes… the eyes had died a little. This was not the old Lottie, this was a sad and bitter woman playing the part of the old Lottie.
'Then we'll do it,' Moira said. 'Whatever it's like.'
'Good. Thank you. But don't decide yet. You see – I'll be frank – if you'd come when he wrote to you… Well, he was quite ill by then, into the final furlong. He wasn't fit to record. Not properly. And then there was the other problem. And don't say, what other problem… let's not either of us insult the other's intelligence.'
'OK.' Moira leaned back and slowly sipped her tea. They sat there in silence, two women with little in common except perceived obligations to one man.
Mammy, how was he when he died? Can you tell me that?
This was the woman who could tell her. But Lottie had never had much patience with religion of any sort – organized or… well, as disorganized as whatever it was Ma Wagstaff was trying to do last night with her patent witch bottle.
'Lottie,' she said, 'I'm sorry. I didn't know. Well, maybe I knew inside of me, but I was young, too young to understand it. And nothing happened, Lottie, I swear it.'
Lottie shrugged. 'Better, maybe, if it had. Better for me, I can tell you, if he'd gone off with you. But after sticking with it, through all kinds of… Well, I wasn't prepared to have him spending his last days ignoring me, eaten up with old lust and regrets. So I'm glad you couldn't come.'
Lottie took her teacup to the sink, dropped it into a plastic bowl. The sink was a big, old-fashioned porcelain thing, pipes exposed underneath it with bits of rag tied around them. No what Lottie's used to, Moira thought. Lottie is stainless-steel and waste-disposal.
'You've… had problems, then.' Christ, everything I say to this woman is just so fucking facile…
Lottie turned on the hot tap, held both hands under the frenzied gush until the steam rose and her wrists turned lobster-red. 'You could say that.'
Eventually, turning off the water, wiping her hands on a blue teatowel, she said, 'I was married for twenty-eight years to a man who collected obsessions. The Pennine Pipes. The Mysteries of Bridelow. The Bogman…'
Moira said nothing. She was feeling faint. Her breath locked in her throat. She was getting a strong sense of Matt's presence in the room.
'… and you,' Lottie said.
In the lofty, rudimentary kitchen, Moira heard a roaring in her head, saw a flashing image of Matt in his coffin, white T-shirt, white quilted coffin-lining, before it was washed away by the black tide carrying images of a stone toad, dancing lights, the steam from writhing intestines liberated on to a flat stone…
'On me night he died…'
Moira swallowed tea, but the tea wasn't so hot any more and she was swallowing bile.
'On the night he died,' Lottie said, 'he sexually assaulted a nurse in the hospital.'
I'm not hearing this.
She started to look wildly around the kitchen. High ceiling with pipes along it… whitewashed walls with crumbling plaster showing through in places… stone-flagged floor like the church of St Bride… two narrow windows letting in light so white it was like a sheet taped across the glass.
And this awful sense of Matt.
'The nurse had long, dark hair,' Lottie said, almost wistfully. 'He addressed her as Moira.'
The silence was waxen.
She felt scourged.
Lottie said, 'I wanted you to know all this…'
Matt was dodging about under the table, behind the pipes, vibrant, shock-haired Matt reduced to a pale, fidgeting thing, hunched in corners, flitting, agitated, from one to another, giving off fear, hurt, confusion.
'… before you made a firm decision about the music. You see? I'm being open about it. No secrets any more.'
Moira looked up into the furthest comer, near the back door, and a cobweb inexplicably detached itself from the junction of two pipes and hung there, impaled by a shaft of white light, heavy with glittering flies' corpses.
'Come with me.' Lottie rolled down the sleeves of her cardigan and strode across the kitchen to the back door, with a long, gaoler's key.
From Dawber's Secret Book of Bridelow (unpublished):
The most widespread and powerful Celtic tribe in Northern Britain were the Brigantes, whose territory – known as Brigantia – included much of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Southern Scotland and had its southern boundary in the lower Pennines.
The mother goddess of the Brigantes was Brigid, and it is believed that many churches dedicated to 'St Bride' were formerly sites of pagan Celtic worship…
The bloody media.
Over twenty cars parked outside the Field Centre, and men and women pacing the concrete forecourt, most of them turning round when Roger Hall's car pulled in – where the hell was he supposed to park with all these bastards clogging the place? Three cameramen, all swinging round, shooting his Volvo Estate as it manoeuvred about seeking space, as if he might have the bogman himself laid out in the back.
'No… no, I'm sorry…' Ramming his way through jabbing hands holding pocket tape recorders.
'Dr Hall, have you any idea yet…?'
'Dr Hall, do you know when…?'
'Can you just tell us, Dr Hall, how…?'
'No!' He held up both hands. 'There'll be an official Press statement later.'
Bastards. Leeches. One of the double doors opened a few inches and he was hauled in. Chrissie and the other woman, Alice, got the door closed and bolted behind him.
Inspector Gary Ashton was sitting on Roger's desk. 'Any luck, sir?'
'Blank wall.' Roger was brushing at his jacket, as if the reporters had left bits of themselves on him. 'However…'
'I must say,' Ashton said, 'it seemed a bit of a long shot to me, that a bunch of villagers from Bridelow would go to all this trouble.' He smiled hesitantly. 'Look, I've had a thought. I hardly like to suggest this, sir, but I don't suppose there's a University rag week in the offing?'
'Don't be ridiculous,' Roger said.
'Well, I don't honestly think,' Ashton said tautly, 'that it's any more ridiculous than your idea about superstitious villagers. Which sounds a bit like one those old Ealing comedies, if I may say so, sir.'
Roger said, 'I think you should listen to me without prejudice. I think I know how they've done it.' Liz Horridge stood frozen with terror at the edge of the pavement.
She was sweating hard; there seemed to be a film of it over her eyes, and a blur on the stone buildings around her turning the cottages into squat muscular beasts and the lych-gate into a predatory bird, its wings spread as if it were about to hop and scuttle down the street and overwhelm her, pinning her down and piercing her breast with its cold, stone beak. She was leaning, panting, against the back of a van parked on the corner where the main street joined the old brewery road.
Oh, and by the way, Mother, the Chairman's hoping to drop by tonight.
The Chairman, Gannon's. Been planning to come for ages, apparently, but, you know, appointments, commitments…
Will he come here?
We'll receive him in the main office, show him around the brewery. Then, yes, I expect I'll bring him back for a drink. A proper drink. Ha!
Go. Get out. Got to.
She'd thought that when she got so far the fear would evaporate in the remembered warmth of the village, but the village was cold and empty, and a blind like a black eyelid was down in the window of Gus Bibby's general stores' which always kept long hours and would always be lit by paraffin lamps on gloomy days.
But it was Saturday afternoon, Gus Bibby did not close on a Saturday afternoon. Saturday had always been firewood day, and there'd be sacks of kindling outside. Always. Always on a Saturday.
Liz felt panic gushing into her breast. Maybe it wasn't Saturday. Maybe it wasn't afternoon. Maybe it was early morning. Maybe the whole place had closed down, been evacuated, and nobody had told her. Maybe the brewery itself had been shut down for weeks and the village had been abandoned.
… Chairman's hoping to drop by tonight…
How could I not have seen it? How could I have sat there, pretending to examine Gannon's proposals and estimates and balance sheets, and not see his name?
Because it wasn't there… I swear…
Liz Horridge pumped panicky breath into the still, white air. Not far now. Not fifty yards. She could take it step by step, not looking at houses, not looking at windows.
Someone's door creaked, opened.
'Ta-ra then, luv, look after yourself… You what…?'
Liz scuttled back into a short alleyway, squeezed herself into the wall. Mustn't let anyone see her.
'Yeh, don't worry, our Kenneth'll be up to see to it in t'morning. Yeh, you too. Ta-ra.'
Liz clung to the wall. She wore an old waxed jacket and a headscarf over the matted moorgrass that used to be chestnut curls.
She emerged from the entry into the empty street, like a rabbit from a hole. Wanting. Needing. Aching.
To sit again at Ma Wagstaff's fireside, a warm, dry old hand on her sweating brow. If he comes… scream. Don't matter what time.
Can't turn back now. If you turn back now you'll surely die. Believe this. 'How are you, Pop?'
He was out of bed, that was a good sign, wasn't it? Cathy found him wearing a dull and worthy hospital dressing gown, sitting at his own bedside in a shabby, vinyl-backed hospital chair. He was in the bottom corner of a ward full of old men.
'Bit tired,' he said. 'They've had me walking about. Physiotherapy. Got to keep moving when you've had a coronary.'
Cathy clutched at the bed rails. 'They never told me that!'
'Had to drag it out of them myself. Soon as they get you in hospital you're officially labelled 'moron'.' His features subsided into that lugubrious boxer-dog expression.
'What's it mean, Pop?'
'Coronary thrombosis? Means a clot in the coronary artery. Means I was lucky not to christen Matt Castle's grave for him. Means I have to rest: Putting on a pompous doctor-voice. '"We have to get ourselves together, as they say, Mr Gruber." Tell me about Joel. Please tell me he didn't sleep under the church.'
Cathy said carefully that she hadn't seen him today. Not a word of what she'd heard about him rampaging around the place in his post-funeral fury, ripping down anything that hinted of paganism. Just that she hadn't actually seen him. And that she didn't know where he'd slept.
'Storm gathering inside that chap,' Hans said. 'Hurricane Joel. Wanted to make sure he was somewhere else when it blew.'
'Don't you think about it, Pop. Get some rest. Let them do their tests, try and endure the hospital food and don't refuse the sleeping pill at night.'
'I know, but it's not your problem.'
Hans's head lolled back into the hard vinyl chair. 'I keep the peace. It's taken me years to strike the right balance.'
'Don't worry, they'll sort him out, Ma and the Union. They'll deal with him.'
'They sorted you out, didn't they?'
Cathy smiled for him. Trying to look more optimistic than she felt.
Hans said bleakly, 'Cathy, Simon Fleming came to see me. They want me to go to the Poplars "for a few weeks" convalescence'.'
The Church's nursing home in Shropshire. Ghastly dump. Full of played-out parsons mumbling in the shrubbery. Nobody gets out alive.'
Cathy felt desperately sorry for him but couldn't help thinking it might be the best answer, for a while. Let the Mothers handle it. Whatever there was to be handled.
He didn't seem to have heard about the disappearance of the bog body, and she didn't tell him. He had enough to worry about already. 'Look, all you need,' Roger Hall said, 'is an exhumation order. That's not a problem, is it?'
Backs to the doors, the Press people assembled on the other side, Chrissie and Alice looked at each other. Roger playing detective. Didn't suit him. Chrissie wondered idly if Inspector Garry Ashton was married or attached. She thought this business was rather showing up Roger for what he was: pompous, arrogant, humourless – despite the nice crinkles around his eyes.
Ashton said, a little impatiently, 'You were convinced earlier that the body was hidden in Bridelow.'
'Still am,' Roger said smugly.
'Go on,' Ashton said, no longer at all polite. 'Let's hear it.'
Chrissie liked his style. Also the set of his mouth and the way his hair was razor-cut at the sides.
Roger said, 'I attended a funeral in Bridelow yesterday. Matt Castle, the folk musician.'
'So I understand,' Ashton said. 'Mr Castle a friend of yours, was he?'
With a tingle of excitement, Chrissie suddenly knew what Ashton was wondering: did Roger himself have anything to do with the theft? The police must have spoken to the British Museum by now, learned all about Roger's battle to bring the bogman back up North. And why was he so keen to keep pointing the police in other directions?
Gosh, Chrissie thought… And Roger's obsessive attitude! The bogman intruding everywhere. And when the bogman was in a state of, er, emasculation, Roger himself was… unable to function. And complaining of clamminess and peat in the bed and everything. And then suddenly Roger could… with a vengeance! And the bog body had acquired what appeared to be an appendage of its own.
Chrissie felt a kind of hysteria welling up. Stop it! I'm going bloody bonkers. Or somebody is.
Suddenly she didn't want him touching her again.
'Castle?' Roger said. 'Not what you'd call a friend, no. But he was always very interested in the bog body, as many people were. Kept ringing me up, asking what we'd learned so far. And actually turned up here twice, wanting to see the body, which, of course, was not available for public viewing. Although I did allow it the second time.'
'Why'd you do that?'
'Because… because he was with someone I judged to be more reliable.'
He didn't elaborate; Ashton didn't push the point either. Chrissie thought of the writer, Stanage.
'So, anyway,' Roger said, 'it was Castle's funeral yesterday, and I thought I ought to show my face. I only went to the church service. Left before they actually put him into the ground. But I very much wish I'd stayed with it now, seen him buried.'
'I might be thick,' said Ashton, 'but I'm not following this.'
'All right, let's approach it from another angle. We've all been assuming that the break-in took place last night, right?'
'Have we, Dr Hall?'
'Ashton, look – can we stop this fencing? I know you're an experienced policeman and all that, but I've been doing my job for over twenty-five years too.' Angrily, Roger drew his chair from under the desk, scraping the Inspector's legs.
'Look. Because of the funeral and one or two other things, I didn't come in here at all yesterday. And you only found out – about the burglary before me because our normally lazy caretaker just happened to try the doors for a change. Correct?'
Ashton came slowly down from the desk, stood looking down at Roger. Interested.
'But if he'd bothered,' Roger said, 'to check the doors the night before – and if he says he did he's probably lying, I know that man – he'd probably have found them forced then. My strong suspicion is the break-in happened the previous night. And that the body wasn't here at all yesterday.'
'And what does that say to you?'
'What it says to me, Inspector – and I might have to spend a bit of time explaining this to you – but what it says to me is that my bog body is buried in St Bride's churchyard.'
'I see,' Ashton said thoughtfully. 'Or do I?'
'The funeral!' Roger raised his hands. 'The grave – it's a double grave! What I'm saying is, dig up Castle's coffin, you'll find our body lying underneath. Trust me.'
… and there it was.
Oh, Lord. Oh, Mother.
Ma Wagstaff could see the thing from the top of the churchyard, the highest vantage-point in Bridelow.
It hadn't been there a week ago, had it? There was a time when she knew this Moss better than anybody. Couldn't claim that now. Getting owd now. Letting it slide.
Ma leaned on her stick and wondered if she could make it all the way out there without some help. She'd have been able to yesterday, but yesterday was a long time ago. Yesterday, though she hadn't realised it at the time, she still had some strength.
She'd thought that sooner or later it would come to her, but instead it had sent her an invitation. Brought by a little lad who for no good reason had decided the dragon – because the dragon was there – was responsible for breaking up his Autumn Cross.
And in a way he was right.
Right about that thing out there; Ma could feel its black challenge. And looking across at it, she could tell why he thought it was a dragon – those little knobbly horns you could make out even from this distance.
Only an owd dead tree, as sometimes came out of the Moss when there was storms and flooding.
Except there hadn't been a storm.
So it was black growth, like the blackness that grew in Matt Castle, and she had to gauge its strength.
Not one to hesitate, wasn't Ma, but if she went out there she'd be on her own. As well as which, somebody needed her help this side of the Moss; she'd known this for days. Well, aye, people was always needing owd Ma's help, but this was somebody as didn't want to ask, hadn't for some reason been able to overcome a barrier, and until this barrier was overcome there was nowt Ma could do. Now she could feel the struggle going on, and when the plea came she must be there to answer it.
Pulled this way and that, between the flames and the torrent. Oh, Lord. Oh, Mother, which way do I turn? Let it slide for so long, losing me grip.
I'll walk out then.
Walk out there following the river, staying near the water, gathering what power I can. Happen I can deal wi' this quick, nip it in t'bud. Stare it down, give it the hard eye, reshape it, turn it back into wood and only wood.
Leaning heavily on her stick, Ma Wagstaff followed the old, steep narrow path down from the churchyard, meeting the thin river at the bottom of the hill where it went under the path – a little bridge, no more than a culvert – and there was a scrubby field to cross before they reached the Moss.
I can make it. I can. Can I lean on you, Mother? The last few steps were going to be the hardest, by far.
From two yards away, Ma Wagstaff's front door looked like the golden gates of heaven: unattainable.
Liz Horridge was aware of her mouth being wide open, gulping, a fish out of water, metabolism malfunctioning
AGOR… A… PHOBIA!!! Common-enough condition, always so hard to imagine, until it came upon you in panic-attacks, convulsions, stomach-cramps.
Yet this… more like claustrophobia… not enough air… lungs bursting.
She'd tried to do it in planned stages, like an invalid learning to walk again. The first stage had been waiting for the postman, whom she hadn't seen face-to-face for months. When the van drew up, she'd be watching from the dining-room window, and if the postman was carrying a parcel she would run to open the front door, leaving it slightly ajar, and by the time he was tossing the parcel on to the mat, Liz had taken cover.
Yesterday, almost sick with apprehension, she'd waited for the post van down by the main gate, rehearsing how she'd handle it. Just taking a walk. Normally go the other way. Yes, it is cold. Bright, though. Bright, yes. Thank you. Good morning.
When the postman didn't come, she was so relieved. It had been foolish. Trembling, she'd returned to the house to make Shaw's breakfast. But Shaw had gone. To be with her. Whenever he went out without saying even vaguely where he was going, it would always be to be with her.
Therese Beaufort had come into the house only once, had been polite but dismissive, had shown a vague interest in everything, except Liz, at whom she'd looked once, with a chilly smile before reappraising the drawing room, as if sizing it up for new furniture. Now she merely parked outside and waited, expressionless, not looking at the house (yes, I've seen your mother now, thank you).
And now there was…
Look, Liz, why don't we meet up?
Chairman's hoping to drop by tonight.
Fear. Despair. She'd walked away, down the drive, down the road, into terror, knowing she could not go home tonight. To the village, to Ma Wagstaff, to plead for sanctuary.
Liz Horridge fell down, tearing her skirt, feeling the small, jutting stones of Ma Wagstaff's front path gashing her knees. She began to crawl towards the door, feeling the emanations of the stone buildings heavy on her back as if they would push her into the little pointed stones beneath her.
The whitened donkeystoned step gleamed like an altar.
Liz rose on her knees, tried to reach the knocker but managed only the letter-box which snapped at her fingers like a gin-trap.
'Mrs Wagstaff: she managed to wail. 'Please, Mrs Wagstaff… let me in…'
But nobody came to the door.
'I'm sorry! I couldn't stop it! It wasn't my fault about the brewery. Please… He's coming back. Please let me in.'
And then the stones came down on her. The weight of the village descended on her shoulders, taking all the breath from her and she couldn't even scream.
'Didn't know I was coming back to die… I mean, that's what people do, isn't it, and animals, go back home to die? But I wouldn't have. If I'd known. Last thing they need here's any deadwood.'
The voice frail, but determined. Going to get this out, if it…
Killed him. Yeah.
'Just as well, really. That I didn't know.'
All Moira could see through the windscreen was the Moss. The vast peatbog unrolling into the mist like the rotting lino in the hall of her old college lodgings in Manchester, half a life away.
The BMW was parked in the spot at the edge of the causeway where yesterday she'd sat and listened to the pipes on cassette. Now it was another cassette, the one from the brown envelope inscribed MOIRA.
'Funny thing, lass… this is the first time I've found it easy to talk to you. Maybe 'cause you're not there. In the flesh. Heh. Did you realise that, how hard it was for me? Lottie knew. No hiding it from a woman like Lottie. Shit, I don't care who knows. I'm dead now.'
Matt laughed. The cawing.
She'd followed Lottie into a yard untidy with beer kegs and crates. Beyond it was a solid, stone building the size of a two-car garage. It looked as old as the pub, had probably once been stables or a barn.
'Matt's music room,' Lottie said.
She'd been almost scared to peer over Lottie's shoulder, into the dimness, into the barnlike space with high-level slit windows and huge, rough beams. Dust floating like the beginnings of snow.
Lottie silent. Moira, hesitant. 'May I?' Lottie nodding.
Moira slipping past her, expecting echoes, but there was carpet and rugs underfoot and more carpet on the walls to flatten the acoustics. She saw a table, papers and stuff strewn across it.
Shelves supported by cement-spattered bricks held books, vinyl records and tapes. Heavy old speaker cabinets squatted like tombstones and there was a big Teac reel-to-reel tape machine. Matt's scarred Martin guitar lay supine on an old settee with its stuffing thrusting out between the cushions.
Hanging over the sides of a stool was something which, from across the room, resembled a torn and gutted, old, black umbrella.
She'd walked hesitantly over and stared down at the Pennine Pipes in pity and horror, like you might contemplate a bird with smashed wings. It was as if he'd simply tossed the pipes on the stool and walked out, forever, and the bag had maybe throbbed and pulsed a little, letting out the last of Matt's breath, and then the pipes had died.
Moira's throat was very dry. She was thinking about Matt's obsessions: the Pennine Pipes, the bogman and…
'Can't help your feelings, can you? Like, if you're a married man, with a kid, and you meet somebody and you… and she takes over your life and you can't stop thinking about her. But that's not a sin, is it? Not if you don't… Anyway, I never realised that you… I never realised.'
Matt's voice all around her now. Car stereos, so damned intimate.
Lottie had turned away, calling back over her shoulder, 'I'll be in the kitchen. Stay as long as you like. Lock up behind you and bring me the key. The parcel's on the table.'
And was gone, leaving Moira alone in the barn that was like a chapel, with the pipes left to die.
On the table, a thick, brown envelope which had once held a junk-mail catalogue for Honda cars. It had been resealed with Sellotape and Moira was scrawled across it.
Inside: the tapes, four of them, three of music. And this one, a BASF chrome, marked personal.
'Not a sin… if you don't do owt about it. But I always found it hard to talk to you. I mean… just to talk to you. Till it came time to tell you to get out of the band. That was easy. That was a fucking pushover, kid. I'm sorry the way that worked out, with The Philosopher's Stone. Sounded like a big opportunity. Like, for me too – chance to make the supreme sacrifice. But we can't tell, can we? We never can bloody tell, till it's too late.'
Rambling. He'd have been on some kind of medication, wouldn't he? Drugs.
'But when they told me I'd had me chips, I did regret it. Regretted it like hell. I thought most likely you'd just have told me to piss off, but there might have been a… Anyway, I'd have given anything for just one… just one time with you. Just one. Anything.'
Christ. Moira stared out of the side window to where half a tree had erupted from the Moss, like bone burst through skin.
'When you wrote back and you said you were too busy, I was shattered. I'd convinced meself you'd come. I just wanted to at least see you. Just one more time.'
Moira bit down on her lower lip.
'I'd tried to write a song. Couldn't do it. It was just a tune without words. Nothing. Best bloody tune I ever wrote, which isn't saying much – play it for you in a minute. Won't be much good, the playing, what d'you expect? Be the last tune I ever play. Gonna play it over and over again until I get it perfect, and then I'm gonna get Lottie to take me out and I'll play it to the fucking Moss. The Man in the Moss. That's what it's about. The Man in the Moss. That'll be me, too. Want to die with this tune in me head. This tune… and you.'
She felt a chill, like a low, whistling wind.
'It's called Lament for the Man. I want the Moss to take it. A gift. Lament for the Bridelow Bogman. Soon as I read about him, months ago, before it came out about the sacrifice element, I was inspired by him. Direct link with me own past. The Celts. The English Celts. Like he'd come out the Moss to make a statement about the English Celts. And I was the only one could interpret it – sounds arrogant, eh? But I believe it. Like this is what me whole life's been leading up to.'
Man starting to cough. On and on, distorting because the recording level couldn't handle it. The car-speakers rattling, like there was phlegm inside.
'Fuck it,' Man said. 'If I go back and scrub this I'll forget everything I was gonna say. Sorry. Can you handle it? See, this was before they'd completed the tests on the bogman, before it was known about the sacrifice. Even then I was pretty much obsessed. I didn't care if we spent every penny we'd got. Lottie – she's a bloody good woman, Moira, I never deserved Lottie – she went along with it, although she loved that chintzy house in Wilmslow and she hated The Man I'th Moss, soon as she clapped eyes on it. But she went along with it. Sometimes I think, did she know? Did she know before me, that I was gonna snuff it? She says not. I believe her.'
Across the Moss she could see the pub, a huge grey boathouse on the edge of a dark sea, its backyard a landing stage.
'And then, soon after we came, the report came out about the bogman. About what he was. A sacrifice. To appease the gods so they'd keep the enemy at bay, make this community inviolate. Protect these Celts, these refugees from the fertile flat lands, the Cheshire Plain, Lancashire, the Welsh border. Invaders snatching their land, Romans, Saxons. And this, the old high place above the Moss – maybe it was a lake then. Bridelow.'
Man's voice cracked.
'Bridelow. The last refuge. I cried. When I heard, I cried. He went willingly. Almost definitely that was what happened. Almost certain he was the son of the chief, everything to live for – had to be, see, to make a worthwhile sacrifice.'
Voice gone to a whisper.
'Gave himself up. Willingly. That's the point. Can you grasp that, Moira? He let them take him on the Moss and they smashed his head, strangled him and cut his throat, and he knew… he fucking knew what was gonna happen.'
She stared through the windscreen at the Moss. Thick, low cloud lay tight to the peat, like a bandage on its putrefying, suppurating skin.
'Hard to credit, isn't it? I mean, when you really think about it. When you try and picture it. He let the buggers do it to him. Young guy, fit, full of life and energy and he gives himself up in the most complete sense. Can you understand that? Maybe it affects me more because I've got no youth, no energy, and what life there's left is dribbling away by the minute. But by God… I realised I wanted a bit of that.'
She thought about the bogman. The sacrifice. She thought about Matt, inspired. Always so contagious, Matt's inspiration. She thought, I can't bear this…
'Can you get what I'm saying? Like, they took him away, these fucking scientists, with never a second thought about what he meant to Bridelow and what Bridelow, whatever it was called back then, meant to him. So I wanted… I wanted in. To be part of that. To go in the Moss, too. Lottie tell you that? Lottie thinks it's shit, but it isn't… '
'No,' Moira whispered. 'It wouldn't be.'
… want some of me out there. With him. He's my hero, that lad… I'm fifty-seven and I'm on me last legs – nay, not even that any more, me legs won't carry me – and I've found a fucking hero at last.'
Matt starting to laugh and the laughter going into a choke and the choking turning to weeping.
'Me and Ma Wagstaff met one day. One Stormy day. Ma understands, the old bitch. Willie's Ma, you know? Says to me, "We can help you help him. But you must purify yourself."'
Out on the Moss, the dead tree like bone was moving. It had a tangle of thin branches, as if it were still alive, and the branches were waving, whipping against the tree.
'She says. "You have to purify yourself".'
The tree was a bad tree, was about to take its place alongside the encroaching stone toad on the moor, the eruption of guts on an ancient, rough-hewn altar. Bad things forcing themselves into Bridelow.
'And then you came home…'
Moira's eyes widened.
'I used to think she was… a substitute. Me own creation. Like, creating you out of her, you know what I mean? An obsession imposes itself on what's available. But I should've known. Should've known you wouldn't leave me to die alone.'
Her senses froze.
'So, as I go into the final round, as they say, I'm drawing strength from the both of you. The bogman… and you, Moira, Tomorrow's Sunday. I'll be going out on the Moss, to play. Last time, I reckon. I'll need Lottie and Dic, poor lad, to get me there, I'll send them away, then there'll just be the three of us.'
'No,' she said 'What is this?'
'Me and thee and him.'
Matt chuckled eerily.
Hard rain hit the Moss.
'No,' she said.
'Thanks, lass. Thanks for getting me through this. Thanks for your spirit. And your body. It was your body, wasn't it?'
She wrapped her arms around herself, began to shake, feeling soiled.
'Ma said. You've got to purify yourself. But there's a kind of purity in intensity of feeling, isn't that right? Pure black light.'
'I'll play now,' Matt said, and she heard him lifting his pipes onto his knees.
'If you're listening to this, it means you're here in Bridelow. So find Willie, find Eric. And then find me. You'll do that, won't you? Find me.'
The old familiar routine, the wheeze, the treble notes.
'I won't be far away,' Matt said.
And the lament began. At first hoarse and fragmented, but resolving into a thing of piercing beauty and an awful, knowing anticipation.<