The dust road never recovered after the cattle grid. It became a straggling track, with the grass more trodden apart by cows than flattened by vehicles, but with a profusion of tyre prints overlapping crazily wherever there was naked mud. Finally the track passed the Barton cottage and a little after here it had left our world for good, like the footprints of a winged giant who is now running through the heavens.
Beatrix’s grandsons had to be put to bed in stages, with a tremendous amount of ceremony. They expected to watch the correct sequence of television programmes and then they had to be bathed, then sung to, and then read to. Ellen was on her second glass of rosé by the time that Beatrix had poured herself noiselessly down to the bottom of the stairs.
She made a face. “They’re asleep at last.”
“If they’re awake, they won’t see anything,” Ellen replied firmly.
The two ladies squelched into Wellington boots and stole out of the cottage. Once beyond the perimeter of the garden, they could see the grove of ash and blackthorn trees ahead in silhouette, at the top of the slope. When there are no clouds, as like tonight, the sky out here wanders musically, with entangled cobwebs of chiming stars strung within a glossy murk the colour of damson plums and cocoa dust. The ladies brushed through branches, fronds, and myriad yielding bodies until they had emerged on to a bare hillside, with their teeth chattering at the freshness of the cold. They barely had to raise their heads to look straight into the night sky.
There were no incantations or even anything by way of prefatory remarks. The ladies both focused on the sky until the stars had dimmed and the image of a face began to appear across it, like one reflected in a pool.
They had held more séances on these hills than they could now count; they had been coming here since their days together at art college. They had typically summoned fellow witches, spirits who were receptive to being contacted in this way. The furthest that they had gone back had been to the days when King Jamie and his new wife had been tossed upon the briny sea. This had been research: they had read about a potion from this period and they had wanted an accurate original recipe.
Tonight they had assumed that an unfamiliar face would appear across the sky, the face of the kind of anonymous Polish youth who might serve you in Costa coffee or supervise a machine in Tesco. They had supposed that this youth would be distressed or even incoherent. The dead, when summoned by the living, are characteristically still scrambled up. Our spiritually illiterate times have rendered them defective in the afterlife – they don’t know what it is, or where they are, or how to behave. They are like random members of the public who have been given a violin and thrown into an orchestra, without knowing how to play the instrument or read the sheet music.
But Ellen could see at once that something was significantly out of sync. Instead of the face of a young man, that which now stretched across the sky, wider than any city, was ageless and knowing.
He looked down upon this circle of hills on the scale of a human who has raised an astray to his face and is peering into it. It was a nominally distinguished face, belonging to an old man with sharp features and a crust of white beard. Ellen’s first foolish impression had been of a genial, almost avuncular expression, but next its precise reality had crashed down hard. A gloating hatred glistened like spittle on the lips of the merry smile.
“Turn away!” Beatrix looked frantic, almost unrecognisable in her fear.
The lips moved massively. “Too late.” The man’s voice was as faraway as scurrying thunder, and yet it simultaneously ran around the rim of the sky and tore overhead like a jet.
“You wanted to call someone back but you can’t do that. So I’ve called someone instead. Old Tom, old Tom cat. Called all the way back from where he is now.”
“Turn away!” Beatrix wrenched Ellen around so that they had both turned primly on the sky and the hills. Next, they were in darkness, tottering back through the grove.
Ellen realised with amazement that she had never heard her friend sobbing before. She was swept along perplexed, her Wellingtons skidding on the grass. Beatrix was crying bitterly and remonstrating in a high unnatural voice. “The bairns.”
Ellen took her friend’s arm. Her mouth was so dry that she could barely speak. “Do I know him?”
“Corpusty. A sorcerer. He’s living Ellen.”
“Oh shit!” It was no longer possible to deceive herself, to remain in this civilised detachment about what they had done. She was now very afraid.
“He’s laughing at us both. Though he has such power. We were like two ants talking with a descending boot.”
They paused before the cottage and Beatrix staggered back, wiping the air with her lanky arms. “Ellen, get in your car and drive. We’re all fucked here.”
“This is melodramatic.” Ellen tried to control her voice and when it came again it was both too deep and too squeaky. “Our master…”
For an instant, Beatrix was rigid with scorn. “GET IN YOUR CAR! DRIVE! The master is not going to come, even if we summon him. He’s made it clear that we’re on our own.”
Ellen shook her head and whimpered. “I can’t leave you.”
Beatrix threw up her hands in despair and crashed resignedly towards her kitchen door. Ellen briefly thought that Beatrix would bolt it against her, but it was open when she arrived. Was it even worth locking these doors? What should they do? Was there the time to drive away? Of course there wasn’t – panic had reduced these women to imbeciles, it had recruited them to a clown routine in which mocking laughter would meet them every which way they turned.
When they faced each other again in the kitchen, each appalled by how gaunt and scared the other looked, their mobile phones chirruped at the same time.
On Ellen’s: the lightest of sniggers and then Corpusty’s truculent voice. “He’s coming.”
On Beatrix’s: Bellowing, bellowing which seemed to be tearing through a man’s fabric. No words, no trace of any calculation, just the mechanical note which is issued to activate the survival instinct in other, remaining humans.
The line had gone dead on Ellen’s phone. Beatrix threw hers on the kitchen floor and stamped on it. Ellen promptly did the same with hers.
“The children?” Ellen glanced at the ceiling in indication.
“They’re safer if we keep away from them. Maybe… no you can’t bargain with this thing.”
Ellen thought that she saw it first. A man clothed in fire and wailing with unbelievable agony and despair. He walked smartly around the side of the cottage and came scrabbling at the front door.
The glass dimples in the door popped in the heat. Ellen’s gaze shot to Beatrix who was leaning on the kitchen table, her legs crossed, her eyes straining as she tried to keep herself frozen upright. She took a confused step towards the hallway outside and Ellen heard her own voice roaring admonishments. Racing fire preceded the flaming man down the hallway, causing wallpaper to curl up and blacken, and black stains to appear across the ceiling. His wail was being sung like a song, with each cry lengthening richly, operatically. This flaming man blundered against a wall; an arm with a sheet of fire seemed to be searching for a familiar place and it grabbed a table, which immediately exploded.
Ellen tried to extract herself from her terror and settle on a decision. Her instinct was now to forget the children – to bundle Beatrix into her car and drive both of them off. Yet Beatrix had darted without any apparent consciousness towards the flaming man. He stopped and then lunged towards her, gasping and mewing as if it was possible for him to see her through his melted eyes. Then, however, Beatrix exclaimed to herself, shook her head, gave a shrewd, weak smile, and scampered back out of his reach. She ran into the living room, leapt on to a sofa and then, amazingly, she had smashed the window behind her with her bare hands. She barged out of the window, out into the night.
The living room, currently visible to Ellen from the hallway where she had followed her friend, was wholly aflame. Suddenly the flaming man had turned on Ellen and she fell back blindly from the heat, which scraped as hard as rock against her skin. She fled, her eyes streaming from the fumes of roasting flesh. She quickly closed the kitchen door behind her and then the back door.
The coolness of the garden gave her a slimy lick. The doors and windows of the cottage were rattling, and next loud thumps were springing, each with a horrible clarity, from inside.
The flaming man was ploughing up the stairs, to where the children had doubtlessly assembled on the landing, paralysed with terror and disbelief.
Their screams joined his, as if they were all being shaken in a single hand. Ellen stepped forward at this sound and she then halted in bewilderment, her fingers poised lifelessly on the handle of the back door.
She clicked her fingers, as if to restart herself. She clicked them again. She almost had to will her blood to keep flowing. When she had finally managed to turn away from the cottage, sick with her own defeat, both floors were completely ablaze. Fire was jumping hungrily all over the structure, climbing and twisting like maggots.
Ellen had been somehow immaculately preserved in this robot body which had walked her all the way back to her car. The robot presence was now coolly driving her car away from the cottage, down the dirt track towards the cattle grid. I am being carried away, Ellen’s heart chanted gleefully. Surely this robot would drive them both straight into water or over a rocky ledge, but she marvelled at its calmness, its weightless energy, its strangely alert control.
The robot should have stopped. It should have turned around and headed back to retrieve her friend Beatrix. But Ellen kept driving.
When she arrived at Pollock Halls she knew that she was way too early. There were still fifty minutes remaining until the salsa dancers were due to break their world record. On reaching the hall, therefore, she was startled to encounter an intense silence. Inside, the dancers could be faintly heard and then they could be seen, sitting or lying across the dancefloor. Someone had wheeled out a sort of bathtub which had been stacked with a fleece of ice and bottled beers. The dancers were evidently waiting for a single bottle opener to arrive, because everybody had been supplied with a bottle with its cap on. They were all consciously gripping their bottles, as though the beers might fly away if they stopped thinking about them.
The realisation broke in on Ellen’s thoughts like a stranger’s voice. Then, after a moment’s wonder, she started to laugh.
“Hello darling,” Rufus beamed at her, his face sickly and exhausted. “You’re looking at a record breaker.”
“Would you like a beer?” One of the dancers stood and held out a bottle.
Ellen did not take it. There was no hope of disguising her laughter. Again and again she tried to suppress it, to hold it down and smother it, but it constantly nipped up between her fingers. The laughter spread and then it had taken root permanently. It seemed to wave in her throat and behind her eyes like a ticklish feathery plant that could never be squashed down for good.
They all looked at her but only Rufus was watching her with total concern.
“Where’s mum?” Angelina and her sister Amy were side by side, the only dancers to be conspicuously holding wine glasses, these pompous standoffish people, these selfish lizards whose sons had been burned to death.
The event coordinator veered towards her, aloofly impatient. “If you are not willing to behave with…”
“The clocks went forward.” Ellen’s crazy mirth swelled like a wave, almost to breaking point, but she managed to keep going. “None of you noticed – not one of you. They went forward back on Saturday night.”
She should have taken Angelina and Amy to one side. She should have prepared them for the shock, for this blow that would shatter them like two dolls and leave behind irreparable wreckage.
One or two of the dancers had started to comprehend what Ellen had said. One had sat up and he was furiously swiping his phone. “So we’ve actually danced for fifty-nine hours?”
At last Angelina had hissed at the belated coordinator, her nostrils flaring. “You idiot!”
He gazed steadily at them, his petulant face noble for a final second, before everything had slid all in one go, inexorably, into an unwatchable collapse. When he looked up at them again, his face was slack; his voice, when it came, was choked and ragged. “Maybe we can continue… keep dancing… it won’t technically be a record but…”
Ellen shrieked so violently that they all flinched. She spluttered and tittered deep in her throat, smearing the wetness out of her eyes. Angelina turned on her heel and marched towards the door, as straight as a colonel. Her sister followed obediently.
Rufus was disconcerted by Ellen’s hysteria. There must be more in the mix than he could see. He beckoned her to one side.
“Their children are dead,” Ellen reported.
“Your… your faith?”
“Their mother might be dead too. We… Beatrix and me… it’s not a game, a hobby anymore. In the old days they burned us. They burned those women in North Berwick.”
She gibbered as Rufus led her away.