Paul, a young academic composing a thesis about the end of the world, and his girlfriend Hazel, a potter, have come to the tiny English village of Alder for the summer. Their idea of a rural retreat gradually sours as the laws of nature begin to break down around them. The village, swollen by an annual rock festival of cataclysmic proportions, prepares to reap a harvest of horror.
When they first came to Alder, the big heat had already been on for over a month. In the daytime, the house, built to weather centuries of winters, was like a Casablanca gambling hell. Paul had tried working upstairs and almost come down with heat stroke. Luckily, there had been a wobbly rolltop desk on the verandah. Hazel helped him set it up surreally on the lawn, under the fairly constant shade of a survivor elm. He replaced the missing foot with a nonessential book – William LeQueux’s nigh-unreadable Great War in England in 1897 – and now had a decent workspace. The extension cord of his IBM electric snaked back into the house through the kitchen window. Papers flapped under makeshift weights, which was irritating, but even the slightest breeze was better than still heat. The typewriter hummed, but he didn’t even have a sheet of paper in the roller. This was one of his ‘thinking’ sessions, which meant he was stalled, letting his mind wander until his unconscious sorted out what he should do next and passed the message upstairs.
The converted cow sheds had big folding doors that opened to turn the studio into a cutaway diagram. Hazel was hunched over her wheel, working a lump of clay. She pushed her longish hair out of her eyes with a dry wrist, then got her wet fingers back to the emerging pot. Clay rose and fell, a mushroom cloud, a vinegar bottle. Throwing pots was hypnotic, almost erotic, to watch. Sometimes the process appealed more than the result.
Paul knew nothing about ceramics but could tell Hazel relied too often on what her tutors told her. In the shop attached to the studio, her pots were distinct from the Bleaches’, wax fruit among the real. But she was improving. Certainly, she had been the more productive of them so far this summer. She applied herself with enviable concentration, a strength he hadn’t expected.
He had been going out with her since Easter, and it was now mid-July. Paul supposed he loved her, although he was always uncomfortable with the ‘L’ word. She was named Hazel for hazel eyes, naturally. In fact, almost almond eyes. She had very slight epicanthic folds. Her father had been in the Navy. Maybe a seafaring ancestor once took a Chinese wife. Otherwise, he guessed she was just pretty. She was Paul’s first major affair since Sally the Psychotic – she had liked skunk music and torn up T-shirts for a rock-merchandising company – and they had arranged to spend the summer together before deciding whether she should move into his flat back in Brighton. He’d thought this a formality, but now the possibility of it not working out was starting to tickle the back of his mind. While the countryside was very obviously burning up, they were almost imperceptibly cooling off.
The crisis had been official since spring, and the harvest was set to be a disaster. The land was ailing. Around him, the grass was piss-yellow. Up in the orchard, the property was a post-holocaust wasteland. The apples had ripened early, but under shiny skins the fruit had been sour and hard. This morning, Hazel had had to get up at six to phone the Bleaches, on their lecture tour in Canada until September, and break the bad news. Their garden was suffering a slow, lingering death. Mike and Mirrie were understanding. The instructions were to do the best to limit the damage. Paul had only met the couple once, but liked them very much. Mike was external assessor for the polytechnic, and one of Hazel’s tutors recommended her as a working caretaker for the summer. The Bleaches were right not to shut up shop while they were away; agriculture might be down, but tourism was up. The shop was so busy some mornings that Paul had to fill in for Hazel with customers so she could get a few uninterrupted hours at the wheel.
The bell by the showroom steps jingled. He looked across the lawn. Hazel was sliding off the seat of her wheel, brushing off her apron. The visitors weren’t customers. They hadn’t gone into the shop. Hazel joined them on the steps. Paul realized immediately they were a pair of Jago’s peace-and-love zombies. In their Woodstock-era outfits and beatific living-dead expressions, they were unmistakable. He’d seen a few of the species around the village, but had never had to speak to any of them. Until now. He’d heard of Alder before this summer, of course. The Village Where god Lives. There’d been a piece on cults in the Independent, and an acid profile of Anthony Jago in The New Statesman. The Agapemone was well away from the village but could be seen from the moor, a prime sample of early Victorian megalomaniac architecture halfway up its own little hill.
‘Hi,’ said the broad-hipped woman, ‘my name’s Wendy, and he’s Derek. Welcome to Alder. We’d have been round before, but it’s been hectic.’
She had brought flowers, miraculously unshrivelled, and handed them into Hazel’s arms carefully, as if passing a baby. The Lord god evidently outranked the parish council when it came to water regulations. Paul had been yearning to violate the local authority’s sprinkler ban and give emergency aid to the lawn, but water laws were being enforced with the zeal eighteenth-century revenue men had employed sniffing out lace smugglers.
‘Hello, I’m Paul Forrestier.’ They’d come over to his desk. Hazel had provisionally put the flowers in a vase in the showroom, and was wiping clay-grey hands on her caked apron. ‘This is Hazel.’
‘Chapel,’ she added, smiling. Her name was Chapelet actually, but she didn’t like it.
‘Hi, thanks for the flowers.’
‘We’re from the Agapemone,’ said Wendy, ‘that means–’
‘Abode of Love,’ said Paul.
‘Right. I’m impressed. I heard you were a brain of some sort. Are you a greek scholar?’
‘No,’ he said, embarrassed. ‘English Lit. I read an article...’
‘Oh.’ Wendy dropped a hint of defensiveness. ‘Well, never mind. Don’t be put off. Jesus Christ didn’t get a good press either. We’re not really like the Manson family, honest.’
Wendy’s cheeriness was suddenly unconvincing. The New Statesman had compared Jago with Sun Myung Moon, L. Ron Hubbard and, tactfully, Jim Jones, but Paul let it pass. He didn’t want to go into a discussion of the tenets of the Acid gospel. He had Wendy and Derek pegged as old hippies, but Wendy’s conversational daintiness was almost conventional. She wore CND, Animal Rights and Legalize It patches on her embroidered waistcoat, and her grey-touched hair was frizzed and long. However, she’d have been as happy representing the Women’s Institute as a fringe cult which worshipped god in the flesh. Under multicoloured skirt and tie-dyed blouse, she was creeping chubbily into middle age.
‘Tony’s amazing,’ said the man, Derek. He was thin and worn, his Midlands-accented hesitance suggesting he did little of the talking. ‘He’s got the whole world sussed.’
‘Oh yes.’ Wendy took over again, digging leaflets out of her Rupert Bear shoulder bag. Hazel took one. ‘He’s helped us sort ourselves out. We used to be really screwed up.’
Paul cringed inwardly. He was afraid Wendy was going to ramble on about their Messiah.
‘He’s far out,’ said Derek, without apparent irony. If this went on much longer, Paul was going to have trouble keeping a straight face. Hazel sat in one of the garden chairs and picked through the handout. Wendy and Derek sat on the ground, cross-legged. Derek plucked a few straw-coloured blades of grass, and started braiding them. ‘The earth is dying,’ he said. Or was that ‘The Earth is dying’?
‘Yeah,’ said Paul. ‘Time for the big red sunset and the giant crabs.’ ‘The Time Machine, right?’
‘Yes.’ Paul was surprised. He would assume Derek was remembering the film, but Hollywood had left out the giant crabs. Hazel was excited, brighter than he had seen her since spring. ‘Can we go?’ The tiny overlap of her front teeth, which she hated and he quite liked, showed, as it did whenever she forgot not to smile broadly. She handed him a leaflet. It was for the summer festival. He did not realize how big it was going to be. Hazel pointed out the names of several groups he had never heard of. One of the headline acts was Loud Shit, a skunk band Sally had taken him to last year. He didn’t think they’d get involved in anything remotely religious, and grinned at the idea of how well they would go down with the Tory-voting farmers of Alder. The nearest they came to a love song was a number called ‘Fuck Off and Die’. He’d broken up with Sally shortly afterwards, when she’d had one of her breasts tattooed.
‘We were going to ask you...’
‘(Because you make pots)’
‘...if you’d like a stall to sell stuff from. We’ve got all sorts of crafts people. Weavers, woodturners, jewellers. And some really good theatre groups. And things for kids. We’ve been scheming for months. It’ll be even better than last year.’
Hazel went ‘umm’. She was unhappy with her recent work.
‘I’ve only had one gloss firing, and there was a hiccough with the glaze. Too many things came out dingy brown. I haven’t got much sellable stuff. A few things from last term.’
‘I’m sure it’ll be lovely.’
‘Most people will be stoned anyway,’ said Derek, nearly giggling. ‘They’ll make up their own colours.’
A pause. Wendy’s lips thinned momentarily. Derek would get a reasonable talking-to later, Paul was sure. He felt sorry for the man, intuiting that he’d been dragged by his girlfriend into Jago’s sect and was liable to be stuck with it. Until the Reverend gave the Beatles’ Double White one spin too many and called for a bloodbath, or, depressed by an income-tax investigation, decided it was time to try out the Kool-Aid and cyanide cocktail on his congregation.
‘But I’m firing again tonight. I think I know where I went wrong. I’m not used to this big kiln. If it turns out okay, I’ll have some pretty things. I hope. I’ve also got a couple of boxes of Mike and Mirrie Bleach’s pots. They’re supposed to replace the work that sells from the shop, but nobody will mind if they go during the festival.’
‘That’s great.’ Wendy clacked her beads. ‘We’ll put you down for a table. Come over to the Agapemone when you can, and pick a site. We don’t lock up or anything. We try to be really open, and anyone can come to one of our meals or Tony’s services. There’s no real mystery. We’d like to have you. Both.’
‘Thanks, I’m a bit busy with my thesis, but–’
‘We’d love to drop over,’ said Hazel. ‘There’s blow all else to do out here.’
Hazel took Paul’s hand. Hers was dry, and he felt slip-clay powder between their palms.
‘You must come. He’ll like you. And you’ll like Him. Tony.’
Paul had known whom Wendy meant. The Reverend Anthony William Jago. In photographs, he had eyes like Robert Powell as Jesus and the three-weeks-dead expression Paul associated with William S. Burroughs.
Post addressed to ‘The Lord god, Alder’ was apparently delivered to him.
‘We must be going,’ Wendy said. ‘So much to do, so little time to do it in.’
When Wendy and Derek had gone, Hazel got a different vase for the flowers and filled it with precious water. Then she went back to work, and Paul was left to his books.
Jago, by Kim Newman