On the surface, Saxonhurst is like every other sleepy English village in the Vale of Parham.
But what explanations are there for its unfailingly bountiful harvests, its amazingly successful cricket team, its bizarre and bacchanalian May Day rituals?
New vicar Adam Flint is bent on finding out why Saxonhurst has the nickname 'most godless village in England'. With the help and hindrance of village siren Evie and the strange and remote Lady of the Manor, Julia, he uncovers closets full of skeletons. And not just skeletons - flesh and blood bodies rich in temptations as well...
Will the secrets of Saxonhurst be Adam's ruin?
WHAT EXACTLY IT was that drew him out of the vicarage study and into the unseasonably warm April air was never clear to Adam Flint. One minute he was unpacking a crate of theological texts, lining them up in neat subsections along the dark wood shelving. The next, he was sweating and giddy, inhabited by the most powerful urge to get outside and be part of the village springtime.
‘What’s this? Some kind of spring fever?’ He spoke to himself, a habit he had got into over the years of rehearsing rhetorical questions for his sermons. Nobody else ever gave him properly satisfactory answers besides. ‘Well, a bit of fresh air, what’s the harm?’
But if somebody had been there to answer that question, before he grabbed the old-fashioned hat and walking cane he liked to affect, despite his being only 31, perhaps he would have stayed indoors. What was the harm? He would know soon enough.
Saxonhurst certainly didn’t look like the outpost of godlessness he’d been led to expect. The circle of honey-coloured cottages nestled around the church had all the correct bucolic fixtures and fittings – flowery trellises up the walls, diamond-paned windows, thatched roofs. He breathed in the aroma of hyacinths, the sweetness steadying him somewhat, bringing him back to his senses. There was nothing odd or sinister about this place. It was simply a village that had fallen prey to the common 21st century syndrome of entitled materialism and the consequent atrophy of faith. They were good people who looked after their homes, capable of redemption.
From the corner of his eye, he caught the twitch of a lace curtain. A black cat ran across his path by the National Trust pub. The strong feeling that he should be walking out toward the arable farms on the northern outskirts of the village overwhelmed him, turning his footsteps away from the recreation ground and the infants’ school, along a narrower lane.
The cottages soon gave way to acres of polytunnels housing tomato plants and courgettes. On his left loomed the ruins of Palmer’s Barn, where local legend had it that a man had killed a girl then hanged himself. He almost fell over the wishing well, hidden by weeds, as his curious eye outlined instead the brutal skeleton of the mythic building. It looked evil and brooding. Perhaps he should perform a consecration there, bring the grace of the redeemer to that burnt-out wreck. Or perhaps he should just write to the council and suggest its demolition. What was the good of keeping it there, a reminder of wickedness past? It couldn’t be good for village spirits.
When he tried to tear away his gaze and move forward, toward the endless fields of bright yellow rape and the hills beyond, he found that he couldn’t. The blackened timbers held him in thrall, calling to him. This way. It’s this way.
He hacked a path through brambles and weeds with his walking cane, struggling slowly towards the barn. And then he heard voices, a male shout, some laughter, a high-pitched female shriek that reminded him of a siren’s song.
There were people behind the barn. Parishioners, he supposed, on a picnic, or maybe some truanting schoolchildren. Whatever they were up to, it sounded rowdy, bacchanalian even. Adam’s eyebrow twitched, a sign that the devil was present and close. He moved forward into the shadow of the barn.
Six men, burly young fellows who shone with physical health and strength, chased a woman through the bushy green wheat. It was clear that she was enjoying herself, whooping and laughing as she dodged their great lunging hands. It could be a simple game of chase under the spring sunshine. Except that the men were all painted green and she was completely naked.