The Wolf Flute
The coach stopped at the crossroads. Peter jumped out, slinging a rucksack over his shoulder. The doors hissed shut and the vehicle moved off, taking the twentieth-first century with it.
The traveller exhaled, his frozen breath charged like a cloud of poison gas with her name. The trace image of her face burned his retina still. He scanned the sky for omens. It was laden with the shaggy grey fur of clouds. Peter looked at his OS map then consigning himself to luck, or his navigation skills, he struck out.
‘Blaidd Coed’ the flaking sign read. The woods were dark, sucking in the last gasps of daylight. It seemed to brood on the brow of the crooked hill, the weight of some ancient resentment upon its shoulders.
Peter longed for the anonymity it offered. A refuge from the world and its ways. Humans did not make sense. Perhaps nature would offer solace – it did not hurt out of spite, only need.
He wanted to forget, to purge her from his mind with sweat and mud, adrenaline and deep silence.
With determined strides Peter loped down the bridleway, his hiking boots leaving runes of intent. He had bought them for the visit to the Australia – their big trip together – and he suddenly remembered hearing of how an enraged Aborigine would walk in a straight line without stopping across the Outback until his anger wore out, then he would strike a stick into the ground to measure his grievance in distance from home. There was little chance of such a single-minded trajectory here – the woods immediately thwarted those notions, fallen branches blocking his way, roots and unseen burrows tripping him.
He stopped to catch his breath. And to rub the stitch developing in his side.
The air quality had changed. The forest consumed sound. His clumsy intrusion had become embarrassing, so he lightened his step and for the first time since his journey began he became aware of his surroundings in more than a perfunctory manner. Here was something to absorb him, to distract him from himself.
The woodland lined a narrow valley leading down to the coast. He heard the sound of the stream first, then caught flashes of it. It seemed to hoard the remaining light, refashioning it into something not quite of this world. The footpath soon joined its banks and for a while he was happy to follow its motion. His momentum felt effortless now he went with the flow if things.
Yet his departure had been the opposite.
Peter reflected on his journey here: the effort it had taken him to leave, the torpor of depression resulting from the estrangement. The feeling of rejection, worthlessness, despair. It took a huge effort to break out of this stagnation, to pull himself up by his bootstraps and hit the road. He knew a break would do him good, but when your faith in all things good had been shattered, it’s difficult to make yourself believe it – that the world could be better again.
Yet he found himself slipping into the familiar routine of packing, enjoying its comforting ritual. His rucksack was often half-packed from previous trips. He loved the ‘great outdoors’ – it was a treasure-house he had had before her and it remained – something he could rely upon. The one thing he knew would make him feel better. And already he was feeling more alive, more himself.
In the fading light he followed the stream down the valley – somewhere ahead his map told him a pub was to be found that did B&B. Out of season, Peter hoped it would be quiet. He’d booked a room before he left – his one concession to common sense. The woman who answered sounded almost surprised, but not displeased. A late customer, the dregs of the season. He could imagine her airing a room. Trying to find something vegetarian to pander to his lily-livered Sassenach ways. This was meat-eating country. Lamb was always on the menu. And Englishmen probably.
His empty stomach growled. Then turned.
He was not alone.
Peter sensed it first, with the subconscious certainty of someone knowing they are being eavesdropped upon. Then movement, independent of the slow world of the wood. Something fast. A herd of deer? No. Bulkier. Bolder. The shadows came alive. Pine bristles of fur. The hair raised on the back of his neck. Amber flashed in the shadows of the trees. Wolf eyes!
You’re imagining things, he told himself. It was just his horror movie habit coming back to haunt him. He tried not to give into the panic but he couldn’t help walking faster. His heartbeat quickened and he found himself enjoying this frisson of fear in a perverse way. It made him suddenly begin to cherish his sorry arse. Maybe he didn’t want oblivion after all.
The path became more tangled, snagged his clothes, scratched at his skin. His hand was torn and he sucked at the ragged wound. His breath was heavy now, his heartbeat pounding in his ears. Out of the corner of his eye he caught flashes of movement, fur and muscle in the undergrowth. He was being outflanked – soon his path would be cut off, he would be trapped. He considered the stream as a place of safety, but it broadened and deepened, its flow becoming a torrent. There was a growing roar. Up ahead the stream ballooned out before cascading down a weir. In its dark mirror a bulbous moon was reflected, rising over the distant sea. This pale alien presence seemed to herald his doom.
Wolf howls pierced his soul. His world imploded. This couldn’t be happening to him! It was wrong: he watched, not experienced, such things. A second chorus of tortured beasts brought home the reality of it. He was surrounded by feral eyes. He could smell their stink. Their raw energy.
Then the howling stopped.
Suddenly, a flash of silver caught his eye. Peter gasped. Silhouetted by the bloated moon was a slender female figure. She held a thin instrument to her lips. Above the tremor of the weir he heard a haunting melody, the mellifluous trill of a flute. It was as if the moonlight had condensed into a silver shaft and the sound it made was the sound of the moon’s soul, with all its enchanting, yearning melancholy. And the woman who played it was equally mesmerising. Dressed in sheer silvery silk, long dark hair a cataract of shadow over her pale shoulders, lithe-limbed, small-breasted, delicately-boned. Her beauty hurt him but he could not turn away. If she was aware of his presence she did not show it, except in this beguiling display. Could it all be for him? He dared not move, in case he dislodged a rock or broke a twig. All thought of his pursuit evaporated. His predators were equally appeased, if he knew the truth.
His ragged breath froze in the cold night. He hoped it wouldn’t betray his existence. His messy mortality. Yet this moment was outside time. And he forgot about the cold, the ache of his limbs, his heavy heart.
The vale around seemed to listen in rapt attention, yet the very surroundings seemed complicit, compounding the magic in this moment. As the moonlight touched everything like a silver Midas, so to the flute’s music expressed the isness of the trees, rocks, stream, bridge – the secret name of things.
Peter was drawn into this spell, felt himself unravel, as though the flautist knew the hidden depths of his heart, drawing out the poison and sorrow and resanctifying it. Yet the life-giving transfusion had fundamentally changed him – now he had quicksilver running in his veins and only one entity controlled it, could soothe or sway it. It felt now as if the flautist’s subtle breathings and fingerings played him. At first he resisted the manipulation…but it was so exquisite, like the inexorable pull of the waterfall, that he yielded to its overwhelming power and pleasure.
Then the music stopped. A dark cloud covered the moon and when there was next a break in the scudding canopy, the mysterious flautist was gone.
The glade shrank back to mundane dimensions. Around him, the trees, rocks and stream became themselves again, returning to their steady business. The wood breathed out and the cold seeped into his bones once more. Peter became aware of the physicality of his surroundings and his limited warmth on a winter’s night. There was no sign of his pursuers. Perhaps he had imagined the whole thing, touched by the moon. Perhaps not. What he’d felt had been real – he was still experiencing its impact. He needed some hot sweet tea, or a stiff drink more like.
Rattled, but with survival instinct kicking in, he carried on down the path, and carefully crossed the weir – pausing for a precarious moment at the spot where the woman had stood, feet naked in the icy current…Was she a fata morgana? Even if she had been, Peter still wanted her phone number.
Reaching the other side he saw a signpost in the silvery light. Following it around the serpentine curve of the valley he was relieved to see lights ahead. The profile of a large building could be discerned against the indigo night. The Blaidd Inn. Its sign, a weathered wolf in mid-howl, creaked in the sharp gusts that pawed the valley canopy. Eagerly, he made his way towards it.
It was an old building, heavy-eaved with thick-thatched roof. The tiny blurred windows looked out like rheumy elephant eyes from the sagging flanks of the walls.
Peter was glad to enter its protection. Leaving the wood to the mercy of the night, he stamped off the soil from his boots on the mat and opened the frost-panelled door. The warmth poured over him like treacle. Unzipping his fleece, he inspected the spartan interior. Stone floors, wooden stools, limed walls, low-warped beams. The bar was a dark and smoky snug dominated by a crackling hearth. The ancient fireplace with its blackened stonework and massive lintel drew him and he stood over it, gazing into the flames, warming himself. A jaundiced newspaper article in an old frame told the story of Blaidd Coed, where the last wolf in Wales was shot.
‘You must be the Englishman.’
Peter nearly jumped out of his skin. A woman had appeared from behind the bar. She was wiping her hands on her apron. Middle-aged, cleavaged, over made-up. Her hair was unnaturally black, but her smile seemed genuine enough.
‘Yes – I made the booking earlier.’
‘Mr Maltraver, I remember. Single.’
Peter wasn’t sure if she meant his room, or if it was some kind of appraisal.
‘You look pale – have you caught a chill?’
He had overlooked how frightful he must look. ‘I- I had a strange experience in the woods. I need a drink.’
‘Here, my love, have this.’ The woman poured him a brandy.
Peter walked warily to the bar – its shining optics and mirrors seemed incongruous after the cthonic forest just beyond the door. As if remembering the customs of civilisation he picked up the amber-filled glass and downed it in one. The fire filled his torso like a slow explosion, purging the cold from him in a series of shudders. He coughed, but felt better.
‘I’m Mrs Griffiths, the landlady. You look like you’ve had a nasty fright. Are you sure you’re okay?’
Peter nodded, smiling weakly. The brandy had burnt his throat. ‘S’fine,’ he croaked. ‘Just show me to my room, please.’
The landlady made a sympathetic sound, then taking a key from a rack lead the young man upstairs. She showed him into his small room, explaining the facilities. Peter murmured politely, fending off his fatigue or the hysteria restrained but intensified by the stifling normality of it all. Having agreed a mealtime, he was relieved when she finally left. Her overpoweringly sickly perfume lingered.
Peter dumped his backpack and flopped on the bed. His head was spinning. He closed his eyes and let the nausea subside.
Refreshed from his shower, Peter sat at a table by the fire and tucked into his meal. Things were looking up, he thought, as he supped on his pint of quaffable local ale. Having awoken rather disorientated from his sudden slumber, feeling groggy and aching, he exorcised the weariness of his journey and winter from his bones with a blast of scolding and freezing water. A change of clothes and he almost felt himself again. The landlady served him when he came down and Peter was beginning to wonder if they were the only ones around. Not that he minded – in fact, he enjoyed the peace and quiet and he was in no mood for chit-chat. Yet he was eager to share his experiences with the landlady – perhaps she could throw some light on the subject. But first, there was a little matter to clear up.
‘Is this organic?’ Peter asked.
The landlady seemed to bridle at this interrogation of the steaming plate of food she had proudly placed before him.
‘Oh yes, it’s all from a local farm,’ she reassured him – a ghost of a smile on her face. She pointed to a sign on the wall, which read: all the food served here is GMO free. As far as we know, was scrawled underneath.
Peter sheepishly inspected the pie for foreign material. He was reassured the meaty chunks were soya. In fact, it had been so long since he had eaten meat that it would be alien to his taste buds.
His hunger got the better of him, but he rolled the food around in his mouth suspiciously before swallowing. What he had experienced in the woods was equally hard to digest. He felt wary of ridicule and used his mealtime to order his thoughts. He would broach the subject afterwards, he decided – just as the door burst open.
A gang of farm-workers swaggered in, carrying something over their shoulders. They eyed him cautiously in passing, but called out in loud friendly terms to the landlady. They spoke in the rough local tongue, vowels thick, consonants guttural. They were stout-necked, stocky men, with heavy winter coats and boots, blackbrowed and swarthy. Over their shoulders they carried bloody bundles, which they presented to Mrs Griffiths like trophies. She examined them critically, fingering their flesh like a housewife at the fruitmarket. Then she nodded, called out in a shrill voice and a large bald man appeared at the kitchen door and took them away in his massive hands.
Peter had lost his appetite. He looked at the half-eaten food before him and imagined a kitchen dripping with bloody carcasses, fat and offal.
The landlady thanked the men and called out: ‘Megan, come down now – these men are thirsty.’
There were light-footsteps and a young woman appeared at the bottom of the stairs behind the bar. She immediately caught the attention of everyone there. A wave of dark hair, bright fiery eyes, pale-skinned, slender and shapely in a long tight dress, a flash of silver about her neck. Peter watched in fascination as she pulled the pints of frothy ale for the men. They bantered with her in a frisky familiar way. Occasionally she would glance over at him and there would be a comment under breath followed by a roar of laughter.
Yet Peter couldn’t help staring at her – she was the spitting image of the flute-maiden, although her manner was somewhat less refined. If that ethereal beauty had an earthly sister surely this must be her.
His attraction was tainted by the memory of his ex: the scar carved on his heart. The desire the landlady’s daughter stirred in him was painful, as it rubbed salt into a sore wound. He still bore the teeth-marks. Yet he found himself almost blushing when she waltzed over to him to take his plates.
‘Finished are we?’
‘Mm, yes. Thanks.’ He noticed her silver-toothed necklace and crescent earrings.
‘Are you staying here long?’ She cast an eye back to the men at the bar and exchanged smiles.
‘I –I don’t know. I just needed a break. A bit of peace and quiet.’
‘Oh, you’ll get that around here. Nothing much happens in Blaidd Coed, does it boys?’
Again, the raucous laughter. Peter rolled his eyes.
‘Don’t mind them, barks worse than their bite. Like puppy dogs they are, if you know how to treat them proper.’
She collected up the crockery and in a swish of skirts was away. Peter watched her disappear into the kitchen.
‘Not chatting up our Megan are we?’ called out one of the men. Another elbowed him in the ribs.
‘Sorry, boy. Not many visitors around here.’ Explained the elbower in an apologetic manner. ‘Where you from then?’
Peter spoke the name of his city. There was a hiss of derision.
‘Never mind, eh? I expect that’s why you need a break. All that traffic and rushing about.’ This one seemed to be making an effort, or was he just playing with Peter – it appeared to him his comments were more for the benefit of his friends than some genuine gesture of interest.
‘It was a woman.’
‘Oh, yes. It always is.’ Replied the man in sympathy. There was a snigger from the bar.
‘Who – who was the bar maid?’
‘Megan? She’s the landlady’s daughter. Lovely, isn’t she?’ The man’s eyes shone.
Peter didn’t want to agree too heartily.
‘Yes, she reminds me of someone…’ Peter looked haunted.
The man leaned closer. ‘ Who?’
‘Someone I saw on the way here …in the woods.’
There seemed to be a silence in the bar you could slice, as though the walls themselves wanted to hear.
Peter looked at the man, expecting a sarcastic comment. Instead, he sat down and looked intrigued. ‘Blaidd Coed?’
‘Yes, by the waterfall. She – she was playing a flute…in the moonlight,’
Peter whispered, expecting a wall of derision for uttering his delusion.
‘Beautiful she was, the music…spell-binding.’
All the men seemed lost to this image, as if it had been conjured up by Peter’s words. Then the mirage was shattered as Megan walked in. Everyone turned to look at her, the hungry gazes pouncing upon her soft form.
‘Goodness, quiet in here!’ She folded her arms primly, ‘ you know it’s rude to stare! Dinner’s ready soon so go and wash yourselves and take your dirty minds with you!’
The men, suitably castigated, filed to the washroom.
‘Honestly, those men!’ said Megan, aloud, to herself or to her audience of one Peter wasn’t sure.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, as if apologising for his gender. ‘I was staring too. I hope you don’t mind me saying but you are quite beautiful you know.’
Megan looked at him with her uncanny green eyes. ‘Quite?’
‘No, absolutely beautiful.’
‘That’s better. Now, have another drink.’ She poured something dark red and he received it from her hands like the grail itself. He sipped the liquor and gazed into her depths, holding communion with the feminine.
In the washroom, the coarse laughter of the men echoed, in the kitchen the bald man was butchering the meat, something was sizzling. The landlady was singing to herself. A jukebox suddenly piped in old 45s. The moment elongated.
Peter floated back to his seat.
The landlady brought in a trolley and laid out the dinner.
The men returned and descended upon their food, raw steaks oozing blood. They tore them apart with their hands and teeth. Their eyes grew wild. They wiped the grease from their grizzled faces by the back of their hands. Peter could see every follicle on their ruddy skin. The beads of sweat stood out like stars upon their brows, glowing in the firelight. All he could hear was the sound of eating, of chewing and swallowing, slurping and gulping, masticating canines, digestive juices doing their work. He felt the room was eating him: that he was in the bowels of a great beast. The bald man was sharpening his knives, staring at him from the kitchen. The landlady’s daughter was laughing and danced to the music for the men, as they banged their knives and pints on the table in time to the rhythm, pounding inside Peter’s head as the ragingfire engulfed the room.
He could feel the full moon booming in his skull. Peter followed the pack through the forest to the glade. She waited for them, their priestess. As the moon rose bright behind her, Megan played on the silver flute. The wolves watched with amber eyes burning into her bright flesh. The music resonated deeply within the subtle frequencies of their hearing, holding them in thrall. It eased their suffering – it was the only thing that could. When the moon was dark the agony was unbearable: with her favours withdrawn all the wolves could do was lick their wounds in the caves of their loneliness. But now it was all worth the wait – once more they could hear that music that soothed their souls. All they had to do was catch meat for the humans. It was a simple life, satisfying. Following instincts. Killing to live. For her love. Peter had forgotten why he had come to Blaidd Coed, forgotten in fact there was anywhere else other than the woods. He enjoyed being part of the pack, belonging at last. They were a rough lot but straightforward. No mind games, no hidden agendas. The hunt was all. Peter no longer worried about life. He just lived it. In fact, he had never felt more alive. As long as they were undisturbed life would be peaceful. The odd missing lamb was a small sacrifice. The local farmers were happy enough, with their government subsidies for growing genetically-modified crops.
The rapeseed strain was particularly aggressive that year.
Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2006
Jim Fletcher took off. He’d had enough. Working too hard, too long, for too little. Running low on energy, enthusiasm. He was worn out. Sporting a week’s stubble. Yesterday’s clothes still on. His head felt like a sinkful of washing up. Body, like a rusty ironing board left out for the tip. Heart, an iron whose fuse had blown. The only things he was creasing were his wrinkles – not so much crow’s feet as a whole wing.
So he pulled on his battered old trainers, picked up his sun hat – the stub of a Panama – and slammed the door behind him, heading for the Heavens.
The Heavens were the one good thing about living where he did – the butt end of a town that had passed its sell-by-date two centuries ago. Everything in Straddle-Edge looked worn out. The people, the buildings, the cars, the shops – but there was one placed where you could still feel a pulse.
He passed through the pocket park with a sigh of relief. It bubbled with gentle noise – children’s laughter, dogs barking, birdsong, somewhere someone mowing the lawn. ‘Fetch! Sit! Stay!’ someone shouted, trying to train an unruly puppy, but Jim smiled a thin smile and kept on walking. He was slipping the leash.
He passed through the iron gate at the far end of the park, passed the sobering ranks of gravestones, standing to attention, awaiting final inspection – like rows of plants in pots, stone labels sticking out showing no signs of life. God’s potting shed had seen better days. A kissing gate smacked its lips as he passed through – down a sun-peppered tunnel of trees. Suddenly the view opened out – and what a view! Jim never tired of seeing it. The Heavens – tucked away in the folds of the deep Cotswold valleys. A best kept secret – apart from the odd walker or jogger – and that’s the way he’d like it to stay. It had served as his sanctuary since he’d first stumbled upon it – moving to Straddle-Edge five years ago. Downsizing was the phrase – his partner had insisted – leaving the City and all his friends behind – until she had downsized their relationship as well, until he was just a ‘good friend’. One she forgot to call up or visit. One she avoided in town, turning her head if he caught her eye walking down the high street as she sat outside her favourite coffee shop, chatting to her green friends, the ‘Martians’ he called them.
He nearly stumbled as he stepped across the stream. That stepping stone – the one that wobbled – always caught him out. And he always intended to fix it, one day.
A phalanx of rooks took off, complaining vigorously – as he ascended out of the shady dell onto the bank of flowers – yellow and white – a constellation of daisies, buttercups and dandelions. Yet even this site failed to stir him. His heart was too heavy to see their beauty.
He flopped down on the trunk of an old oak that had blown down a couple of years ago and sighed.
Where was his life going? He had turned forty but there was little of substance to show for it. A part-time job; rented house; diminishing savings. Distant friends and receding hair-line. The only thing that was expanding these days was his waist-line – that local was a little too convenient. that local ale too tempting. Most nights he ended up staggering home. When was the last time he fell asleep sober? When was the last time he had wanted to?
Suddenly, an unexpected sound – laughter. A child’s. Again, nearer. A fleeting image – a blur of bright colours. Pig tails. White knee socks and shiny-buckled shoes.
A little girl – on her own? Would her parents let her play by herself out here? In this day and age? She was a fast mover, but still.
‘You shouldn’t be here – all on your own.’ Feigning concern, or was that a hint of annoyance in his voice? This was his place, his peace – which she was disturbing.
The laughter was getting annoying. And would she quit running around here, there, every-where – it was starting to irritate him!
A splash. A cry. Had she fallen in? Jim leapt up – tried to see. Something bright floating down stream – a … child’s shoe with a shiny buckle on it! He burst through the trees – wading into the water, his feet sending up clouds of silt. The cool water seeped into his shoes, his socks. No sign of her – but a minute ago he could have sworn…?
The laughter came from the bushes.
‘Why you…!’ He thrashed through the thicket with a stick, beating it, sending up butterflies, bits of bracken, pollen – which made him sneeze. He tripped on a root – fell and banged his head.
Groaning, he picked himself up off the mulch, the squashed mat of stinging nettles, and brushed himself down as best he could. And then, groggily, he stumbled out – into the light. The meadow opened out before him – a stream formed a lazy line with its trickling cargo, dividing the swathe of deep grass in two. An audience of trees encircled this green amphitheatre, which seemed poised, expectant. There was a stillness here, a peace – like he hadn’t experienced in a long while. His head hurt – it felt as though there was a little blood, certainly a bruise. He stooped by the stream and dabbed his temple with the cool water. It was soothing.
He sat on the grass pulled off his shoes and socks to let them dry in the warm sun.
He hadn’t done that in years.
It felt good to be here. Pity he hadn’t no one to share it with. His partner never made it this far. It was out of mobile range.
No signal here.
Jim lay back in the grass – just for a little nap. He felt so relaxed here. His eyelids grew heavier. The birdsong, the trickle of water, the warm sun on his skin.
He woke up – startled by the popping of a champagne cork – he looked over – there was a couple, having a picnic, laughing, full of life. The man poured the champagne into flutes and raised a toast. The woman smiled. They kissed over the glasses. Bubbles tickled her nose and made her laugh – a sound like the brook.
The couple didn’t seem to notice him – they seemed lost in their own dream.
They reminded Jim of someone, of a time when he had felt such happiness…
He turned to another sound – two, three young lads, thwacking their way through the long grass with sticks. Jim groaned – yet they seemed from another age – not the feral hoodies of today. Three friends going for a walk in nature, talking excitedly about the latest movie, TV show, comic or band.
The barking of a dog made Jim turn again – a young boy taking a favourite pet for a walk, lost in daydreams, the speechless delight of nature.
A smile broke on Jim’s face. Once he had been content with such simple pleasures.
When did life get so complicated?
He looked around. The Heavens were filling up, yet there seemed room enough for all – even a young family, bringing their gaggle of children with them to play, to have a picnic – puppy in tow. The mother brought out the various provisions: a Thermos, sandwiches in silver foil, bags of crisps, fruit, bowls, beakers for squash – and placed them almost ritualistically on the picnic cloth, while the father dandled the child – the youngest boy – on his knee. The older two played, or fought, while the puppy yapped, content to chase the tennis ball until the end of time.
Jim watched on, chin starting to wobble, as a tear leaked down the side of his face.
The girl appeared – this time she did not run but came up to him and gently held his hand, as he collapsed into hoarse sobbing.
‘Thank you,’ he finally said.
The girl looked at him with eyes like the sun – she held out a buttercup.
‘Let me see.’ Her voice was like sunlight.
‘If you like butter or not…’
Jim wiped his eyes; shrugged, held up his chin.
The girl placed the flower underneath – it tickled his Adam’s apple.
‘Yes!’ she seemed pleased.
‘What is this place?’ he asked, voice raw.
‘But it’s not like the Heavens I know – well, it is and it isn’t. These people – they don’t seem … quite real.’
Jim watched as two young lovers, chased each other across the meadow – the young woman feigned a cry of terror as she allowed herself to be hunted down, and ‘caught’ in her beau’s embrace.
‘They’re buttercup moments.’ She slowly spiralled the small flower in her hand – catching the clean light in the golden cup. ‘They don’t go away.’ She skipped around him – they’re all stored up here … in the Heavens. Each moment of happiness is saved. The meadows remember.’
Jim gazed at the various groupings – none stayed in focus for too long. ‘I’ve forgotten … so much.’
‘Things are never forgotten. They are kept safe…’ She struggled to find the right analogy. ‘… like in a bank.’
‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘Nice to meet you, Daisy.’ Jim sat up, suddenly feeling brimming with energy. ‘I must get back now.’ He started to pull on his socks – now dry. ‘There’s alot of catching up I have to do. Old friends to contact…’ He inspected the hole in one of his socks, laughed at himself. ‘Jobs that I’ve put off for a long time.’ He laced up his trainers. ‘New skills to learn; hobbies to take up. That garden needs some TLC.’ Jim gazed around at the green full of people. ‘Neighbours to spend time talking to. Offers of help. Invitations. Taking the time of day to appreciate where I live.’ He took in a view with a satisfied sigh. ‘Straddle-Edge isn’t such a bad place. Perhaps that knock on the head done me good! I feel like I’m suddenly awake after a long sleep.’ He got up, waved. ‘Goodbye, Daisy. Thank you.’
‘Don’t forget the Heavens – they won’t forget you.’
And the girl was gone. A buttercup floated gently onto the sward where she had stood.
Jim picked it up and walked home.
(Word Count: 1727)
The Faerie Road
Things weren’t going well for Alvin. Perhaps it started with his name. He had never been christened. His hippy parents had him wiccaned at Avebury stone circle on midsummer’s eve – he had been conceived there on the same ‘auspicious night’ during the first Summer of Love, so they loved to boast at family gatherings to his great embarrassment. Alvin, ‘one of the Elfin’, his odd aunties and uncles used to say with a twinkle in the eye.
From the start they had claimed him as their own.
At school he was teased – his so-called ‘classmates’ (they were not his mates, and none of them had any class) choosing to think he was named after some dodgy Seventies pop star: it didn’t matter that the pop star didn’t launch his career until years after Alvin had been born in unglamorous Swindon, a Wiltshire railway town run out of steam. ‘Stardust, Stardust!’ they called after him in the playground. Since going to college – more to escape his surroundings and peers than to study English Literature – he had preferred people to call him Al, until the Paul Simon song came along. Then it was: ‘don’t call me Al!’
‘Easy-going Al’ most people knew him as, somewhat ironically – for his buttons were easy to press – a gangly, awkward fellow, with one grey eye and one green and a tangled mess of copper curls. He never seemed comfortable in his body, in his clothes, in his life. He ‘didn’t know whether he was coming or going’, said his purple-rinsed gran often.
Easy-going Al finally learned to chill out when he found chicks and rock ‘n’ roll poetry. Ginsberg, Morrison, Rollins opened a new world to him. Suddenly he found he could express himself, in performance poetry, with passion. And suddenly he found some of the female students taking a curious interest in him: a ‘project’ perhaps worth taking on. Easy-going Al was, in fact, able to get on with most folk – but he wasn’t feeling easy-going tonight, and there were some Folk he certainly wasn’t getting on with. Here he was – broken down in the middle of the night on the Mendip Hills, trying to get to Glastonbury before sunrise, so he could celebrate May Day dawn with his new girlfriend, Ellie, at Chalice Well Gardens on the side of the Tor. It had all been going so well until he hit the Roadless Road…
3 AM. Alvin buried his head in his pillow in denial. But the alarm clock continued to scream at him like an angry bird. The bright digits glared at him in the darkness of the mess that was his bedroom. 3 AM, it challenged. Time to rise – if he was to beat the dawn and make it to Glastonbury by sun up. Their separate living arrangement suited them both. He lived on one side of the rural rolling Mendips, his new sweetheart on the other. They made an odd couple, he a city lad, she a country girl; although his strange girlfriend didn’t just seem to be from another country, but from another world altogether.
From the moment he beheld Eleanor Fay-Green at a Medieval Fayre down in Twinkle Town, as he mockingly called the New Age Mecca, he was spellbound. She was tall, Pre-Raphaelite-haired, skin smooth and pale as though she bathed in moon-light, dressed in flowing velvets of red, and purple and black. The secret dream of his desires brought to life, a vision which made him tremble before her, stare, talk too fast, too intensely, as though he could win her with words alone. He had always been a good talker, a bit of poet to boot. Some people said he had the ‘gift’, whatever that was. Some said he mis-used it, with his acidic verse, the cynicism he wore on his shoulder. Sometimes it seemed to be a curse: being a poet was not an easy path to walk in the Twenty First Century he found himself in, one he was still trying to get to grips with from the moment he woke up on New Year’s Day 2000 with the hangover of the millennium. Poetry didn’t pay the beer-tab. His job, at the BookCave, did that. And gave him access to unlimited reading material and time. During the quieter hours he would read, even scribble if the muse took him. Yet his poems had taken on a new life, a new reality the moment she had walked into his life. Suddenly he was writing from the heart.
He couldn’t believe his luck when Ellie, as he started to call her, had shown an interest in him. Nor could his friends. They were used to his failed attempts at relationships. It was either the wrong woman or the wrong time for him, but now everything seemed right. For the first time in his 33 years Alvin was certain. He had met the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. The woman he wanted to marry. And that May Day dawn they were to leap the Bel-fires together and be wed for a year and a day. So Alvin had better get up, though his body protested, if he was to make ‘the church’ on time: the enchanting gardens of Chalice Well, where the sacred red spring flowed from the faerie hill… And so, groaning, he hauled himself to the bathroom like some still evolving biped. Evolution had to get a move on. He had a bike to ride.
Alvin’s cruiser gleamed under the light of the full moon: a black and chrome beast, waiting to roar. He still couldn’t believe it was his – after years of saving, he finally had his hog. And he couldn’t believe he was standing there, in his leathers, boots, thick gloves and silver helmet, feeling like some kind of astronaut or, perhaps, lunatic. The moon made his head throb, like his brains were being drawn out the top of his skull like cheese-string. He still wasn’t sure if he was awake, or if he was dreaming all of this: a kind of astral travel, by astral motorbike. Yet the hog felt real enough – the cool steel of the handlebars, the fat tank, the low-slung seat which he swung his padded leg over and sank into, feeling the comforting bounce of the suspension. He slotted the key in the ignition and gave it a twist. The fuel light told him he had enough to make the twenty odd miles to Glastonbury. Checking he was in neutral, he flipped the choke, squeezed the clutch and hit the starter button. She roared into life and he let her warm up on the cold, clear night – tendrils of exhaust like the breath of a dragon rising to the stars – before pulling out of the backyard, up the gravel track onto the main road and into the night. To Glastonbury. He had a date with a May Queen to make!
Cold air blasted his face, and the bike’s thunder filled his ears. He had lifted his visor to keep himself awake, to reinforce the reality of what he was doing – to stop himself thinking this was all a dream, or worse, actually falling asleep. After a heavy stag weekend with mates – camping and caning it in the Forest of Dean – followed by three hours sleep, he was struggling. But the roads were empty and it was a joy to ride. The night was chilly but clear. He slipped through the slumbering estates and out of town, like he was the only one awake in a sleeping world. Beyond the town light’s the night stars revealed themselves – a spectacular star-field – but even their glory was dimmed by the bright beautiful lantern of the moon: ‘Beltane Moon’, Ellie had called it. She had told him to ‘take care’, for it was a time when ‘the veil was thin’, whatever that meant. He loved her strange sayings. ‘Talk weird to me’, he would whisper, as they made love. Which was often. Exhaustingly so. Yet it was out of this world, and he was hooked. Addicted to her and everything about her. It drove him wild, just thinking about her.
The naked moon made his blood surge as he rode towards it – for it seemed to hang directly in his path, guiding him on, his white goddess, calling to him…
Alvin snaked along the winding country roads, pretty much his, except for the odd night trucker rumbling by. He hoped he would never get over the sheer thrill of riding – and riding at night was an altogether more exhilarating experience. He was king of the road. Nothing slowed him down. He recalled the tarot reading his girlfriend had done for him – that’s how they met. She was doing readings at the Fayre. He was drawn to her table, more interested in her than the reading. He absent-mindedly shuffled the pack – she reminded him to focus on a question. He looked at her – like some dark elf, her pale fey features were framed by the dark tresses of her hair, like the moon in the night sky. A question popped into his head, and he selected the cards. Slowly, she turned them: the Knight of Cups, the Queen of Cups, and The Hanged Man. He would have his heart’s desire – at a price, for a sacrifice…
Well, this didn’t seem to bad, smiled Alvin. He could sleep in the next life. In fact, he never felt better. The moon loomed before him, teasing, leading him on – and he thought of his waiting May Queen, calling him to the greenwood… He howled with joy, a wolf of silver and leather. This was living!
Then he realized he had missed the turning for Glastonbury.
Alvin had been so intent on following the moon – since it seemed to be shining in the right direction most of the way there – that he had completely missed the turning, and was now heading towards some hick town in deepest Somerset. The moon rose over Yeovil, not Avalon, that night!
Quickly he took the first turning he could right – back in the right direction, sought of… He was now plunged into dark obscure back lanes, growling slowly through villages he had never heard of. Time was pressing on. The night would not last forever. Already he could feel the first stirrings of dawn in the hedgerows. He couldn’t get lost now. This was ridiculous! How many times had he ridden this road? He knew the route to Glastonbury backwards – he’d been going down there since he first turned seventeen and got his first bike, his first ‘rusty steed’ to take him to its amusing otherworld and back. He could do it in his sleep – he always said – and now he was practically putting it to the test. He struggled to stay awake, stay alert, as he focused his full attention on negotiating the maze of the Mendips. But then in the distance, he saw an encouraging sign – the Mendip Mast, a large communications pylon all lit-up to prevent low-flying planes and helicopters hitting it. Alvin knew if he headed towards that he would be okay. The cathedral city of Wells was just below it, and Glastonbury just beyond.
Revving his hog, he wended his way there, although the roads had other ideas, back-switching this way and that. This was testing his mettle. Then, a sign – quite literally – a white road sign to Glastonbury, six and half miles. Spurred on, Alvin roared ahead. It would be plain sailing from now on.
Then out of the night appeared the red and white hazard sign – Road Ahead Closed.
Alvin cursed under his breath. There was no way he would find another road to Glastonbury and still get there on time. Gritting his teeth, he didn’t turn around, he didn’t stop – he carried on. ‘What the hey!’ he thought. It was the middle of the night. Who was to stop him? Was a closed road going to stop him getting to his May Queen on time? Alvin didn’t think so.
Then he hit the gravel. The road wasn’t just closed. It didn’t exist any more. They were resurfacing it – the various JCBs, mixers, and rollers were parked up along-side it. Alvin found himself riding the Roadless Road… Gravel is always a biker’s nightmare. But if you know it’s there you can compensate for it. Alvin used all of his experience to keep the bike upright over that gravel – and he made it! He triumphantly came out of the other side of the Roadless Road intact…
Until he came to the corner.
When you don’t know gravel is there, you can’t compensate for it. He was only going twenty but, on a bend, a bike is unbalanced anyway. It slipped right from under him, tipping to the right. He was glad no one else was around – not because he could have been squished by a tailgating car, but to see his embarrassing mistake.
For a moment he was stunned, seeing stars, chewing tarmac.
Thank goodness for protective clothing, he gasped! His thick leather trousers and Frank Thomas boots had saved his legs, as well as the sissy bar, which had stopped the full weight of the bike crushing them.
To his own amazement and relief, Alvin heaved himself and his bike upright, start it and ride off. He was alive, the bike was still going. He and his steed had survived!
Then his ankle started hurting and the wing-mirror dropped off.
Alvin cursed and did a U-turn to collect it. He pulled over, put the bike on the stand and went to pick it up. It was amazingly unbroken – so he avoided seven years bad luck at least – but it was the bike landing on his ankle which was the problem, as he realized, hobbling back to his mount.
Denying it, first he tended to the bike. Using some wire and duck-tape he carried for such emergencies in his panniers he bodged the wing-mirror back on. It would hold long enough to get home. Then he anxiously inspected the rest of the hog with a pen-light he kept on his key-ring. Apart from a few scratches it was fine. Damage was cosmetic. A conversation piece at the next bike-meet.
But now his ankle really throbbed. Gingerly, he rotated his right foot, wiggled his toes. Tender, but nothing broken at least. A bad bruise, at worse then – nothing fatal.
A little shaken, Alvin took a few deep breaths and got back on his bike. Not bad for his first spill. He’d seen worse. He fired her up, and it stalled. Fired, stalled. He paused, took a breath, tried again. Same. He licked his lips. Suddenly, his mouth was dry. Had the bike been damaged internally in some way? With growing panic, he kept trying – and each time the battery grew less and less…
Alvin’s own battery was flat. He’d had three hours sleep after a heavy weekend, he’d got lost, he’d fallen off his bike, he’d done something to his ankle…and time was running out.
It was starting to get light, he could feel the quickening of dawn around him – but this was surely the darkest hour they talk about? He was in the middle of nowhere, without a mobile (he hated the things – preferring to be ‘off the grid’). The infuriating thing was Glastonbury was only five miles away. So near, yet so far… If he had broken down for real, and not because his sluggish mind was doing something stupid, he would never make May Day dawn at Chalice Well. May Day…
Then it clicked.
It was still May Eve, ‘the veil’ was at its thinnest between the worlds and faeries – ‘the Good Folk’ his girlfriend called them, carefully respectful – were supposedly coming and going as they please, taking mortals back with them if they so wished: babies for changelings, lovers, lost souls… He remembered her telling them this, with an air of authority, as though she spoke from personal experience, a strange light in her eye. He tried not to snigger. When he said he was planning to ride down to be with her for May Day dawn, she warned him to take care on the haunted Mendip Hills, the hills of peace, or the dead – strewn as they were with burial mounds – and most importantly of all to ‘never test the crew that never rest’. She didn’t explain what she meant by this, but now here, on the Mendips, with a seemingly broken down bike, the phrase came back to haunt him.
All of his life he had mocked such beliefs, rebelling against his credulous parents. He had hated his stupid name, he had hated being dragged to piles of ‘mysterious’ stones across the country as a child by his stonehugger mum and dad. He wanted to have normal parents, not ones who wore dubious psychedelic clothing, and spun crystal pendulums and copper rods about in broad daylight; he wanted a normal childhood, with computer games, burgers and drinks that rot your teeth and make you hyperactive like his mates: not interminable ‘talking stick’ evenings with his parents’ hairy friends, chanting around bonfires, incense stinking the house out and a tedious diet of alfalfa sprouts and gritty muesli.
But then he found himself, against his better judgment, falling for a mystical type, who lived in the hippy capital of Britain. To whom he was meant to be getting hand-fasted, hand-fasted of all things, that morning… Until he found himself taking the Roadless Road and breaking down, that is.
Ellie’s words echoed in his sleep-deprived mind: never test the crew that never rest…
They were laughing at him, he could tell. The Good Folk, Ellie called them. And other unpronounceable names: the Sidhe, the Tuatha de Danaan. They preferred euphemisms most of all, it seemed: the Shining Ones, the Fair Folk, the Lordly Ones. Right-royal-pains-in-the-butt more like!
‘Okay, I give in!’ Alvin cried out. ‘You’re real, okay! I believe in you!’
His sobs faded to be replaced by birdsong, the beginnings of the dawn chorus – like an orchestra tuning up to play the symphony of Summer’s Beginning. ‘There is no sound quite as beautiful as the British May Day dawn chorus,’ Ellie had said, but to Alvin it seemed to be mocking laughter.
‘I promise to believe in you from now on, just let me go, let me reach my love! Please!’ Alvin tried to think of names – he felt absurd speaking to himself in the middle of nowhere. He tried to recall what his parents would do, when they had their ‘strange picnics’. They would call out in odd voices, asking for ‘the blessing of the Lord and Lady’, whoever they were! ‘Like Midsummer Night’s Dream’, they had tried to explain, but it had fallen on deaf ears. Until now. Alvin suddenly had an idea. He was a desperate man; he was prepared to do anything – even pray. Taking off his helmet, he got down on his padded knees, wincing as his ankle twinged with pain, and called out through gritted teeth: ‘Puck! Master Goodfellow! Oberon! Titania! Let me be with my beloved, I beseech you! I will never forget you! You have my word, as a poet!’
Suddenly, the bird song fell quiet. Alvin’s face was caressed by a warm breeze, laden with the heady scent of may-blossom. He got up, got onto his bike. It started straight away. He nodded to the bustling hedgerows, pulled on his helmet and roared off, singing to himself a Zeppelin lyric:
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow,
Don’t be alarmed now.
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by,
But in the long run,
There’s still time to change the road you’re on…
In the gathering light, he rode towards Glastonbury, the familiar profile of the Tor – the hill capped by the ruined church tower – now looming into sight, silhouetted by the dawn light. Alvin’s spirits lifted, and the strains of ‘The Battle of Evermore’ came into his head: ‘I’m waiting for the angels of Avalon, waiting for the eastern glow…’ Ranks of misty orchards emerged from the gloaming as he rumbled by, singing with joy: ‘Apples of the valley road, seeds of happiness…’
For the first time Alvin realized he was living in the very land of legends. It had always been around him, but he had not the eyes to see it, until now.
Riding in on one wing, or wing-mirror, with a bruised ankle – like some wounded bird, Alvin gratefully made it to his girlfriend’s house, up at Wearyall Hill. He knew how Joseph of Arimathea must have felt, as he pulled in, and flipped down his bike stand. Would a bike tree from that spot one day, a Glastonbury hog-thorn?
Alvin’s head was swimming as he yanked off his helmet. He checked his watch. It was 4.30am – only half an hour late, against all odds. Ellie opened the door to him, and she looked a vision – her hair bedecked with black and green ribbons, his May Queen. His eyes filled with tears to see her.
They kissed, her lips tasting like manna.
‘Why are you crying?’ she asked, enveloping him in her scented embrace.
‘It’s just the wind,’ Alvin replied, as he hobbled into her house, pulling off his leathers and sitting down for a much appreciated cuppa. He wanted to tell her what he had gone through to get there – but where to start?
‘How was your journey?’
‘Eventful,’ was all he said for now. ‘Come on, we better go – I don’t want to miss that sunrise at Chalice Well!’
He quickly changed and they set off, arm-in-arm. His faerie-bride took him the ‘scenic route’, via Wick Hollow. She swore it was the quickest way, but Alvin was not convinced… But as they walked along the sleeping shady hollow, he thought back to his journey there, how he had ridden the Roadless Road.
He described this to Ellie.
She smiled in the quickening light and spoke, her voice soft as butterfly wings: ‘The Faerie Road isn’t the most direct route, but it takes you to a more magical place. It transforms your destination into something miraculous, or changes the traveler at least – who becomes a pilgrim, a Holy Fool on the Holy Road – arriving with new eyes, and a heart torn open.’
That morning, as the sun breached the Tor, they leapt the Bel-fires to woops and drumming, and snogged around a maypole tied with red and white ribbons to symbolize the union of the two waters, the Red and the White Springs, feminine and masculine; the Goddess and her consort, the Green Man. Alvin took her into the shop and bought her a ring, with two spirals entwining around two stones. They blessed it at the Lion’s Head and toasted each other with the cold, iron-tasting water. Afterwards, they wandered the flower-filled pathways hand in hand, drinking in each other and hot chocolate to thaw out. The sun-wakened gardens bustled with the fair folk of Glastonbury and beyond in their Beltane best – and Alvin saw them in a new light, as the faerie folk they were, as manifest in this world. This was the kind of crowd his parents would feel at home in, and for the first time, so did he.
A fortnight later, Alvin was cruising in the golden evening light to the mighty stone circle of Avebury – he had finally decided to visit it, after years of giving it a wide berth. It had represented everything he disliked about his flaky heritage, but now he was coming to terms with it. He was even beginning to be proud of it. In Glastonbury everyone he met seemed to adore his odd eyes and strange name – and they were impressed he had won the hand of such a wise and beautiful lady, one of the true priestesses of Avalon. And when he recited his new poetry, which his muse had inspired in him, they were even more impressed. He seemed to channel something in his performances, a ‘certain fey energy’, his new bride had said. He was after all, a child conceived on Midsummer’s Eve. The faerie blood was in his veins, there was no denying it. What else had drawn him down to Glastonbury all of those years? Despite his recently-shed armor of cynicism there had been a part of him that had always wanted to believe, that had always wanted to wonder.
And now, here he was finally returning to his place of conception, to his source. His bride had offered to come, but he said this was something he had to do by himself. And besides, he fancied a ride on his hog – it had been tended to, the wing-mirror had been replaced and it had been given a clean bill of health at Island Biker back in Bristol. His ankle had soon healed; especially with the TLC he received from his lady of Avalon. He now knew how Arthur must have felt, and couldn’t blame the old king for convalescing there as long as he had. It felt more and more of an effort to leave that enchanting town these days, to return, back over the Mendips to his world, to the ‘real world’ of work and bills and household chores. Yet he carried the magic with him all the time now, in his heart.
So, with a broad smile on his face he took the final curve – nice and slow – into the massive stone circle, the largest in Britain. But just as his bike breached the threshold of the henge, the huge earthwork that surrounded the ancient temple, his engine cut out, stone dead. Alvin’s bike rolled silently to a stop at the side of the road – fortunately no cars had been behind him.
‘What is it now?’ he sighed. He checked his bike quickly – he had gas in the tank. The oil and filter were fine – it had only been serviced the week before. What could have caused it to cut out like that? Then he looked around him, at the giant brooding stones, as grey as elephants, with memories as long. And Alvin smiled.
‘Never test the crew that never rest,’ he said to himself.
That May Eve he had vowed never to doubt, never to forget the Good Folk wherever he went – especially at sites sacred to them. And you couldn’t get much more sacred than Avebury, the heart of Albion.
Alvin whispered a greeting to the Shining Ones, and suddenly his bike roared into life.
He had come home.
Kevan Manwaring copyright © 2007