by Alex Thurley-Ratcliff.
It was the last day of April and the village was preparing for the May Day festival. Evermore as it had been ever, and ever would…
The May Queen, the Ash King, a dance around the Maypole, a drink and a wink and, if too much of either, there’d be leisure thereafter to think (and possibly repent if you cared to) for the sudden arrival next January of a flock of new births of mixed up eyes and hair and skin colours…
It was the custom too, to welcome all, including the poor and needy of the quiet country roundabout, and no-one blinked an eye at the strange tatterdemalions and raggedycoats who pitched up with their layers of coats and carrier bags, camping on the green or sitting outside the Post Office in the spring sunshine.
And so it was this year, evermore as it had been ever, and so it should…
And so we paint the picture for you on that Saturday 1st May, when the sun warmed the land early and the steam rose from the dewy grass, from the gentle stream and from the three beggars who waltzed and paraded and tripped jauntily down the village street.
One was old and thin and as strong as blackthorn; with scrabbly grey beard and scrabbly grey skin, accompanied by a scrabbly greyhound, a collection of newspaper pages sticking out of his tweedy overcoat and a strange pungency which lingered long after he had gone. He walked sideways and eyed the ways people spoke to him. A canny one and no mistake; with a wheezy laugh escaping his toothy grin for never no good reason. Let us call him Mr Astring and his first name is Dogon… Dogon Astring.
The second was young and blotchy; blond hair as messy as a prime minister, round and stretched was his red face and he was Welsh. He was a brawler and a brayer, voicing his rants and spiels of loss and unkind council workers at the sky and fields and anyone who caught his eye and was too slow to hurry on. He will be known to us as Forex – after his favourite brew.
And our third miscreant and ne’er-do-well was big and quiet; silent as the Job Centre, grim as the M25 and hard as December in Halifax. No messing with him and no mistake. But occasionally, when you glimpsed his eyes beneath the black overgrowth of his eyebrows, there was a depth and a mirth which took you by surprise. Let his name be Starbucks because it sounds grand but tastes awful.
Here they come, walking down the middle of the street as if they own it – and that’s all they own to be certain.
And Jeremy Latchpole, local landowner, recently bought the Manor House, owns a pork products factory and is diversifying into farming green wellies, he is slowly building up a head of steam as he ironically crawls his shiny new black monster 4×4 behind them, oblivious as they are to his need for speed and his creed of greed.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” he squeals in a voice similar to any one of his 1,000s of prime porkers on his pig farm.
Wheezy laughter, a rant and a grumble reply… they’re not shifting but they catch his eye and he silences; waiting until he can pass and then passive-aggressively racing up the lane with a spurt of gravel and peevishness.
Sitting in the sun, the three beggars enjoy the peace and quiet, share a dodgy meat pie they found a few days ago, and nap a little – saving their strength for the evening.
Meanwhile, Jeremy is ranting at his not-quite listening wife and son. Words sputter from his mouth without grammar but with enough force to clash them together in a sentence of bile.
And that’s not the half of it. As the new owner of the Manor House, he’s appalled at the idea of the May Day dance that evening, which he is expected to open, part fund and, in his eyes, endure. Jeremy is not a sociable man, but his wife and son are looking forward to it; indeed, his son, who goes by the name of Rufus, thinks that it would be nice to get to know the locals, one in particular who is equally young at 19, equally keen and equally handsome; and, tells me, she would like to be known as Rose (partly because her real name is Chardonnay and she has been reading too much literature lately), and because she is the May Queen.
And so the day wears on, and the afternoon is “exceptionally warm for the time of year, isn’t it Vicar,” says the local timber merchant, who is married to her, as they lie entwined under a hedge at the back of the village green, with a glint in both of both their eyes.
By evening time, the entire population is occupying the green. The vicar has put on her best collar; the trestle tables are loaded with food, a barrel or three of cider are next the pub, and the PA is squeaking and squawking as Jeremy is “testing, testing one two squeal”. It doesn’t do his accent any favours.
And now enter the short procession of Rose, the May Queen, and beautified infants in white shirts and coloured ribbons. Rose is kind and generous and happy and her eyes and voice are as clear as harebells. The sun lingers near the horizon, lending the soft blue sky a tint or yellow and gold, and Rose must choose her King.
Rufus waits, knowing that there is competition here, even in this small village, as the landlord of the pub has six strapping young sons and the owner of the garage has two good lads of age. Even the vicar has twins – a boy and a girl – with light fair skin and hazel eyes which are quite enchanting; and he’s not quite sure which way Rose might go… indeed, Rose is not quite decided yet, and she likes to make a statement.
But Rufus enchants her too – with his new ways and strangeness, still reminiscent of Surrey, and so Rose beelines for his red hair and crowns him with hawthorn and meadowsweet and a chaste kiss which lingers…
Then they light the fire and take their place in the dancing around the Maypole, the dancing around the fire and the festival feast begins.
It is worth noting that Jeremy has prepared a speech and “grasps this opportunity” to speak of bacon, pigs and sausages, factories and foodstuffs. And he speaks of a new era, to this ancient place, which he thinks will welcome him, but barely notices him. He speaks of development, of new builds and prosperity. He is also a teetotaller. Of course he is. He is a reformer. Indeed he is. He is evangelical in his business and in his godliness… inevitable. But the village has everything they have ever wanted – clean air and skies, streams and woods and open land, a shop and a season and a cycle of joy and life and death and being known. They don’t know Jeremy, they don’t wish to know Jeremy, who will be here and gone before the willows need pollarding again.
But Rose and Rufus; they know and know each other – and are discovering many things they enjoy as they take a break from dancing, hidden in a circle of yew trees behind the cider barrels.
And as the night wears on, Jeremy thinks of heading home, to take his wife and son and complain at them. No-one has welcomed him; no-one spoke to him (he means listened to him) and everyone was drinking and dancing. This is not how he saw his village… his land… these are his new constituents, his vassals. He is the lord of the manor, Squire Latchpole, benefactor and boss. He stands apart and above from this drunkenness and suspicious heathenry, as the villages do yet another wobbling tipsy conga around the duckpond and back to the cider barrels, then in and out of the gravestones while even the vicar giggles uncontrollably at the happy silliness, no disrespect to the oblivious dead.
He turns in sourness to collect his wife, the nameless one, who has accompanied him as required. He begins to hunt for Rufus, becoming impatient – an easy habit for him.
Looking high and low, he asks the three disreputables if they have seen a red-haired boy. Dogon, Forex and Starbucks grunt and wheeze and silence him their answers, but smirk towards the circle of yew, where Jeremy spots a tuft of red hair poking from the yew bushes and races forward, having forgotten by the time he was 22 what it is like to be 19.
He runs around the yew circle once, cannot find the way in, twice and back again and then completes a third circuit to finally find a way to part the bushes. He gasps – Rufus is discovered, with Rose… and the vicar’s twins. May Day traditions come easily to the enthusiastic young who have the energy.
It is too much. A porky squeal escapes his throat like a pigletty steam kettle. His disappointed evening and his impatience, the smirks of the beggars, the sheer wanton visibility of his own flesh and blood enjoying himself with this… these local… sluts.
There is a deeper silence than he expected. Did he say that out loud? Well, they deserved it. Rufus is shamed and told to get in the car. His wife follows vacantly… Rose is crying, a crowd has gathered… Jeremy turns to go, but there’s a pause and a sparkle in the air.
Revealing their true natures is rare, but Dogon, Forex and Starbucks have had enough. The evening hangs on a cusp like a star balanced on a bare winter’s branch, and joy deserves it’s moment – more than Jeremy ever does.
Without warning the scabby greyhound crouches and sprints between Jeremy’s legs as he turns towards his car, Forex turns his face to the firelight and mutters something in Welsh and Starbuck opens both his black eyes and looks at Jeremy deep and knowing. And as he falls, and tumbles, he backs into the cider barrels, trips and lands flat on his back, the tap of one barrel has twisted open and sticky sweet applejack falls on his face. He gurgles and grunts and hisses with disgust. He twists and turns in the muddy cider-slick that is forming, his smart brown brogues sliding and causing him to stumble again and again. With a last final effort, Jeremy wrenches himself up and as he half trips, half runs away from this disaster, this bad occlusion of the stars, all this movement and energy and spleen is wanting to go somewhere – and so it does – blinded by firelight and fury, Jeremy headbutts the Maypole and is out.
Come the morning, he is still there, snoring in a softer tone than his usual bacon-y way. Around the field a few stragglers accompany him. Jeremy’s wife drove home and took the chance for a night of quietude for once, hoping her husband’s memory would be quite blank, though knowing, unfortunately the villagers would not be so forgetful. She is not so foolish as to believe Jeremy will have had an epiphany – that is not in his nature. But at least he will be quieter for a while as he recovers. She hopes too…
Rufus, Rose and the twins are sharing their lives, opinions and passions sitting on the bench by the duckpond smoking rollies, wrapped in tablecloths and the invulnerability of the young to low temperatures.
And the three dirty beggars are stirring, having slept propping each other up near the embers of the giant May Day fire, with a small keg of apple brandy in each hand – a gift from a grateful populace, and now they prepare to wander on to the next village maybe, or a town, or maybe to return to the starry sky fields where they spend a little time, now and then, as befits disreputable minor gods.
And things in this quiet corner of Hampshire may never be the same – though they will of course, always be the same.
© Alex Thurley-Ratcliff 2022
Photo by Chaman Kumar
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