Monday 19 March 2018

Midsummer in the Country

By Andrea Williams 


The ‘Green Man’ is the epitome of the classical, traditional English country pub.  You will have seen it in any of a dozen films.  White rendered walls, red tiled roof, some roses around the door, lawn to the road sprinkled with weathered benches.  You know it so well already I hardly have to describe the Dickensian interior either.  When I moved in to the village I was delighted to find it there. I was even more delighted to find that it was as good a pub as it looked, with a landlady who was friendly, always prepared to stop and pass on the gossip.  The locals and regulars who gathered nightly in the cosy, comfortable panelled bar ensured that everyone knew everything about everybody, and inside a month I was one of that everyone.  

One of their number was an extremely talented wood carver, Daffyd Thomas by name,  his work was displayed in the main entrance hall.  Carvings of Green men were all over the pub, but the hallway linking stairs, dining room and lounge bar has a lighted glass display cabinet with  carvings for sale, small studies of hands, a pair of matching feet that morphed into roots.  The central piece was the head and upper torso of a green man, complete with foliage breaking out all over it, not stylised, but carved in lifelike detail.  It was a sort of threequarter depth, flat at the back, hung against the panelling, cut vertically half way through the ears.  Truly a stunning work, named for the pub, or the pub named for it; either way its quality was appreciated, as its price tag, on a small stand beside it was £15,500.  Not something I could ever afford.  

On the shelf below was a study of a hand, slightly conventional, in that it was outstretched upwards, the forearm forming the base.  You’ve seen pottery versions as ringstands.  The thing about this was the detail that the carver had incorporated - all the little lines around the knuckles.  The fingernails, the cuticles, all lifelike, though polished.   What lifted it to the status of ‘Art’ and the £5,000 price tag, was the incorporation of a diamond studded ring on its ring finger.  It was somehow embedded around the finger, and was being displayed on a slowly moving turntable to show that it was a continuous gold ring.  Beautiful, artistic, and a puzzle piece all in one.  At a more prosaic level, I know how to cast metal rings in place into wood, and it’s something that’s common enough on the handles of certain makes of bit braces.  Very fiddly and time consuming, especially so if you then had to carve the housing for the diamond.  I thought it underpriced given the work involved and I would have bought it solely to appreciate the effort made in its creation.  

The back bar, or public bar, as it said over the door, was entered from the lawned area via its own ancient Tudor headed doorway and matching nail studded oak door.  Even the latch was oak.  It operated with a length of binder twine, and casual visitors who asked were told that the binder twine dated back to t’he third reaper binder machine in the county’ coming to the village in 1897, and the oiled twine that came with it on a huge reel was still in use whenever a new twine was needed, though they were down to the last five yards or so.

It made a good story, often good for a pint for whoever told it.  I admired the veracity of it being the ‘third’ machine, a nice detail that genuine tall tale tellers appreciate.  

I thought I was included into the elite company of local barroom regulars that knew everything about everyone after a few months, but I wasn’t - quite.  It was well over a year later, coming up to midsummer, that I was invited to join a small group of regulars who were in the tiny oak panelled room off the bar we called the snug.  It was Roy Brown who came to find me in the bar and escorted me in there.  It was crowded, and when I looked around there were a dozen others sitting and standing around.  No, there were eleven others, six women, five men, all known to me except for one young lady.  I say young, but she was in her late twenties, good looking in a modest way, dressed conventionally for the country, which is to say that she had wellies, and a look-alike for a Barbour jacket over a used but trendy jumper and worn jeans.  She introduced herself as Rebecca, and said she was ‘thrilled to be allowed to join in.’ Daffyd Thomas was standing in the far corner, a very worn and grubby looking duffel jacket showing its age concealed his other clothes, and his black beard, long grey hair, and piercing black eyes looked over the company from his great height, for he was over six feet tall, and lean with it.  He broke the silence that had descended when we entered.  

“We are twelve.” he pronounced.  I didn’t like to say that there were thirteen of us, and he went on.  “Midsummer is almost here, and we must honour the year as we have always done.  We twelve will do midsummer honour.  And now we join hands in the oath.”  at this point Roy pushed a card into my hand, and someone did the same to Rebecca.  It had on it the words of an oath to keep secret what was to come, and to keep the ancient ways.  I was in!  A secret circle of Gaia worshippers, or animism believers, or something - and I had been included. Whoopee! 

The party broke up immediately after, and my attempt to ask a question was silenced, and I was told ‘You will be called.’ and that was that.   Next evening, I waylaid Roy, and didn’t stop until I had more of the story.  Daffyd was some sort of priest/druid /haman who presided over ten novices and two noviciates each year at a ceremony held on top of Stone Hill on midsummers eve.  

“You’re kidding?” I said, “and do we all dance round that big stone naked with flaming torches?” 

“No, no torches. Wait and see.”  was all he answered, and he clammed up, and eventually became a bit threatening unless I shut up.  So I did.  

With only two days left Daffyd called to talk to me, and explained that it was a bit of a harmless jape amongst the villagers, and ‘we’ usually found a gullible tourist or newcomer to join in whilst he choreographed some marching around the ancient stone at the top of Stone Hill, and then a big reveal when the dupe, and everyone else, would throw off the white robes and be left there naked, and everyone enjoyed a bit of naturism followed by a booze up.  All good clean fun, as they say in rural areas, and good for tourism.  Never any shortage of volunteers these days.  He left a white robe, which he assured me was a ritual item handed down for many years, but I thought was more like a cheap white towelling bathrobe with the “Made in China’ label cut off.  

Two days later we met up, at 3:30 a.m.; twelve of us plus Daffyd, appearing by ones and twos from the young trees that surround the bare top of Stone Hill.  We’d walked up from the car park at the base of the hill clad only in our white robes, and it was a bit parky in the morning draughts, midsummer be blowed.  I wasn’t impressed with the ancient stone.  It was only about a metre tall, with not much about it that suggested it was green, or put there, or made by man, or anything.  There was some graffiti in the form of names and dates scratched here and there, and a lump of white calcite or dolomite or some other mite that looked out at the eastern horizon, but that was it.  Stonehenge has tons more presence, no wonder the crowds go there. 

About four o’clock the eastern sky could be seen getting  lighter, and Daffyd  called us to attention, as it were, and began on a long speech - about Gaia and the earth mother, and the turn of the year, and the Green Man who looked after the circle of life of all things, and how we honoured the turn of the year and its passing toward the long darkness when the sun shone elsewhere, and we would dance and sing and chant to give him comfort and companionship in his lonely struggle to keep the earth turning in its cycles within cycles of birth and death and light and dark…  

Eventually he stopped.  I think his cycle of breathing needed attending to. It was getting steadily lighter, and he had us gather in a circle on the east side of the stone, with himself at the other side of it.  Despite the chill, magic or not, it was a grand place to be at the very height of summer, next to a lump of rock they called the ‘summerstone’  watching the sun come up.  

As dawn approached we stood in our circle before the summerstone, with Daffyd Thomas at the far side.  Everyone began a chant, and then, slowly at first, a rhythmic swaying from the shoulders, then from the hips.  The chant was hypnotising, embracing, ancient.  It didn’t have words, and yet, as I picked up the sounds from my neighbours and repeated them it seemed that they were words.  Old words, words in a language from beyond recorded time.  The Eastern sky was becoming lighter, the sun god who oversaw us was returning at full strength once more.  Daffyd shouted something, and everyone threw off the white robes, all but me and Rebecca.  We looked at each other, and I shrugged, and threw off mine, and she felt the peer pressure to do the same.  She was the youngest female there, and I have to say that on any standard, she was the best looking.  If only I could have said the same about me.  I could only claim to have a better physique than the other men around me.  I shouldn’t have looked around.  A dozen middle to old aged people standing naked, chanting and swaying on a hilltop at dawn.  No one had anywhere that was taut.  Everyone has wobbly bits, some more than others.  They all wobbled.  Some had spare supplies of calories in rolls that overhung other parts of them, some of them had bits that were in the grip of gravity.  It was a grotesque spectacle, fascinating perhaps, but not pleasant.

 The chant grew louder, hypnotic in its intensity as the light grew.  Somehow it entered your head, then your being, then you were the chant, and the surroundings faded.  The first ray from the horizon flashed across the land and touched the summerstone.  Daffyd struck it with his staff, shouting something like ‘We welcome you and offer ourselves.”  and everyone stood stock still, rooted to the spot. 

Literally rooted, that is, my feet wouldn’t move, all the other’s feet I could see had turned green, then brown, leaves sprouting.   The outstretched hands became twigs, branches, leaves sprouting from people’s arms, their hair turning into wood, and then, horror atop horrors, writhing branches and tendrils appeared from their open mouths, curving around and over their heads.  I felt my own body change, felt my tongue spring into a life of its own and sprout, pushing out of my mouth and the green shoots of the new circle of life curving around my head.  My toes were growing down into the soil, my arms becoming bushy.  I felt the air in my leaves, the sensation of a thousand tiny parts of me turning to the light, giving me sustenance, eating the air.  The sunlight was spreading down the summerstone, and as I felt the last remnant of my fleshy body giving way to its new wooden self the light reached the base of the stone, touched the white, reflected back - and the leaves retreated.  It was the most amazing sensation.  I felt life flowing back into me.  I could do anything, I could run a marathon. I could climb Everest, no, I could RUN up Everest.  My head was clear, I could compute the boundary effect of a black hole, make a fortune on the stock market.  

Then I was myself.  It was silent, the chant had ended, the very birds had stopped their chorus, we were no longer a circle of new trees and new life, just a set of assorted sad, overweight, sagging, sticklike, blubbery, naked people who said nothing to each other.  Mostly we didn’t meet each others eyes.  I searched myself for that wonderful vitality of a moment ago.  It had left me.  I was one of the sad naked people, still not beautiful, sagging in places.  I looked for Rebecca.  She was still there, now the only remaining tree.  I shouted her name, ran, still naked, across the space, and touched her, her leaves, her cheek, her flowing foliage., the upreaching hand, still with a wedding band on its ring finger.  Daffyd crossed to me,

“She is the most beautiful of us, so the gods keep her.  Her soul will endure.  If you too want to keep her, then come back with a saw.”  

About the author

When not writing Andrea makes furniture, repairs dry stone walls, and enjoy s Northumbria.  


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