At evening, as at all times inside the coniferous confines, the sun tells – no more city church-bells – the time of day. The sun shines over all equally, even sliding and peeking into the sacred terrain, the free-breathing forest, where the creatures scuttle and the absconded are ensconced.
Curling around the outside frame of the home-setting, the wild heath heathers into glossy mossy tree-root, up trunk and thick leaving; deeper into the tunnel of the woodland go, climb through bushes, rush past rushes, as the trail leads past water and reed.
Not quite the middle, and more to the side, came a cottage, surprising the landscape, with all the comforts inside. Going to waste this evening, maybe – the empty bed, crumbed plates, tossed curtains, books, newspapers, tools, boots, baskets.
In the midst of wild nature, the house: man made, man enjoyed. A man emerged from the back door, brisking past the pea-poles lining the garden path: loose outdoor clothes, shades of green and brown; a cap pulled to the fair head and tattered tweed stretched over broad shoulders.
Alone; invisible, head-known paths he purposefuled, evening tea-mug in hand and eyes searching all the usual haunts: the well, the west river, the log-piles, the south-facing vegetable garden, the coops, the pony paddock, the meadow, the nearby forest-cottages, even though outliers they, and tentative – no sign!
Well, in fact plenty of signs – but no living fellow.
So he found and followed the fauna trails, the trampled-down grass of the deer paths, spotted with intermittent sunlight, edged with overlarge daisies, nettles and dewy grass. He didn't whistle, yet nor did he slow.
Soon he saw what he sought: sitting cross-legged and gloomy, chin in hand, down below in a hole in the forest floor.
“Took you long enough!” Alec said as up he looked and up he stood.
“Didn't think you'd be in quite this extent of peril.” Maurice bent over the edge of the hole, one hand on a knee and the other minding his still-steaming cup. “Isn't this one of your deer-pits? Your traps.”
Downwards Alec nodded.
“Thought you had them all memorized?” Pointless to say now of course, so Maurice veered: “It's a very fine one, all the same and no mistake, I must say. How deep is it? Must be twelve feet.”
Again Alec nodded. “'Bout that.” And then sighed.
“Hoist by your own petard. My poor lovey.” Maurice sat on the grassy edge of the hole, legs dangling, patted his pockets and extracted matches and a cigarette which he set to rights.
“Hay!” cried Alec in indignation, and the necessary were tossed down to him.
“Too bad you didn't have your cigs with you when you plundered downward – you could have sent up smoke-signals and I'd've found you a lot sooner.”
“Ooooo!” went Alec, and that, alongside frustrated fiddling with the fag and the flame, was the sum of his reply.
“But are you really alright, darling? It's such a very long way down, and you do tend to gallop around the woods like a thoroughbred. You could have broken your neck!”
“I still might just for spite! Landed on me arse.”
“Well.. Just goes to show how effective your traps are.”
“Just goes to show I'm stupider than a deer – I seen 'em lookin' down on me, callin' their mates over, leapin' across the hole.. Mockin' me. Oh, if I'd only me gun!”
“Oh, lovey,” said Maurice fondly; he stood and stretched.
“Where you goin'?” said Alec in alarm.
“Why, to bring you some provisions, darling! Food, blankets, oil-lamp.. Sou'wester..”
“You what?! And don't you 'darling' me if you mean as you say!!”
Maurice tossed the head to the side. “Ha! Ha! Only joking.. Of course I'm going to go fetch the ladder.”
“We borrowed away the ladder to the barn-builders preppin' for the harvest... They're miles away!”
“Oh dear me, so we did, and so they are.. Well, I'll unearth something you can stand on.”
And Maurice knew, somehow, yet, not to race away immediate.
Because: “Oh, but.. Don't – you know. Don't go. Not scared or nothing! Just.. I been here fair hours. I don't want to be on me own again now you've come.” Defensive: “Is that a crime?!”
“Wouldn't stop you if it were.” Maurice looked about him, contemplative, hands on hips; then, without further ado, a-jumped in – splat! - to the hole beside his incredulous little friend.
“You idiot! Now look what you done! We're both of us in the stew now, you pilchard!!”
“No we aren't,” said Maurice. “Can't you see? Where's your logic? Come here – I'll give you a leg-up.”
“Then you'll be out!”
“But you'll be in. This is like one o' those magazine-puzzles..”
“Yes, when you get above, you go and fetch something for me to climb on and I'll be home free too. You're right, you've been here quite long enough. I'll take a turn – I'm better at waiting than you anyway.”
Alec blushed, flustered, flapping away the kindness; but smiling, approached his companion all the same. Maurice leaned down and made a stirrup of his joined fingers, where Alec slotted his foot, his own hand on Maurice's shoulder for balance, and found himself easily hoisted, though puffs and pants beneath him, till he reached the top, breaking the surface.
Delighted to be back up on terra firma, as opposed to within in it, Alec stood and brushed himself off, but immediately remembered the hole and scrambled back around to look into it; his heart wrenched as he looked down at Maurice looking up at him.
“Don't forget me now!” said Maurice.
Alec went down on his knees, to be nearer the cell he'd just lately escaped, leaned over the edge and said: “I couldn't do! You never leave my mind! Sure what would I do at the cottage wi'out you? I'd be bored witless!”
“Fetch the empty rain-barrel.. The one on its side by the hen-house,” said Maurice. “Bring it in the wheelbarrow.. Don't run in the dark or you might trip and break something and it'll be curtains for us both!”
“Yes sir!” saluted Alec; Maurice heard twigs snap rapidly under racing feet, before they consciously slowed, remembering to a steady pace.
And yet mad movement will happen, all over in nature.
Try as it might: pull and yank and coax and entice – the wind could not yet part the seeds from the tugged grasses, the flowers from the stalks, and the little green leaves stayed staunch, thick in the summer trees!
Come! Say the wind. Come dance and circle and be free and base and worshipful! But the buds would not budge, the flowers not flutter – want to stay growing, growing, still stuck young to Mother earth; reach for the sun but clung to tough terrain. So the wind moves along. To find what else it could kindle.
What else could be agitated, fluffed round and swept whimsy? Why, the dark curling locks of an outdoorsman, of course – perched high up in branches, plank of timber held flat by one hand, hammer raised ready in t'other. Mischievous wind thinks: now if you couldn't see, boy, wouldn't that be fun!
“Bloody wind anyways!! Cain't see a sainted thing!” Alec brushed his fringe away and repairing to his repairs – banging the wooden plank to its older, living relative.
Bloody wind again! Couldn't it ever learn? He swayed and slid as the bough bobbed and waved like water – and you had to admit – that breeze brought the delicious scent of it – the sea, the sea!
“What are you doing up there, Alec? You're miles high! And we've not fetched back the ladder.. Those farmers certainly take liberties..” Maurice, grass and ground footed, his own clothes flapping, peered up through the greenery to try and catch a flashing glimpse of his comrade.
“Never give away that which you cain't afford to not do without,” was called down, brokenly.
“What?” Maurice required a moment or two. “Well, we can't afford another ladder just now, we've the roof to repair, oh.. How will we do that without the ladder, just occurs..”
“I'll make us another one.” Alec banged the hammer clear through the plank. “Shit!”
“No fear!” said Maurice, adding, chiding: “And what are you doing, boy? We're supposed to be selling wood, not affixing it back to trees. Have you had an attack of environmental conscience all of a hop?”
From some fifteen feet above, from the crow's nest, the answer dropped: “I'm buildin' a tree-house.”
“A tree-house, forsooth! When our own house is in dire straights for want of fixing.”
“This ain't a chore though.” Patiently. “Tree-houses are another thing entirely. Everyone builds one. It's a righteous passage, like. Something you do thyself – I mean, we're not going to have kids, the pair of us, like.”
Maurice slumped against the trunk. “How could you be so cruel as to say something like that!!”
“Hay! Where's cruel? It's just the truth. Where've you gone, Maurice? Come back out to the clearing where I can see thee.”
“Something I can't provide for you – children – where a woman would..” Miserably Maurice loafed back to the birds-eye.
“Provide! Hear him. Kids aren't things one person gives to another – they're little people in their own right. And we're too busy, us two, for anyone else. Anyroad the point ain't kids – it's tree-houses. Only natural for a fellow – or a lass – to make one – kids is only the excuse folk use.
“Mind you, me own dad were right generous – he made us one, up beyond in the biggest sycamore in the woods behind us' back garden – loved it we did, and we was encouraged to – 'Alec,' me old dad would say, when I were followin' him all around – ''Ere, go play int' tree-house, will yer? There's a lad.' And me: 'But, Dad, I been up there all day. I'm thirsty.' No: 'Off you hop, you young whelp!' And so I hopped.”
With a cocked chin he went on, manful: “Had to learn to provide for meself.”
“Oh yes? Drinking from mountain streams, I suppose? Hunting rabbits?”
“Well, more like.. Eating wild strawberries, and mushrooms and flowers.. At least until Ma called us for tea.. I weren't quite at the level of rabbiting at that age; if I'd'a caught one, wouldn't've knowed what to do wi'she!”
Now the errant wind blew insistently, rocking the clinging Alec madly; a loose board flew.
“Really, Alec, come down! Frightfully hazardous.” More shrewd was Maurice's next appeal: “Come and have tea and warm brown bread and honey.”
“You made bread! Champion! Why didn't you say so!” And Alec began to rouse. “If the flipping wind had a'been goin' the right way I'd'a smelt it..”
Little boots were soon feeling their uncertain way back down the tree trunk, searching and sliding..
“Left foot down,” said Maurice, watching, “A little more – there's your foothold. Now, move your right to the right – find that knot? Alright, now – left foot, straight down – a few inches only – careful now -”
It took an age. Back again on solid land, Alec complained, tugging with fingers: “Me hair's all over knots!”
“Likely it will be all summer, this wind,” said Maurice. They linked arms to walk home in the great gale. “Well, what does it matter? Where have we to go, who've we to kowtow to, no-place to be that calls for formal.”
Maybe not formal, but maybe more real – reverent.
Next time, Maurice didn't need to ask Alec, 'What are you doing?' because it was already crystal clear, beyond words, and besideswhich, Maurice was doing it also himself – couldn't be helped.
Midsummer's Day – the longest day of the year – and it had felt it too, a lifetime. A day of celebration, but for the two hearty heroes – work. The harvest was being saved at surrounding farms and they went to labour in, to help with the cutting, sheaving, gathering and hillocks; daily hot meals – cooked by women! - and actual pocketable wages were the allure.
Romanticism is all very well – but fancy won't toast the toes come winter: with these earnings they'd fill the coal-shed for the cold-season – oh, you've always to think ahead, when there's someone else to look after, even while daydreaming one's way through the present.
But now. In the now. So very now - as if it was always, this exact moment, as if the world had just burst into existence and was hovering, hovering. The sounds and silent sensations of the solstice warmed all around them – evening, dusky, but as portent and hopeful as the dawn. What would it bring? This day, this year?
Bright the day remained – and it would do – it was endless.
Alec stood at the edge of the forest, gazing out west over the meadows below them, the trees and hedges, and odd-dotted cottage and church-spire – to the horizon, where it – it – it – glowed and smoke flowed directly skyward invitingly, like it was the source of warmth, of life.
Alec stood and watched, silent, in his loose, off-white work-shirt, hanging open at the neck and over-long on the sleeves; his brown slacks rolled up to his knees, his feet bare, and his Maurice alongside, and similar.
They stood on the moss and wild flowers, the canopy of leaves above them, beloved – but – the beckoning sunset and especially the fire, the fundamental fire – commanding them. Mere privates were they in the mighty natural army, and they realized sudden that they were watching and waiting for orders.
Voicing was usually left to Alec – well, he was so very good at it. Enthusiastic, anyway.
“Midsummer's Eve.. Us used to go to the big bonfire outside t'village. All week, every house would bring along wood for the stockpile.. The lasses'd garland the place right fancy.. If you'd a donkey or a dog or a shower o'kids, or relatives passing, you'd bring 'em by just to look..
“Then, the night, they'd light it – oh, the wood so dry and cracklin' – and the heat of it! And the glowin' faces all gathered all around – no one free of it – enchantment!”
Alec took Maurice's arm. “Let's us go over. I know we're to keep to ourselves, for quiet's sake. But - this once – we'll go over – won't we? Just to look. We must see that fire. Let's get on us' boots and coats and scarves and go – and go.”
“Yes, let's,” whispered Maurice.
And so – off they go. That is to say – they went, once. Hardly even a conscious decision – merely naturally and helplessly fulfilling the next part of their narrative.
Over the hills, fields; hopping streams and stiles and up lane-ways and down pine-needle trails – through meadow, grass-seed and butter-cup yellow – they were that June provoked and pulled by the fire-heat, and they were drawn, drawn by the artist in the sky with his charcoals, urging them onward, arting their path.
Quite a crowd was already milling around the bonfire when they climbed the village green-gate and breached Society as they did so seldom these days – such an occasional curiosity it was now.
Quietly they crept to the back of the enraptured group, and joined them in collective hypnosis; the huge fire's throwing bounty for the senses: orange might thrashing, burning logs' twisty delicious scents, crackle and thrillingly dangerous roar of the flames, and warmth pouring all over wild-eyed, crooked-smiled faces under woolly hats.
Extended gloved hands reached for the other thing pouring – hot cider ran generous and was passed around in mismatched, paint-scratched, village-hall battered tin mugs.
We don't dance, chant and sing – not so pagan as all that! Simply simple country-folk – born so, or willingly won-over – there to enjoy the fire, heat, company, the height of summer.
As they both solemnly faced the fire, Maurice stood right behind Alec, and wrapped his arms right round those little shoulders, firm, and he rested his cheek on the crown of Alec's head. Alec went from serious to softening, and inclined his weight back against Maurice, reaching one hand up to rub that strong arm, the other hand pocketed in his huge loose-threaded and patched tweed. So wrapped and hidden was he in this cuddled-up get-up, cap pulled low, features sweet, that he could have been man or woman.
And anyway – what did it matter? Who minded, this magical night? Maybe this time, they got to be the watchers, the judges. All along the periphery of the circle, the couple moved slowly, examining the murmuring people, unable to break away from the fire, unconscious of the daytime and the reluctant resumption of reality.
Walked around gradually, then stood again, entwined in the shadows; he took Maurice's hand, felt his face with his own: “Hay – you're roasting!”
“Hm.. Isn't this just the thing for tonight.”
“I'm toasting too – see? Feel..”
The moon was out and telling them: move on to the next adventure.
“Let's go back home, and to the lake. Come and bathe this time – will you?”
“Oh yes. I shall.”
Escape to the country – their country – their own demesne, slipping out the back swinging door of Society, bye-bye – the two miles back to the home-forest seemed shorter on the return, more desperately yearned for.
Uphill, in the twilight, but the ground rocked and gentled their boots with moss, and ploughed earth; in among the night-rabbits running and foxes' wails.
Down at the lake they shook the gear and draped coats and shirts on branches, lined up shoes, and, holding hands, crept over the flaked edging mud to the moonlight-glistening water.
“Ah – oh! It's freezing!” said Alec, but they kept going – the cold was part of the gasping – this was no time for toe-dipping, the longest day and the languid night – but it must end sometime, the sun would return – together they would watch it, later – from bed-blankets wrapped warming.
Water though, has its own encompassing effect upon the body – cold initial as you warm it – or your companion does – both – it will creep to every crevice and caress and bob buoyant.
“Ah, it's refreshing once you get used to it.” That was Alec, saying, as he did so often, much in little.
“Shall we swim?” said Maurice, looking out over the dark surface.
“No, that's too much like effort. Let's us just tread 'ere. Besides – lake's so bloody full o' weeds and reeds all tangled, you could most probably walk to the other side like Jesus!”
Circling and rippling, they moved to stay just where they were, shaking water off faces and catching eyes and grinning.
“Quite a theme you have going lately, darling,” observed Maurice. “Battling one-by-one through the elements.”
“An element.. You know. Thought to be the most basic and uncomplicated and essential fragment in the world.”
“Bit like you, then!”
“Hay!” Maurice splashed Alec, before considering that it might have been a compliment, and kissed him, just in case.
With Maurice's strong hands bracing his waist, Alec fed his own arms up around Maurice's neck to draw dripping faces close.
“Do you know,” said Maurice, “That there was, even in classical times, posited a fifth element?”
Alec, who still wasn't intellectually aware of the other four, all the same said conversationally: “Oh aye? What is it then?”
“It's whatever it is stars are made of.”
“Stars? Made o' rock.”
“Rock!! How do you know? And anyhow they glow.”
“They're on fire,” said Alec, his matter-of-fact manner negating the need to add: Naturally.
“Well, but they have autonomous agency separate to earth – might they live? How do they move?”
“Someone flung 'em. Hay – do you 'member that comet what come by – such a furore over she – oh, must'a been ten year or more ago? Not long outta short pants I were! Our neighbours had a big shin-dig int' back garden for it, and then when Hayley come we all went up on the roof – they'd a three story – and stood for to see her. What a bright sight! Tho' I were a bit sauced.. Where'd you watch it, Maurice?”
“We watched it from the observatory at the Astronomy Department in college. Such a row there was over taking turns at the three telescopes! Very nearly descended into brawling.”
“Ooo! An observatory, is it! Well that's me told! May I touch the hem of your garment?”
“I'm not wearing any garments.”
“Then can I touch summat else..”
Affirmative answer, and so he did.
After, they dried themselves on Alec's clothes, and dressed themselves in Maurice's, divvied out. In the pale moonlight, the birches glowed silver; the oak and ash loomed darker under their own leafy ceiling.
No map needed, they knew every inch of the woods as well as they knew each other; green no more, they had traded for golden. Thickly-mossed, low stone walls they strode over; two foot high and absurd – what intruders would they stop?
Yet still comforting, a vulnerable protector, like the close arms of a lover.
At the cottage, Maurice said low, “Careful or we'll wake the dog!”
But Alec wanted to, and did so deliberately; not with noise and disturbance, but with ear-strokes and cheek-scratches, getting her brown eyes cracked open and setting her fluffy border-collie tail to thumping.
It was time for more tea; the moon hanging high deemed it so. And the sun would similar, in some several hours.