British folk lore has plenty of allusions to the summer solstice and Shakespeare even wrote a whole play based on Midsummer’s Eve. I’ve tried to take some of the elements from both and weave them into a piece of magic realism – and at only 2,500 words, it’s a third of the length of the previous piece.
Twilight was falling as Cassandra Updike hurried home from the library. Thank goodness it stayed open until 8pm in the summer! she thought. She would have struggled to get her revision done at home. Usually, it would be much lighter than this on the day of the summer solstice, but the weather had been miserable all day, issuing in a dusk-like quality to the evening so that she almost missed the short cut through the wood.
Beneath the overhanging branches, the grey sky above could not be seen. The leaves whispered to Cassandra as she passed, although whether they were issuing a warning or an invitation she couldn’t be sure. She was too busy to wonder what they were saying, her mind full of the revision notes she had been making for her final A level paper the following day; and she was so engrossed in testing herself on what she could remember that she stumbled into the clearing the locals called ‘the Fairy Ring’ quite by chance.
She frowned as she noticed the people who had gathered there. They looked like hippies from the seventies, she thought dispassionately, with the women in long skirts made from some kind of diaphanous, gauzy material and the men wearing tights and tunics. Several of the girls were weaving circlets of flowers and placing them upon each other’s heads and several goblets were being passed around. They were probably all high on pot, she thought sniffily, once again thanking her parents’ strict rules and regulations for ensuring that she had never tried dabbling with any sort of illegal substance herself.
She would have to walk past them, and no doubt they would be like the people at school, sniggering at her for not fitting in. “Excuse me,” she said politely as a tall youth with mocking eyes blocked her way, but he laughed and offered her the goblet in his hand.
“No thank you,” she said stiffly. “I don’t touch alcohol.”
“It’s not alcohol,” he told her: “it’s mead.”
The others laughed in delight.
The word seemed familiar, but she asked anyway. “What’s it got in it?”
“Honey, water, fruits, spices…”
He was pushing it to her lips and the others were waiting expectantly. Exasperated, she took a sip. It was like liquid pleasure going down her throat.
“What’s your name?” the youth asked, his hands putting a daisy chain around her neck.
“Cassie. Cassie Updike.” She wondered why she had said this: she never usually shortened her name.
“Well, Cassie Cassie Updike, I think you need to relax.” He gently removed the schoolbag from her shoulders and placed it on the ground behind them. “Come and join us for the evening – you’ll have fun.”
Against her better judgement, she let him lead her to the camp fire that was blazing merrily. “You really shouldn’t light a fire in the woods,” she said self-righteously. “If it got out of control…”
“Control’s important to you, isn’t it?” he asked, removing her glasses so that his image blurred in front of her.
She held out her hand for the spectacles, but he shook his head.
“Have some more mead,” he said. “It’ll make things clearer.”
She took another sip, telling herself that she really must be on her way soon, but it seemed that her eyes were adjusting to being without glasses because everything was now swimming into focus, the lines becoming sharper the more she drank.
“You haven’t told me who you are,” she said boldly to her new friend. She was normally tongue-tied around boys, especially anyone as good-looking as this one, but he seemed to like her and that lent her confidence.
“Robin Goodfellow,” he said lazily, “but I’ve been called other names.”
“You don’t go to my school,” she said reflectively. “How old are you?”
“Old enough to know better,” he said, kissing her lightly and making her head spin.
“No, really,” she protested once she had recovered from the dizzying sensation of his lips on hers.
“I’m as old as the hills,” he teased, grabbing her hand and leading her deeper into the wood.
Abandoning all common-sense, she followed him to a leafy bank covered in flowers.
“Musk-roses,” he told her, pulling her down among the greenery. “And wild thyme and eglantine and…”
But she stopped his mouth with her own, longing to feel once more that sense of belonging to another. Revision forgotten, she let the midsummer magic surround them both as dusk darkened into night and the sun sank behind the horizon.
She awoke with a start in the early hours of the morning, just as pre-dawn light was beginning to stretch out cautious fingers. Robin’s arms tightened around her but she wriggled herself free and began to look for her clothes.
“Stay a little longer,” he mumbled, but she was irresolute.
“I can’t – I’ve got an exam today. I should have been home hours ago.”
“Come with us,” he said, sitting up and watching her as she pulled her tee-shirt back over her head. “Where I’m from, there are no exams, no responsibilities.”
He was a Traveller, then; she’d thought as much.
“I can come back tonight,” she promised, but he shook his head.
“This is the only night of the year you’ll find me here. If you go now, you’ll be waiting twelve more months.”
She paused, torn between wanting to stay with him and knowing that the exam was waiting. She had a place lined up at Oxford, subject to A level results. She couldn’t give that up for him, no matter how soft his lips, how seductive his promises.
“I’ll see you next year, then,” she said, kissing him on the forehead and retracing her steps to find her bag.
She didn’t go to Oxford, despite her excellent A level results. When the Michaelmas term started, she was three months pregnant, her dreams of an academic career over before they’d begun. The baby she gave birth to in March had Robin’s dark, laughing eyes and every time she looked at him, her heart tugged with love for them both. Her parents, of course, were furious with her – not least because she wouldn’t marry the father. But how could she marry a will o’ the wisp who had vanished as she looked back to say goodbye?
She would have kept their appointment on Midsummer’s Eve, but the baby was teething and fractious and she dared not ask her parents to watch him. She would see Robin next year, she decided; but by then, she had started her Open University degree and the combination of studying and motherhood meant that she was too exhausted to go out in the evenings. It was not until little Robin was five that she remembered her promise and wondered vaguely whether her lover had ever returned as promised.
Although she had initially thought of being a teacher, deciding that having school holidays at home with her child would be useful, she found herself instead enrolled on a post-graduate course to become a librarian. She imagined taking her son into work when the holidays occurred and sitting him down in the children’s corner, but when the time came, little Robin protested that he didn’t want to be indoors.
Cassandra sighed when he told her this. By now, they were living in a tiny flat with no garden and she knew her son loved plants and trees – Like his father! she thought wryly; but she had to work whether it was term time or not: as a single parent, every penny was needed.
Eventually, she managed to find a council-funded playscheme that would take Robin from 9 until 3 for three days a week in the long summer holidays. By rescheduling her annual leave, she was able to cover the rest of the time herself, and her heart breathed a sigh of relief as she realised that they would manage after all.
Perhaps she should have told the leaders at the playscheme that Robin was a dreamy child who didn’t listen because then they might have taken more care when the children were crossing the road on the way to the park. She rushed to the hospital as soon as she received the phone call, but he slipped away hours later and then she was in her own once more.
From that point onwards, Cassandra retreated into herself. Her son had been her only chance of happiness: a reminder that once, someone had thought she was beautiful and loved her enough to ask her to run away with him.
She was twenty-five, but she might have been mistaken for someone much older with her scraped back hair and dowdy clothes. There seemed no point in making the effort to look attractive: she was a spinster at heart and always would be. As the years passed, the loss of her son was a constant void inside her: one that no amount of work or reading could fill. She stopped going out unless it was for her library shift or to shop for the small amount of food needed to keep her alive, wrapping grief around her like a blanket as she sat in her tiny flat, Robin’s crayon drawings of trees and flowers still taped to her fridge. His room was just as he had left it – apart from the thick layer of dust that covered the surface of his bed and nightstand and the scattered Lego on the floor.
To begin with, she commemorated his birthday: March 20th, nine months to the day she had met his father. From time to time, she thought about returning to the clearing in the woods; but she knew the Travellers would be long gone by now and that Robin Goodfellow would not find her dried up looks attractive.
Gradually, she stopped making a cake for a child who was no longer there to eat it. The birthday candles had burned down to stumps and there seemed little point in buying more. Some years, she did not even register the date until the day had passed, then felt guilty for neglecting her son’s memory; and with every summer solstice that passed, she felt herself die a little more inside.
When Covid-19 appeared, lockdown made little difference to her. Since she never went out anyway, staying home soon became an acceptable mode of life. She missed the library – but it was the books and not the people that she longed for.
She wasn’t totally housebound. Government guidelines allowed her to exercise outside her home for thirty minutes a day, the stipulated time gradually being replaced with a little more freedom. She found that rising early and walking at daybreak ensured her solitude: no one else wanted to be outdoors at the crack of dawn.
She was just about to go to bed one evening, when the date leaped out at her from the calendar on the wall. Robin had made it for her in his first year of school and it bore a photograph of him dressed as a reindeer, complete with antlers, and the words ‘Happy Christmas’ printed below in wobbly writing. (If she looked closely, she could see where he had traced over the teacher’s template.) She had kept the gift for old time’s sake, replacing the cheap month per page calendar at the bottom of the A4 card with a new one each year. Now she looked at the picture of her son and thought once more of his father. June 20th. Why shouldn’t she go back to the wood now? If nothing else, it might lay some old memories to rest.
The evening was far lighter than the fateful one thirty-eight years ago. Thanks to the virus, not many people were about at this time, although she felt sure that under normal circumstances it would be different. Sunlight filtered through the trees as she entered the wood, dappling the ground beneath her feet with the shadows of the solstice. As if in a dream, she made her way towards the clearing and saw Robin waiting for her.
“I was beginning to think you weren’t coming!” he said with a grin as he took her hand.
She stared at him in disbelief. His eyes still danced with mischief and he looked exactly as he had done the first time; whereas she…
“You don’t look a day older!” she said impulsively.
He smiled at her. “I’m not,” he said.
She held back, regretting the lost years, their lost child. “How?” she asked. “Look at me, Robin – I’m an old woman!”
“Grief does that to people,” he agreed, reaching out a hand and tracing the path her tears had left over the years.
She stared at him in disbelief. “You knew? Why didn’t you come to me? We could have mourned him together.”
He shook his head sadly. “I’m tied to this place, Cassie. I thought I told you that.”
She hadn’t been Cassie in a long while. Not since…
“Not since we met,” he said softly, reading her thoughts. Then, “Are you sorry, Cassie? Sorry I loved you all those years ago?”
Time shimmered as they stood there, and it was if the years rolled away and she was seventeen once more, the whole of her future before her.
“If you could put the clock back,” his voice was serious now, “would you? Would you go straight home instead of lying down with me amongst the leaves and flowers and letting me love you?”
His lips had been soft and his promises seductive, and the goblet of mead had made all her decisions for her.
“I don’t know,” she said honestly. Was such a wonderful night worth it if it only brought pain later?
Past and present blurred in that instant so that it was 1982 and 2020 both at the same time. And when he led her to the grassy bank, it was a girlish figure who lay down beside him and she kissed him with all the intensity of the seventeen-year-old she had once been and still was.
“I need to leave,” she said as dawn began to glimmer across the sky. The ground beneath them was hard but her body felt years younger.
“Don’t go,” he said softly, just as he had all those years before.
She hesitated, knowing that now things were different and that there was nothing really to tie her to her own world.
His arms tightened around her again and she snuggled into their warmth. Perhaps this was the decision she should have made a long time ago before she grew old and empty.
“Come with us,” he repeated; and this time, she nodded and said, “Yes.”
It was several days before Cassandra Updike’s body was found in the woods in the spot that locals called ‘the Fairy Ring’. Her limbs were cold and stiff as one might expect, but the beautiful smile on her face made her look years younger.