Today’s challenge was more of an editing one than a writing one: I’ve taken my summer solstice story and halved the word count. You’ll have to decide for yourselves whether or not this shorter version is better.
Twilight was falling as Cassandra Updike hurried home from the library. 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. Her mind was so full of the revision notes she had been making 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 with the women in long skirts made from some kind of diaphanous, gauzy material and the men wearing tights and tunics. Some of the girls were weaving circlets of flowers and placing them upon each other’s heads and several goblets were being passed around.
“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.”
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 never usually shortened her name.
“Well, 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. “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.
“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.
“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. 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. Robin’s arms tightened around her but she wriggled 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.”
“Come with us,” he said,. “Where I’m from, there are no exams, no responsibilities.”
“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 and knowing that the exam was waiting. She had a place lined up at Oxford. She couldn’t give that up, 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.
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– 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 then a post grad to train as a librarian, 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.
Robin was still five when the car hit him. He slipped away hours later and then she was on her own once more.
From that point onwards, Cassandra retreated into herself. 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 was just about to go to bed one evening, when the date leaped out at her: June 20th. Why shouldn’t she go back to the wood now? If nothing else, it might lay some old memories to rest. 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. 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.
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?”
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.
“Don’t go,” he said softly, just as he had all those years before.
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.