“So Burton – what’s the problem with the electric bill?”
“The electric bill, Willibrord? What do you know about that?”
“Oh, nothing… I mean, I just overheard the Druids discussing it. They were saying how they were concerned about the size of it. Which I thought was quite surprising, given that it seems to be switched off in most of the Great House most of the time”
A bit of a porky pie, really. The fact of the matter was, I’d come across the bill in some of Burton’s filing, having got myself off a ceremony of Howling at the Moon by claiming bad karma. Clearly in a house holding fifty people you’d expect a fair amount of electricity to be used. But I reckoned that the Community was challenging the entire city of Milton Keynes as the biggest local user of sparky stuff.
“Well, I don’t believe it’s any kind of secret. After all, the electric board knows all about it so it’s not as if it’s not in the public domain, so to speak.”
“Well, Willibrord, to put it simply – up till last year we just seemed to use a lot of electricity. I don’t think I can put it much clearer than that.”
“Was the electricity usage only high in the winter months?”
“Certainly it was higher. I wouldn’t say it was only high in the winter, even then. But since we’ve installed the solar panels, the wind farm in the Top Field and started burning the wood turbine day and night all year, it’s really fallen back.”
“So you must see a lot as community accountant, Burton.”
“Oh, I do. To be honest, my job auditing the Beaker Folk has become so arduous that, at the Archdruid’s suggestion, I’ve given up all my old freelance job of auditing. I just concentrate on the Beaker Folk and the subsidiary companies. It’s a full-time job. It’s not fantastically paid per se, but then I do get to live quite comfortable here. And it’s handy that I can rent my house out. Obviously I’m liable for tax on the free lodgings, and again on the rent from my own house. But you’d be surprised how, if you get your affairs well organised…”
“I know what you mean. I mean, it’s only a month or so since you told me about the expenses situation.” I desperately cut in to Burton’s stream-of-accountancy, fearing that I might have to kill him if he kept on in the same vein.
“Willibrord, don’t talk to me about the expenses. I mean, they’ve gone from bad to worse. We ran a trial with a new expense purchases card, so we had an electronic record of what has gone on it. Would you believe, not one of the companies the Archdruid deals with for her hotel stays, airline and rail fares, subsistence allowances and stationery requirements actually takes that card?
“Maybe not as surprised as you might think. So what do you reckon then, Burton?”
“Oh, I don’t know. There must be something going on. But I can’t find out what it is.”
Something going on. Those words echoed in my mind later that day, as I was helping Keith and Marston to carry an array of high-powered solar-effect lighting up to the attic. But for the life of me I couldn’t work out what it was.
October 10. Another day, another remembrance. On this occasion, the Nativity of Kirsty MacColl, one that went deep to the Beaker heart. The 8am alarm call was “Walking down Madison”, and was followed by a host of others – covers, duets, original stuff, work with the Pogues – Kirsty was piped pretty comprehensively to the whole neighbourhood for 14 hours. I was trying to find out why Kirsty MacColl spoke so profoundly to the Beaker People.
“Well,” said Hnaef, “she was lovely. And she sang Mambo de la Luna – a song about the moon, you understand. She died young. She understood suffering and pain. Just listen to the Titanic Days album and you’ll know. Where Morrissey would have just sat there and whinged, Kirsty took it and gave it back. And her songs tell us about having a good time. And the Archdruid seems rather obsessive about In these Shoes. There seems to be something about the lyrics that speak to her spiritual depths.
“Is it enough for any star, that if they died tragically young they become a Beaker saint?”
“I don’t think so. Let’s take Elvis. Tragic death, relatively young man, leaving a young daughter behind. Very talented. Quite handsome, I think some would say. Not me, of course. Not that I’d shy away from that side of my nature. Or, indeed, repress it. But, cutting to the chase, he wasn’t Kirsty, was he?”
The Celebration of Kirsty service took place mid-afternoon. It was the first time I had seen a real breakdown mid-service at a Beaker “Occasion”, but it was quite dramatic. The liturgy was based on a Kirsty song, and I reproduce it below, as best I remember it:
Archdruid: You scumbag, you maggot.
All: You cheap, lousy faggot.
The Archdruid brought the ceremony to a halt. She looked concerned.
“Ooh. That hadn’t occurred to me. It’s a bit… well, couldn’t some people take that as being rather offensive? A bit homophobic? Hnaef – you wrote the liturgy – what do you think?”
Hnaef pulled himself up to his full 6 foot 1. And looked quite alarmed.
“I’ll be honest, Archdruid. I was merely reproducing the words of St Kirsty and St Shane. I hadn’t put any more thought into it than that. I just assumed if that was what Kirsty said, it must be OK.”
“I think we’d better stop here. We don’t want to be accused of discrimination against… scum bags or any other people.”
At which some Beaker People starting complaining. Arguing that they’d always used the Fairytale of New York as a liturgy on Kirsty’s Day, and didn’t see why they should stop now. And that the liturgy was also offensive to maggots, and nobody had any trouble with that.
Eventually the Archdruid cleared the Moot House with her ceremonial Slazenger cricket bat. And that seemed to restore order.
I found myself becoming increasingly confused, as October came to an end. Everywhere I went, I could hear Beaker Folk referring to “sawin’”. Naturally I assumed that this was yet another bout of tree-felling and chopping into logs, to feed the ever-open maw of the log burner that powered the Great House summer and winter. I’d been called up for log duty a few times during the summer, and apart from that accident involving Hnaef’s foot and the wood-splitting maul I felt I’d done alright. And that incident had at least explained why the Beaker Folk wore safety shoes at all times. With my newly improved fitness I could split a 12 inch wide log with one blow from that maul. And between splitting wood and the legacy of banging the holes out of doilies, I was starting to feel quite proud of the muscles that were starting to appear.
It was astonishing, the amount of wood that the burner consumed. Especially in summer. Obviously we had the hot water, but that was only available from 8 to 10 in the morning. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. And then there was the kitchen – but just how much wood must it take to cook two hot meals a day for 50 people? Quite a bit, sure, but not the endless trees that we sawed into slices and then split into logs.
However – it wasn’t log duty on this occasion. It turned out I was suffering from a problem of pronunciation. The word they were saying was “Samhain”. The Celtic word for Halloween. Although, as Young Keith pointed out, if that was how it was pronounced, and the Celts were illiterate, why weren’t we allowed to spell it properly?
But Halloween – or Samhain – came along eventually. I was worried about the proposed celebrations, and brought the subject up with Eileen.
“Eileen – this Halloween business.”
“You mean “Samhain”, Willibrord?”
“Whatever. The point is – to me this was always a festival of fear. Back when I was growing up, the Brothers at my school would get very concerned. And every year, the papers are full of stories about “the dark side of Halloween”.”
Cunningly I’d avoided mentioning that I had written many of those press stories. I mean, in my Cotswold days it was impossible not to. I could generally spent a fortnight every October solely writing stories relating to evangelical vicars condemning Halloween and banning their parishioners from attending apple-bobbing parties. Not to mention interviewing all the half-wits who were convinced they were direct descendants of mediaeval witches, on their plans to celebrate the festival. Mind you, sometimes there were so many people out on the hills practicing the dark arts that it ruined our paper’s “Dogger of the Week” feature. We used to get a photograph of some local councillor or vicar in an embarrassing pose in a Renault Megane, and then run the outraged letters for days afterwards. A cheap and easy way to guarantee sales and fill space. But round about Halloween you couldn’t throw a broomstick in the Cotswolds without hitting some berk called Norman who was convinced he was really called Owain MacDrooogle or some such made-up Celtic name, dancing around a copse with a bunch of unattractive middle-aged women. And it tended to put the Doggers off, thinking Norman and his mates might form a Ring of Power around their cars.
“Willibrord, once again you’ve confused the Beaker Faith with the rantings and imaginations of the so-called “Celts” and neo-pagans. Don’t forget, the Celts merely picked up the original Beaker festivals, and corrupted them to their own dark ways. Yes, Halloween marks a dark time of the year – halfway from Autumnal Equinox to Yule, when the days die fast and cold starts to creep into our bones. But like all Beaker festivals, it is a festival of light. We rage against the dying of the light. We burn our candles bright. And we light…”
“A Wicker Man?”
“Naturally, a Wicker Person. It’s all part of the cycle of things. We lit one at Beltane, we light one at Samhain. And any other time we’re feeling a bit down, we’ll light a bonfire to keep us going. You’ve got to have some light, Willibrord.”
And so I found myself on Wicker Person construction duty. The Archdruid was setting her sights high that autumn – “As big as you like, as long as it can be seen from space” were her instructions. And the scavengers of old pallets were out in force around Marston Gate and Crawley Crossing, retrieving anything that looked like it could be split thin and woven.
The women of the Community were set to weaving. It was hard work, on the hands, the eyes and the back. But after a week of working with untreated softwood they generally found the blisters had hardened into calluses, and they started to make some real progress on the panels that would form the outside of the Wicker Person.
On the Great Day itself, there was a great cheer as a gang of Beaker people appeared carrying the “carrying pole”. The central pole that would bearing the weight of the Wicker Person was an old telegraph pole that someone had “found laying around”. I took my concerns to Hnaef straight away.
“Hnaef, you’re in charge of Health and Safety?”
“I have that holy honour, Willibrord. That is correct.”
“Well, there appears to be a load of creosote dripping from the telegraph pole.”
“That’s always a good sign, Willibrord. We always say that the pole is weeping for the departure of the sun. And the creosote smells lovely, and burns so well.”
“So you’re not concerned that you’re going to be releasing carcinogens into the atmosphere? Doesn’t that contradict the Beaker Way?”
“Willibrord. You have to take a long view. If that telegraph pole were allowed to remain in situ, it would have yielded its creosote to the falling rain, into the ground, and into the water courses. Then the wood itself would eventually have rotted, in an uncontrolled and inefficient manner, releasing as much methane as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A terrible catastrophe. Whereas doing it this way is much quicker and much cleaner. You should rejoice that we are helping the environment – working with Mother Gaia.”
Well, it sounded convincing enough to me. I left Hnaef trying to get hold of BT on the mobile. Apparently for some reason our landline had stopped working.
We spent the afternoon raising the wicker panels into place around the telegraph pole. It was astounding, how well it all fitted. The Wicker Person just seemed to fall into place. Just a hatchway – about three feet square – left in the place where the small of the back should have been. A ladder led up to it.
“So why the hole in the back?” I asked Young Keith.
“Oh, that? That’s for the sacrifices.”
At last, I thought, we were getting closer to the truth. I wouldn’t expect the drippy hippies of this commune to be into human sacrifice, but I’d seen the film. I knew that, when Edward Woodward was in the Wicker Man, there were chickens and what have you in there with him. I suspected that something similar was going on. I made up my mind that I would be filming whatever happened this evening.
Which made it all the more disappointing, when seven o’clock came round, that Eileen sent Keith and me off for a sack of potatoes each from the potato shed. “And only carry one bag each. And bend your knees, not your backs.” She was always very caring if she suspected the danger of a lawsuit, was the Archdruid.
“So what are these for?” I asked Keith as we staggered back towards the throng now gathering around the Wicker Person.
“I told you, didn’t I?” he panted. “They’re the sacrifices.”
And sure enough, they were. Lifted up by pulley to the top of the ladder – you can’t carry a 25kg sack of potatoes up a ladder on your own, for health and safety reasons – and stowed away in the innermost recesses of the Wicker Person, before the last panel was lifted up and the Person was complete.
And then the ceremonial began. Hnaef stepped forward with the Eternal Flame, which was kept burning perpetually in the Moot House. It blew out. He struggled a bit with matches, then asked if anyone had a lighter. A few volunteers ran over and lit the damp newspaper that had been stuffed into holes in the Person’s ankles. The paper sputtered and then went out again. The slightly-charred pallet wood gave off an aroma of smoke, but without fire.
The Archdruid’s patience gave out, and she gave out a very unspiritual word. She then disappeared into the garage, and came back shortly afterwards with a petrol can than contained, as I had suspected, petrol. I can be pretty sharp like that. Petrol, it turned out, was just the sort of thing to get a reluctant Wicker Person burning.
If I’d been expecting anything much different to the events back at Beltane, I would have been disappointed. As it was, things were just the same. Obviously moonrise was at a different time and therefore the moon as such played no part in the ceremony. But the dancing, the chanting, and the early disappearance of the Fertility Folk were much the same. Due to the dampness of the weather at this time of the year, they were apparently planning to spend their Samhain evening in the Dutch Barn rather than the open woods, but their general intention appeared to be much the same.
And on this occasion, I was able to join in with the tea lights-related activities, and the collection of the potato “sacrifices” on the end of sticks. I can honestly say, if you’re going to have an incomprehensible and unfocussed religious festival, there’s nothing that rounds it off nicer than a baked potato.
21. Moonrise over Crawley Crossing
You could normally expect that, when any kind of slightly anti-establishment activity was being arranged in the Community, the organisation would take place in the White Horse. And Young Keith would be somewhere at the back of it. And generally speaking the people that would suffer would be the Weekenders.
They weren’t officially called Weekenders, of course. The Archdruid and her team called them “pilgrims”. And they didn’t always arrive for a weekend. Sometimes it was a day pilgrimage; sometimes a week. What they shared, apart from an interest in spirituality, was that they paid. And, according to Burton, they provided a decent chunk of the Community’s income.
“The thing about them, Willibrord, is that a retreat – well planned and organised – is a fantastic money-making opportunity,” he explained.
“We take them in, and charge them – let’s say - £100 per person per night. Maybe £150 for a double room, £200 for a family. Because we wouldn’t want to take advantage, but they do appreciate the vital spiritual work we are doing, and they want to support us. And let’s face it, they do get hot water all the time in the Pilgrims’ Lodge.
“But the overheads are tiny. We can give them the same low quality of food as all the rest of the Community – after all, it’s a gift to be simple. And we can send them off into the countryside for walks all day, and call it ‘space’. So we don’t need to look after them when we don’t want to. They join in with all the regular events but we’d have held them anyway. You see how it works? And we get them to change their own beds, and clean their own rooms when they leave. And even help with the washing up. We call that ‘discipline’.” And we get them to make their own beakers in the “Pottery – know your Beaker Heritage” workshop. Loads of beakers. By the time they’ve finished some of them are pretty good, and we can sell them at our “World of Woad” outlet in Woburn for about thirty times the price of the raw material.
“Isn’t that a bit unethical?”
“Unethical? I couldn’t really say. I’m the accountant, after all. You’d have to ask Hnaef. Morality is his side of the operation. That and discipline. All I can tell you is, they go away feeling refreshed and revitalised and with a sense of the one-ness of the universe and their rootedness in a culture that may well have actually existed. And they leave the Beaker Folk substantially richer. Does anyone lose there?”
The Pilgrims’ Lodge effectively forming the fourth side of a quadrangle – along with the rear of the Great House, the Moot House and the Beaker Bazaar. On a serious Beaker holy day, such as Midsummer, there could be a hundred pilgrims packed into that block. That’s a lot of cultural rootedness. And a lot of spiritual profit to be made.
The nearness to the Bazaar was no co-incidence. They were encouraged to make a visit there. Or even better, several visits. Each visit was worth a few quid in the Community coffers. You could buy the obvious, of course – holding pebbles, praying pebbles, sacred pebbles, meditating pebbles, pebbles that had been splashed with water from the Husborne Spring by the Archdruid in person. And then there were the more amusing souvenirs – stuffed druid dolls, fake maps of Husborne Crawley from Beaker Days.
Lots of different essential oils, of course. And the various pieces of equipment for burning them. And tea light holders. And hundreds of different kinds of tea lights, with different scents and in different colours. The paraffin wax variety were rather cheap of course, but pilgrims were encouraged, on the grounds of environmental friendliness, towards the beeswax variety. There was a line in tallow tea lights, but they smelt hideous and weren’t approved for vegetarian use.
And then the real World Spirituality tat. Shawls woven from Alapaca Wool by genuine Northamptonian peasants. Peruvian prayer shawls. Australian Aboriginal Ipods. Pan pipes. Wind chimes with the Chinese symbols for Air, Fire and Water. Or so they claimed. Dream-catchers with big holes in them – to let the nightmares through.
And then there was the ceremonial stuff. A wide selection of beakers, mostly made by previous generations of pilgrims, from the thumb-sized mantelpiece ornaments to the four foot variety, designed for re-enacting the Pouring Out of Beakers in your own back garden. Assuming, of course, that you had a holy well in your garden. Then there was the plastic holly and mistletoe, which was popular all the year round but apparently made the Beaker Bazaar a bit of a local shopping hot-spot come Christmas. And the plastic faux-golden sickles, for pretending you were cutting the mistletoe. The Archdruid’s rather legalistic, health-and-safety side came out on the label for the sickles:
“This Golden Sickle is for entertainment and imaginative neo-pagan use only. Not designed to cut mistletoe. But then, neither would a real golden sickle be. There’s no way you could cut mistletoe stalks with a golden sickle. They’re really tough and gold is really soft. No, if you want to cut mistletoe stalks we recommend a proper sickle. But if you use one of those, ensure appropriate safety equipment is worn. The Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley plc takes no responsibility if you go off recklessly cutting mistletoe stalks with any sickle, no matter how appropriate or otherwise to the task.”
Sometimes it would be better if the Archdruid let things lie. Certainly they’d have saved on paper for the labels.
But if the Archdruid could sometimes suffer from a certain doggedness and lack of context, Young Keith’s problem seemed to be an overactive imagination combined with absolutely no moral compass. The Weekenders that we received in early November proved a case in point.
It was absolutely freezing. The water froze in the Beakers, so the Pouring Out ceremony became a bit of a farce as Archdruid Eileen and her team ran off for bowls of hot water with which to thaw the beakers. A beautiful, sunny but cold Friday came to a quiet end, and then Filling up of Beakers was postponed as the Husborne Spring had iced up. It was really cold.
We celebrated the Sunset service with more vigour, as a surrogate Filling up of Beakers. The sun had thoroughly been waved goodbye by 5.30, and Young Keith got back from work around half six, in time to share the bean risotto for dinner and then hunt out the Weekenders who had arrived during the afternoon. He winked at me as he talked six or so of them into coming down the White Horse – “It’s what we Beaker Folk do of a Friday evening. It gives us the chance to have a really good discussion about what we believe, or don’t. And what we feel we’ve learnt, or haven’t. And how we relate to – you know, everything.”
As I say it was a cold evening. After an hour or so nobody was really that keen to go back to the community. Keith talked them into another round, and then another. And then I heard the eyewash I had been expecting from him all evening.
“You know, it’s a special night tonight. We can see the moon rise over Crawley Crossing. That’s always a big day in our community. And as such we have a very special ceremony.”
The weekenders leaned forward, agog to know what the ceremony was.
“You don’t have to worry – the ceremonial details are all provided when we get up to Aspley Heath. The Archdruid has asked me to ensure that we’re all there for ten, which means we’ve just time for a couple more rounds of drinks…” Keith himself settled back and took a pull of his limejuice and soda. “I will be driving, so I’m stuck with this.”
Ten o’clock came and Keith ushered us all out the door. The Weekenders were clearly somewhat the worse for wear. I was glad that I was alert to Keith’s scheme, whatever it was, and followed them out into the car park, where we found Keith behind the wheel of the community minibus. Well, I say minibus. It was actually a beaten up old Transit van. Everyone else piled in the back and sat among the old potato sacks with which it was inexplicably strewn. As the other regular in the group, I jumped in alongside Keith on the front bench.
“OK everyone, hang on – just a ten minute drive and we’ll be there,” called out Keith, adding in an undertone to me, “you’ll love this. We did this a few years ago.”
The journey into Aspley Heath can be a fairly wild experience. Sure, you can take the civilised route and go up the road from Woburn Sands and park on the nice new tarmac car park. But if you go round the other way, up through Woburn and then right, the road is narrow and winding. You get glimpses of owls, deer and other forest creatures straying across your path. At one point I thought I saw Herne the Hunter, but I wiped my bleary eyes and was relieved to see it was just the branches of a pollard tree against the background of the sky.
Deep into the wood Keith turned us off the road and off onto a woodland track. We had been bouncing along before, but now we were thoroughly shaken up. The people in the back were really suffering, and every now and then we heard a loud smack and a swear word, as a pilgrim was thumped into a window or the ceiling. We came to the end of a track in a clearing where there would have been enough space to enact the average Beaker ceremony. The van screeched to a halt, throwing dust, stones and small mammals in all directions.
“OK – here we are. Everyone jump out.”
A bunch of battered, confused and disorientated pilgrims tumbled from the back of the van. I climbed out and stood with Keith as he gave the instructions.
“The moon is just rising over Crawley Crossing”. He pointed to where the crescent moon was certainly visible through the trees. It was actually in the south-west, and on its way to setting. Crawley Crossing was in the opposite direction – and was, as he and I well knew, a truck stop off the M1. Not the ancient crossroads of the Icknield Way and the route to Walsingham, as he had claimed in the pub. But I wasn’t going to spoil the story. This was going to be good.
“On this holiest of St Fergus’s day we celebrate his escape when, sailing down the Nene from Walsingham to Oxford to pay a visit to his aunt St Frideswide, his coracle overturned in Newport Pagnell. He was snatched from the hands of an angry mob by a unicorn, which drove them back to Wolverton before carrying him on his journey on its back.
“In order to celebrate the Day we are bidden to emulate that most innocent of all creatures, the honest unicorn which carried St Fergus from his doom. We do so by circling naked in the woods, as innocent as the dwellers of Eden, ere any apple wert picked.
“Wherefore let us cast off the bounds of the clothing of possessions, of materialism and of acquisition – and let us dance as Mother Gaia intended in the moon dance that we call “Mambo de la Luna.”
I thought surely Keith’s never going to get away with this. The chances of a bunch of assorted stockbrokers and their wives suddenly stripping off in the woods in November were always going to be small. Looking around, I saw that the others were already down to their underwear. Keith looked sadly across at me.
“Surely you’re not going to be lagging behind on this one, Willibrord? The regulars of the Community must of course show the way. Not least because you’re going to need to show the others the steps. I shall be taking the van across to the far side of the clearing, where I shall be joined by the other leading druids.”
“But Keith, I’m not… I mean, I’m in on the… I mean, I can’t…
The weekenders, now completely naked, started looking at me. A few of them, seemingly in the Carry On spirit from the amount of drink they’d consumed, started encouraging me. I had the feeling they’d get quite nasty if I didn’t comply. I started to undress, and was down to my pants by the time that Keith clearly decided he’d better make a move. The other pilgrims were already dancing around the glade, improvising to the Kirsty MacColl song that Keith had started on the van’s CD player.
“Watch for the light of the procession coming from the far glade,” intoned Keith. And then threw all pour clothes on the seat of the van, and cleared off. The sound of “Mambo de la Luna” faded away into the Aspley night.
The pilgrims gathered around me.
“OK – what are the steps then?” demanded a fifty-something bruiser named Egenblick. A South African, he had played for his province as a prop forward before moving to London to make his fortune in the financial services software industry. I decided to invent some dance steps.
In the cold November air we were all going to suffer if we didn’t jump around. I started hopping around the glade. The pilgrims followed me, aping every move. I guess I’d have had even more inhibitions if I’d not had so much to drink that evening, but the pilgrims seemed to have none at all. Mind you, I was aware that, in the cold, I was sobering up fast. We had kept our shoes on, so at least weren’t suffering from the stones and twigs underfoot, but even so after five or more minutes of prancing round the glade, everybody was covered with cuts and scratches from brushing against brambles. I support it was just as well that it was winter, or nettle rash could have been a real problem.
At last a light came into the glade, close by to where we had come in. We stopped and waited, assuming it was the Archdruid and her team. Instead it was just one, darkly-clad man, carrying a torch. It was Young Keith’s uncle, the police constable.
“Evening all,” remarked PC Connolly. He was a great one for having his own sense of humour. In other words, one nobody else found funny.
“Evening officer. We were expecting the Archdruid?” remarked a middle-aged housewife from Solihull.
“Archdruid? On a night like this? I wouldn’t have thought so. Not even the Beaker Fertility Folk would be out on a night like this. Anyway, Eileen doesn’t go in for naked romping.”
“But Keith said…” I started.
“Keith? I hope no-one is suggesting my nephew Keith is involved in this? He was sitting in the pool bar of the White Horse having a quiet pint when I just went past.”
I decided it was best if Keith were not mentioned again.
“The thing is,” remarked PC Connolly, "I could in theory arrest you all and charge you with indecent exposure. Problem being,” and he lowered his torch to shine its beam on a point below my midriff, “I’m not sure it would stand up in court.”
I told you he had a sense of humour of his own. Chuckling to himself, he strolled out of the clearing the way he had come. We heard the sound of his car starting up and rolling out towards the road.
“How did he know we were here?” I asked one of the weekenders.
“Never mind that – how are we going to get back?” she asked me in return.
“I suppose we could walk?”
“I am not going to walk naked down the roads back to Husborne Crawley at this time of night. You, on the other hand, still seem to have a pair of underpants with you.” She pointed to my Y-fronts, laying on what appeared to be an ant heap. “So I suggest you run back for us and bring the van back.”
I didn’t seem to have any choice. I put my undies back on and started to walk down the track.
“And run! We’re cold!” Shouted the South African rugby player. I broke into a jog.
I cut across the forest paths trying to go in as straight a line as possible towards Husborne Crawley. This was no fun at all. Apart from being freezing cold I was being lashed by brambles and battered by gorse bushes at every turn. I had jogged for maybe twenty minutes when I saw lights ahead of me and rejoiced. I’d nearly reached my destination.
Actually, I’d reached the wrong destination. I jogged into a side street and realised that this wasn’t Husborne Crawley, nor even the village of Apsley Heath itself. Five more minutes and I had joined the main road through Woburn.
Now, jogging through Woburn in your underpants at half eleven at night will always get you noticed. Drinkers heading home from the pub will give you quite a hard time in these circumstances. Given that I’d had a few in the White Horse myself, I kept thinking it was all one of those dreams where you’re the only one in your underpants in Woburn. And then the cold of the night air would remind me that this wasn’t a dream. Only a nightmare.
As I approached the turn off to Husborne Crawley, I noticed a group of men looking at me in a manner which set the Duelling Banjos tune from Deliverance off in my head. I increased my pace somewhat. But at least it was only a mile or so back to the Great House. As I passed the Woburn outdoor swimming pool – not a day for a dip, by a long way – my heart was starting to lift.
To effect a shortcut I thought I would head across the footpath that radiated from the Great House down towards the Aspley Lane. I found it OK, and ran along it quite cheerfully. The mud had frozen, providing a hard surface. But I had forgotten about the Husborne Brook. Or at least I did until the point when I went head first into it. The water itself tended to be quite clear, with the gentle water revealing a sandy and pebbly bottom. Unfortunately the stream had quite remarkably muddy banks, and I was covered in the stuff. Spluttering, shivering and squelching I dragged myself up the bank – and fell straight back in. The water is only a few inches deep, so no danger, and I dragged myself back up. And slid back in again. The third time I more or less hacked foot holds into the bank, and managed to haul myself up. Just a hundred yards now to the Great House.
Approaching the house I was pleased to see that most Beaker People had clearly gone to bed – no late-night reverencing of the feast of St Fergus. At that point I wouldn’t have put anything past Keith. Given that I had left six weekenders naked in a clearing on Aspley Heath, I didn’t think I could in all conscience take the necessary time to get washed and dressed. So I went to the second floor corridor where the Druidic Council had their rooms (with the exception of Eileen – she had a suite on the first), went up to Hnaef’s door and knocked loudly.
All I could hear from inside was snoring, followed by, strangely, the words
“And don’t forget your Methodist Service Books.”
I banged again. This time it was swearing. I banged again. There was the sound of footsteps, and presumably of the Executive Arch-Assistant Archdruidical dressing gown being donned. And the door opened.
Hnaef looked at me, jumped, and closed the door. Then the door opened – just a crack – and I could see two Executive Arch-Assistant eyes looking out at me round the frame.
“Who the hell? Willibrord?” I nodded. “Willibrord – you’re dripping mud on the carpet.”
I apologised. I explained that I’d left six pilgrims naked and freezing in the woods.
“Oh them. It’s OK. We’ve got them.”
“You’ve got them?”
“Keith got a bit concerned, and told me what had happened. He daren’t drive up there himself in case they lynched him. Understandable. I would have done. So I went up in the van, gave them their clothes and brought them back. We’ve had them all checked out by the doctor.”
“Are they all OK?”
“I guess you could say that they’re suffering from… exposure. There are some places you really don’t want to get frostbite. But after baths and hot drinks they’re all doing fine. I suggest you do the same”
I sloped off for a bath. Of course, I forgot the water would be cold. But at least it cleaned the mud off. I huddled under my authentic faux-Moroccan duvet covers, and tried to warm up. After an hour or so my feet started to show some feeling. Five minutes after that, the feeling was revealed to be agony. I finally re-established equilibrium about 4 am, and slept hard for the rest of the night. A night punctuated by dreams in which I was running through Woburn, making pig noises.
Forward to Winter
Forward to Winter