BUSHEL by George Aitch
The fayre came to Swanford and She came with it. The last night of the Harvest was warm and muggy and the afternoon found me keeping bar at the Wheatsheaf, serving pewter tankards of cider to the men and women who'd finished up at the orchard. The golden hour chimed and shone with the end of the farm labour to great relief. There were many busy today. Many tired yet joyful bodies pressing themselves up against the bar. A long line of filled pockets ready to reap the rewards of the season's work. I barely got an opportunity to sit down. The only way I could sneak refreshment was to dip into a cool bushel of apples the landlord had put at the end of the bar. These kept me going into the evening.
The pub was a stout brick building by the dirt track, only a measure of the way to the river. Carved into the chimney was the eighteenth century date of the ground-breaking. Forget the church, the Wheatsheaf was the hub about which Swanford turned. All the village players could be found here during all seasons, can Father MacAffrey say the same? I had spent good portions of my young years either side of the bar and could claim with confidence that I knew most of the merry faces who stopped there. But not hers.
At some point our eyes met. I had finished serving a round to a big red faced man when I came to her. She smiled and asked for a pint which I dutifully poured. When I brought it back to her, she had one of my apples sunk between her teeth. The way she looked at me then settled it. In her eyes I saw reams of pale blue like the clearest water or the end of the sky in summer. I knew then that I belonged to her.
She sat by herself, supped on the froth and watched the others. A band of Morris men came in, jangling their bells and clapping their staves together. When they started their jig, she was the first to join them. While the other drinkers cheered on from the edges, she was bobbing at the heart of it all. The eight dancers came to a halt, mopped brows and doffed their caps to the lady. As they approached the bar, she reclaimed her seat. Meanwhile, the revellers brought the house down. They invited many outside to watch them prance with a hobby horse but she stayed put. Dogs came up to her to say hello and she played with them. If they had long hair, she would twirl it through her fingers. It was only after the sun began to set and more fieldsmen came in, sweaty from gathering and threshing the corn, that she removed herself from the end of the bar.
Though masses of people came and went, I didn't once take my eye off of her and she knew it. Every time I was caught in the act, the girl whipped her grin out at me and looked away. Another swell of people flooded in when the afternoon portion of the riverside fayre had died down. They hit the bar, bragging about the boat races and still smelling of hog roast. She was with them, flanking the crowd with a shilling in her hand. Pressing it into mine, she pointed a grubby hand at the pitcher of cloudy lemonade we had standing at the back. I obliged her with a chilled glass.
Returning her smile with change, I continued to serve the other customers. In that time I finished another apple from the bushel and grabbed a pair more. My quitting time was approaching. When the cuckoo clock over the mirror struck ten, I knew that I was off. Wasting not a second, I threw down my towel and slipped out. I didn't even wait for the next lad to take my place. She was waiting for me outside where the moths danced in the lantern light. Leaning on the jamb, the candlelight threw her figure into fine relief. I had to blush. She smiled again and I was sweating, but not for the heat.
"How'd you like to-" I said, asking her to the fayre.
"Yes." was all she said. Then span and sped off down the road towards the riverside meadow where the tents had been set up earlier in the day. An alderman was sat on a low bench by the window smoking his pipe. When he saw me ready to pursue her, he sucked his teeth. At his feet a shaggy wolfhound dozed.
"You watch that one, young man. She means trouble." I only touched my cap and chased after the girl. Fleet as I was, by now she was almost around the bend in the hedgerows. All of a sudden, she dived into a natural snicket formed by a copse. Of course I followed her into the cow parsley and bracken. Up ahead I heard her jeering me on. The nettles thrashed me on all sides; come the morning my legs were to be livid and bright. The woods broke open to the pasture ahead. I could see the fayre; a mass of white canvas and torchlight nestled by the river.
She was awaiting me, but I grabbed her shoulder just in case. She slipped off and held herself just out of reach, mocking me with another jig.
"Wait" I panted. If I hadn't been red-faced before, I certainly was now. "I don't know your name!"
"Robin. What's yours?" She had a harelip and a proper Wessex lilt.
"I'm Thomas," I said and removed my hat, "where do you want to go first?"
Robin shrugged and tossed her hair back out of the breeze. She took her place beside me. We strolled along towards the fayre, she, watching the flying river bugs above our heads, and I, trying to work up the courage to slip my hand into hers.
As we approached, I could see what the individual stalls were about. Some more suited to the daylight were already packing up. The cream teas, tombolas and charity stalls were winding down towards a close. Others, particularly the ale tent, were doing roaring trade and had no reason to stop. It was a clear night. The moon shone over the meadow and reflected in the calm waters of the river. On the banks, beetles and flies buzzed in the reeds. Where my feet trod in the mud, it turned up and squelched on my shoes. Robin was barefoot. She'd spun a daisy chain about her pale ankle.
"Would you like a drink?" I asked her, gesturing to one of the beer stalls. I wanted to get to know her, to properly pick her brains. But her freckles and auburn hair had me at sixes and sevens and my tongue didn't know where to begin. I held off on my opening, afraid that I'd advance too keenly and draw first blood.
“I'll take a drink, Thomas. Whatever you're having.” I joined the fray from the other side this time. A minute didn't go by that I'd turn my head to check that Robin was still there. Having her next to me felt like thistle down; if I didn't grasp her she'd float away in the wind and be lost forever. After too long waiting I came away with two pints in smooth wooden cups. We sat on the damp grass and watched the punters go to and fro. Once we'd pitched the spot, I brought out the two apples I'd plucked from the bushel and we shared them. A sliver of the skin pinned itself to my front teeth and I had to work it out with my tongue.
When she dipped her head onto my shoulder I felt as though my chest could burst wide open. I nearly pulled away, frightened that she'd hear my heart beating so loud. Wiping my hands on my trousers and workshirt, realising that I'd been pressing them hard into the soil. Robin finished her apple, the vibrations from her jaw passing through my breast. I clutched at the moment, trying to capture it so that I might picture this scene forever. The two of us on the damp grass watching the people of the village at the fayre.
Luckless men tried the coconut shy. Children ran between the crowds with fluffy candyfloss held in sticky hands. Under the marquee, a band of musicians struck the first note to get a country dance going. Fuelled by ale, the good people joined in laughing. Earlier in the day, dragonflies had flickered over the haze rising from the river where the boat races had gone. Now those boats were left under the bridge to dry on the bank. I looked over to her and plucked the courage from the depths of myself. My hand ensnared her soft palm and everything fizzed. It was wonderful.
Fingers interlocked we continued our drinks. All around us people trod with their friends and families in neat summer dress. Little girls sat on hay bales and were hoisted onto fathers' shoulders. Well-to-do young men my age swaggered and boasted about lawn tennis and shooting pheasants. Their fine shoes trod on the discarded apple cores we'd hurled in the path. The alderman who'd sat outside the Wheatsheaf marched by with his dog and stick. He winked at me and made for the ale tent. Soon we saw him jouncing with a tambourine decked in red and green ribbon.
I thought back to earlier in the day when I'd helped to raise the thick canvas tents. This morning I had felt the sun on my arms as we prepared for the day. We rolled out the barrels and swaddled them with blankets for the stalls. A long spit was erected for the pig to be cooked on. Underneath the sycamores, the dying embers of the hog-roast still blazed. When they were getting the fire going earlier, the meadow had been completely enveloped in the rich wood smoke. Now the pork had been divided among the fairgoers so that only the broach was left. We had drained the drinks to the dregs. She gasped and nudged me. A raft of swans were floating in the current. They drifted from the mill pond under the bridge and past the meadow in formation.
Without a word, we stood and went down through the wooden markets and stalls. At first I thought we were going to the river's edge to get a closer look at the swans, but I was wrong. She seized a strawberry which she held in her mouth then offered to me. When the proprietor grumbled and yelled, we linked hands and ran off through the grass, retracing our steps. We ducked behind an old log halfway between the fayre and the thicket. Crickets chirped as our brown eyes met again. Without thinking this time I kissed her again. Our lips met and I came away tasting sweet strawberry.
"Thomas, do you want to go somewhere else?" She asked.
Silently we left the green back the way we'd come. At the hedgerow, Robin broke into a run. She didn't slow down nor halt when we crossed the track bordering the Wheatsheaf. Past the church, past the post-office, past the old schoolhouse with the bell tower. The pace did not slow ‘til the last cottage was behind us. No rows of houses, only rooves and chimneys poking up through the trees. Somewhere among them was mine.
She took me towards the woods. The fires of the fete glowed orange in the field below. The rows of tents and stalls were matchboxes in our eyes. The river was a dark thread. Our feet pattered through a faerie ring and I held my breath to make a wish. The trail opened up again and in the moonlight we ran across the cricket field.
It wasn't long before we were into the woods. A rich earthy smell rose off of the ferns and shrubs from where the rains had come ahead of sunrise. The last flowers closed up their bloom ready for another day. Insects swam dozily through the air. Robin paused in a clearing and bent in to peck my neck. Surprising her, I held her close, squeezing her deep to my chest. She squealed and laughed. We froze in that way, it could have been for aeons. Then a brief shower interrupted us and we sprang apart. It did not matter; the night air was such that our clothes were soon dry.
Up ahead a rabbit fled from a coppice and ducked into a hole made by a fallen tree. Pheasant calls mingled with owls and other wild fowl to make a symphony for the closing of the day. My ears pricked to catch the screech of a deer (or was it a hare?) over the hillside. There were stars out, but we weren't held by them. The leafy canopy overhead obscured the sky from us. We were alone and what we did was secret and only the woodlice would know.
At the threshold of the old hall we paused. The quiet swelled and overtook us again. Somewhere a field of sheep were bleating. Now we were on the cusp of the haunted part of the woods, where Old Borwick and his hunters were said to tread. The branches above parted and by the starlight she read my fortune in my veins. When it came to her turn, she danced away and I had to chase her, tossing up last year's fallen beech leaves as I went.
Further still into the forest and we were among the bluebells. A soft carpet of blue which almost glowed. I was in two minds to tread on these lamps of ours until I watched her fall backwards into the moss. Mimicking her, we lay there arm in arm watching the moon, the stars and everything else. She rolled onto her side and there was a stillness, as though there was no space between us. Any gap had closed off completely.
Fireworks set off from the riverbank soared into the sky. We felt each blow and as the clouds drifted over us on the hillside I could taste the cordite and sulphur from each display. More fires lit up the hill, each more splendid and fleeting than the last. Each flash of glowing vivid colour etched on the back of my eyelid and in my memory for ever more. Both of us lying where the blackberries and sloes will come up soon. Near the thin sticks from which we weave wicker. That is where I picture Robin forever.
And when they were done, together we tracked back over the trodden path. Through brush and leaves until our feet tiptoed over cobblestone. The winding trail found my doorstep. Both of us barefoot now, we crept across my floorboards to my bed and there we spent the night. In the dark, I find her body and her tongue drowns my silence. We kiss and embrace. We do. We do.
In the morning, dawn's first light found only one in the bed and a pile of leaves where his partner had been. The pile is dried and crisp. Did the wind gather them up into the spot where Robin slept? As I sit up, a gust gently grasped them and ushered them all through the open window. They tumble and spin then fly away. They were the colour of her hair. Overnight, while I slept, she has melted away or snuck out without lifting the latch. Either way, she had gone. My bed was empty, though not lonely.
Her name was Robin. She reminded me of a schoolmarm from long ago. We had our time together and then we didn't. I like to replay it in my mind sometimes, on long summer nights when moths are dancing. Or within the crunch and sweetness of the first apple from the bushel.
George is a medical student from the UK who writes in his spare time. He has previously had work published by Storgy, Litro, Bunbury Magazine and Jotters United.
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