The May Queen
Every May, the floral bonnet would appear at the foot of the tree. Hawthorn blossom, buttercups and daisies would be glued to tissue paper and taped to a small, drum-shaped coil of white card. It reminded me of the Easter bonnets we made at primary school with crepe paper, tissue and silver milk bottle tops.
I’d have been about ten when I decided I’d bring one of the bonnets back to the cottage. Breathless, I stood in the kitchen doorway, holding it out like an offering, and said, panting, ‘you’ll never guess what-’ I didn’t get to finish the sentence. My aunt stared at me, unblinking. Then she swallowed back a lump and cuffed me so hard my ear bled into the pillow that night. I was sent, snivelling and cussing the injustice of it all, to the woods to replace the bonnet from where it came at the foot of that tree.
It was never spoken about again and I made sure never to walk through Wilkes’ Wood whenever I went for my paddle in the brook. Perhaps it was witchcraft. I got a book on folklore from the library and read it under the bedclothes, staring wide-eyed at the woodcuts of flying witches and bubbling cauldrons. I stopped walking the lane for a time when a frog was cut up on a fencepost, dissected by a penknife. Days later a crow was strung up from its claws in a silver birch. Cars parked up in the laybys late at night and I’d watched the spark of cigarette lighters and seen torch beams in the trees. Bikers roared up the gravel tracks and it was known that the police never came. I wondered was the bonnet an offering or a shrine?
My visits became fewer as the years went by and it must’ve been obvious to my ailing aunt that I wanted to be anywhere other than sitting on her threadbare settee with the spindly legs listening to the silence. As a gawky teenager known for a time as ‘Metal Mickey’ and struggling to contain my dental brace, my escape became the kitchen garden. But I never strayed far from tending the rows of runner beans, carrots and leeks we grew in the rich, black soil. Still not married, still not in a ‘proper job’ I was turning thirty when my aunt passed and left me her cottage.
It was balmy and dry for early May and the apple-white blossom of the hawthorn was glorious. A song thrush, high in a sycamore, greeted my arrival, stirring my townie’s heart. All was well with the world and I wasn’t deterred by a cottage and garden that hadn’t seen a paintbrush, mower or mop for years. I hacked through the brambles and privet with bandsaw and shears to clear a path for the removals men, who filled the shed and outhouse with my boxes of vinyl records, hardback books and the few sticks of furniture I hadn’t sold. This was a fresh start, a timely uncluttering of possessions and soul. Once, I’d got the basics straight: kettle, cups and a packet of digestives, I couldn’t resist an explore and saw little had changed. Bottles of ginger beer and cream soda were stacked in crates in the pantry. Tankards hung from pegs on the wall. Prints of huntsmen and hounds ran up the staircase. My aunt’s bedroom was locked – I’d see to that later – but the purple candlewick bedspread and rickety, treacly varnished cabinet remained in the spare room I’d always used. I tugged at my trousers and the bottom stair groaned as I sat down, taking a marble from my pocket. This trick I’d remembered too. I dropped it to the tiles and grinned as it rolled, gathering pace, until it nestled in the rag-rug at the hearth.
It was cool in the shade of the thick stone walls, but insects buzzed in the tangled yard of honeysuckle, climbers and brambles, and I longed for a wander. I had to lean in and shoulder the door where it was warped by damp and twist the thin, rusting key in the lock, worrying that it might snap. Despite years of threats in postcards and spidery letters (aunt never had a phone) - that I was the last of the line and the dogs’ home would ‘do right’ by Honeysuckle Cottage – she had relented and left me the place. She’d locked up before she’d gone into hospital, left instructions with her solicitor, Fitch, and never came home. In accordance with her wishes her ashes had been scattered from a small rocket launched from the top of the Wrekin.
Every May, the appearance of the bonnet coincided with my stay at Aunt Martha’s. I was an only child, described as ‘difficult, bookish’ and my parents were only too keen to drop me off while they went to the Keating’s villa in Corfu. Dad would drop me at the end of the lane, as instructed by my mother, and parp the horn three times as he set off, leaving me clutching my teddy and small, red suitcase. I was never told why my mother and aunt fell out, but they couldn’t bear to be in the same postcode. I did explore the possibility that my mother was in some way involved, but she never wore hats and I checked her school photos, but there were none of her wearing bonnets.
Tired of unpacking crocks and cutlery, I vaulted the stile and a clump of nettles, tugging at the cow parsley as I made my way down to the brook. Glassy waters bubbled over the smooth pebbles, drawing at trembling, green reeds. It felt like a home I’d never had. I picked my way through the softer ground pocked with the hooves of thirsty cows, to the sandy basin. The stream fanned out into a sandy bottom, and I gripped at an alder for support as the soft, sucking mud gave way beneath my heels. I fell back in the long grass, watched by a chewing heifer as I kicked off my shoes and rolled up my trousers. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to drift. I don’t know how long I slept, but I woke with a start when my toes dangled in the icy water. I’d much to do, so I grabbed my things and ran up the bank. Sweating and short of breath, I knew I’d but missed the shortest route back and found myself in the cool shade of the wood. A rope swing with a splintered plank hung from an oak. There, at the edge of the clearing, was the huge beech with its thick trunk striped and cut with the names and dates of friends and lovers. Someone had lit a fire and the charred remains had been scattered, scuffed by a boot across the forest floor. Lager cans were crumpled and in a hollow between the roots. I shivered as I passed the tree. There was the bonnet, just as I remembered, the white blossom and buttercups and daisies glued to the white, stapled card. I didn’t pick it up or touch it. I fumbled for my phone and took a photograph.
Back home, clutching my mug of tea, I realised I’d not given it thought for years, but wondered who and why was doing it? And why, after so long, did they keep this ritual up? Ours was the only cottage in the lane, save for the Harley’s farmhouse. As a kid I’d seen no one coming and going. Indeed, I’d never met a single soul in all those years of traipsing to and from the brook.
Redundancies at the council had coincided with my aunt leaving me the cottage. I’d taken my chance, sold up my three-bed house and, bolstered by the cash, set about painting watercolours of the canals and meadows. I painted the bonnet too and hung it up above the mantel, perhaps as a reminder, but I had few visitors, and none commented on it.
I was sitting beside the brook, mixing colours or washing my brushes one afternoon when I decided I had to find out the truth. I’d searched online, but there were little or no mentions of the tiny hamlets close by. I wondered if the bonnet was a shrine to a death or suicide, but there was no mention of any such incidents. Freight trains rattled by further down the valley, but surely the rightful place for that shrine would be trackside. Could it have been a drowning? I felt sure no one had come to grief in a brook that rarely crept above the knee, let along ankle-deep. I tried the library, searching a creaking microfiche of weekly titles, most of them sadly now defunct, to no avail. I did think of posting on a local forum, or trying Facebook or Twitter, but I didn’t want to share a fragile, private thing. I didn’t want to spook someone and stop the bonnets being left before I got at the answer.
I had to break the lock to get into my aunt’s room. She’d been frail at the end, skin like paper and bones brittle as twigs, so I don’t know how she’d cleared the place, but it was empty. She hated workmen being inside the house, so I doubted she’d hired a man and a van. The huge wardrobe I’d hidden in as a kid had gone, the chest of drawers with legs like twisty sticks of aniseed had gone too. There were no clothes, no books, and only the fresher paint that hadn’t faded betrayed where picture frames had once hung. Bare floorboards and cracked skirting and plaster, and a daddy long legs snared in a cobweb were all that remained of her life here.
With May about to come around again I considered camping out by the woods, but didn’t feel safe out there at night and, anyway, I had no idea which day the bonnet would be left. My love of flapjack might’ve delivered an answer. I’d been at the solicitors when I stopped at the Spinney tearooms. An elderly couple, aging hippies by the look of their stripy linen shirts and sandals, were discussing the standing stones out on the ridge. They would go, they said, and start out early, for Beltane was tomorrow. I told them I was sorry, but I couldn’t help overhearing their conversation and it sounded fascinating. This brought a gap-toothed smile from the man and, though I endured forty minutes of chat about their travels and beliefs, I did learn all I needed to know about Beltane.
It was the Celtic May Day. From what I could gather it was about love and growth. Offerings were left, mainly flowers. May blossom was common and yellow for fire. I wasn’t sure how this helped, but it sounded like the bonnet, so I packed a flask of coffee, some apples, bread and cheese, and made my way by torchlight to the woods. It was a chilly morning, the sun rising like a ball of orange fire with a thick mist hanging over the brook. I’d found a perfect spot and shuffled backwards into a foxhole beneath the gorse. With an old tartan blanket of my aunt’s underneath me I’d wriggled till I got comfortable among the dry leaves. I’d propped my chin in my palms and watched and waited. I had a small pair of binoculars trained on the base of the beech tree. No one came.
I was wiping my apple and buffing it in the dew when a figure shuffled into the woods in a long grey mac. She wore a hood and wooden clogs, so at first, I entertained the daft idea it was one of the hippies from the café. She brought out a cardboard box from a hessian bag, the kind you’d carry a birthday cake in, and my heart skipped a beat. I focused the binoculars on the box as she tugged at the lid and took out a bonnet. She placed it down at the roots, put her fingers to her lips and touched the daisies and buttercups. She put her hands together, I think in prayer, and then she was gone.
I grabbed at my things, stooping to grab the binoculars as they dropped into the gorse. She was already out of the lane and into the trees when I caught sight of her. I kept to the roadside, at a distance, treading lightly in the thick sedge, but she’d stop and, although still hooded, her head would rise, as if sniffing the air. She stopped for good, hands stuffed in her raincoat pockets, another fifty yards or so down the lane and without turning, she said: ‘Do you want to talk to me or skulk in the shadows forever?’
We talked at a café in the park. Ms Kirkpatrick – I never was told her first name - lived almost forty miles away and she didn’t drive. She wanted somewhere private, somewhere near the bus station. She’d made this journey, pilgrimage, whatever, for so many years. She fidgeted with the clasp of her handbag and took out a small, folded envelope. ‘Now, I talk to you and I expect you to-’
I raised a palm. ‘I won’t tell a soul. Promise.’
She took a photograph, a little curled at the edges, from the envelope and handed it to me. A young girl in a long white gown wore a garland of white blossom as a crown. It resembled a biblical scene. My aunt.
‘When was this?’
‘She hated all that, you know. Being the May Queen. She hated fuss and she hated being dressed up like that.’
‘I didn’t know she’d been the May Queen.’
She downed her tea, able to drink it scalding. ‘Just because it’s not on the internet doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. This was a long time ago.’
‘Is that why you put the bonnet there?’
She cradled the cup back in the saucer, wagging a finger at me. ‘Hold on a moment, I’m getting to that. She caused a right stir, your aunt. She was supposed to be doing something or other after the parade and she ran off. She’d had enough of being marched about. She never wanted to do it anyway, but your granddad made her. Anyway, she ran off into the woods, Wilkes Woods.’
I sipped my tea, waiting for her to go on.
‘Well I ran after her and she cried and cried. She bawled her heart out. She was hysterical. I’d never seen her like that. I had to calm her down and I tried my best, but I didn’t know what to do.’ She broke off to take off her glasses and wipe them. ‘I held her, and I told her it’d be alright. She said that it never would.’
‘What happened?’ I said.
‘I held her,’ she said, and she looked at me closely. ‘Trouble was your mother had followed us, and she was watching from the trees. She even took a photo. She had a camera from the parade, you see. She told all manner of lies about your aunt and me. She was cruel.’
I understood now that this was why they had never spoken. My aunt had died, left her cottage to me, and another word had never passed between her and my mother.
‘You came here every year and brought this bonnet?’
There was a gleam in her eye. ‘It was the first time I held her. It became our joke, our bit of fun. I teased her about being the May Queen.’
‘But you never saw her again?’
She frowned, didn’t answer.
‘It was a big secret,’ I said. ‘My aunt was furious when I brought one of those bonnets home. I was only ten.’
‘She didn’t want you knowing. If you’d been through what we did with your family, you’d understand. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth.’ She snapped her handbag shut. ‘Martha should’ve told you.’ She got up. ‘But she was always like that.’
I offered her a lift. Perhaps I wanted to know where she lived, a little more about her, but she wouldn’t accept. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
‘Why should you be sorry?’
‘That you lived apart.’
‘Ah. We kept separate houses, but only because it suited us. My work wasn’t local. But we spent plenty of time together. Just because you didn’t see me doesn’t mean I wasn’t there….’
I paid for the teas. She tapped my arm, said she was glad I knew the truth. ‘Who do you think tended that veggie patch when you weren’t here? Your aunt was bloody useless in the garden.’
Richard Lakin is a former journalist living in Staffordshire. He's had travel writing published in the Guardian and Daily Telegraph and written short stories for numerous publications including the Cheshire Prize, Structo and Londonist.