Stranded in a remote country village in 1920s England when his car breaks down, shy young Arthur finds himself drawn to the rough mechanic who comes to his aid, Bob Goodman. Forced to stay until the May Day holiday is over, Arthur makes the best of it, enjoying the village procession and fete.
But the villagers seem to know more about him than they should, and there’s a second, darker, May celebration that starts when the sun’s gone down. In the drunken revelry that follows, Arthur is whisked off in a wild dance by Goodman, who plays the part of Jack in the Green, the spirit of the greenwood.
Dancing turns to loving, but is everything what it seems? And is one night all Arthur can have?
Excerpt: (found at JMS Books)
The Morris men were no longer in their gleaming white shirtsleeves; to a man they had blacked their faces and donned their ragged coats, and the bells were silenced. The clash of their staves together now seemed to Arthur sinister, almost threatening. He shivered in the cool of the evening.
“I thought only one of the men was to have a coat of rags — their, ah, wardrobe master, or whatever they term him?” Arthur ventured to Mrs Ives, who stood proudly by his side as her husband and daughter processed past.
“That may be how they do things in some parts,” she told him with a sniff, “but it’s not the way of things here. You ask Bob Goodman, he’ll set you straight.”
And then, as if to speak his name were to conjure him forth, Jack in the Green himself came whirling into their midst. No longer a stately observer, now he seemed determined either to lead the dance, or to subvert it. Arthur stared as the giant figure flung itself about as if the great costume were merely a featherweight. There were cries of “Jack! Jack!” and other calls that Arthur didn’t understand.
“Where’s Robin?” a swarthy fellow by Arthur’s side shouted out across the revellers, his call almost deafening in Arthur’s ear.
“A bowshot hence in Inglewood!” came a reply from the other side of the lane, with the curious ring of an oft-repeated ritual.
“And the maid?” came the ear-splitting riposte. Arthur braced himself for another cry.
The dancers stopped.
The sudden stillness was almost as confusing to Arthur’s senses as the constant, whirling motion had been. Slowly, stealthily it seemed, Jack in the Green crept nearer to where Arthur stood — if such a monstrous being could be said in any sense to creep.
Even the evening breeze that had whispered its way down Arthur’s collar earlier seemed to be waiting, breath caught, for the answer.
“Who knows?” came Bob Goodman’s voice, soft but clear in the silence, sending a not unpleasant tingle down Arthur’s spine.
“An’ who the hell cares?” roared a Morris man, and amidst loud laughter and renewed beating of the staves, Arthur found himself seized by the hands and swung into the melee. Scrabbling not to lose his footing and fall, Arthur let the Morris men pull him along, turning him until he was dizzy, now pulling him into the fray until he feared he’d be injured by those great cudgels they wielded, now pushing him back out until his cheek rasped against twiggy foliage as Jack in the Green saved him from the ignominy of a fall.
Arthur’s head was reeling by the time they reached the green and the great bonfire set up there. The Morris men let out a great cry and began to dance around its flickering light. Arthur, it seemed, had been entirely forgot.
Satyrs, Arthur thought. They’re like satyrs, revelling in Arcadia.
The young women of the village were there already, bare of foot and loose of hair, waiting to welcome their queen to her own bacchanal. Arthur caught one last glimpse of Lily’s face, shining in the firelight, and then she was gone with her sisters to who knew where.
“Watching the women? Now, we both know that’s not your usual pursuit, my fair young lad.”
He had divested himself of his leafy encumbrance, yet the outlandish guise appeared to have left a lasting mark upon his character. There was no sign, now, of the respectful tradesman. He spoke to Arthur as to an equal.
Or at least, Arthur hoped that he did.
The breeze had picked up once more. Arthur shivered.
“If you’re wanting to get warm, my lad, it seems to me you should be getting closer to the fire,” Goodman said softly. “Or, as might be, farther away.”
Arthur swallowed, and started as a calloused hand grasped his own and pulled it up to roughened lips. He could feel the stubble that always darkened Goodman’s jaw rasp against his knuckles as black eyes looked deep inside him.