A Dance at the Crofter’s Head
Suddenly, on a modest four-block stage in the corner of the pub, two folksingers appear, the platform creaking under their weight. Both men wear faded brown slacks and heavy dark-green shirts buttoned up to the neck. The larger of the two, the one holding the acoustic guitar, sports a battered leather waistcoat which clings to his ample stomach. His companion is older and thinner, a clareted nose, intruding above his wild whiskers.
Robin sits with his wife at a nearby table, watching them, relieved at the distraction. Alice holds herself rigid, taking nervous sips from a vodka tonic. It took days to persuade her into this, their first social outing in… how long? More than a decade, surely. Since depression sunk its teeth into her, draining Alice’s energy, locking her up inside.
Robin sips at a Coca Cola. She insisted on coming by car, despite living just a few blocks away.
He notices the twitching beneath her eye. Her nerves can spill over so easily. He places a hand on hers and smiles. “Music’s almost here, Ally.”
She smiles back, but he can see the effort it takes.
The folksingers sit on stools behind microphones, one steadies the guitar on his knee, the other reaches behind his seat and brings out a long, thin wind instrument. Some wooden whistle or rudimentary flute? Robin is unsure.
A woman belatedly follows them onto the stage. She has long silken black hair and is dressed, head to toe, in a white dress. Robin thinks she looks wrong, out of place, next to the scruffy men. She stands behind them and fixes the height of her microphone.
On the guitar, there is a picture, an image constructed of thin black lines over a cream-white surface. The face of a monster, some pagan idol. The lines depict interlocking strands of grass, corn and barley, making the cheeks, eyes and nose. Beautifully detailed spikelets and cornflowers form the mouth with complete with sharp barleycorn teeth.
The guitarist grins, as if to mimic the image, and surveys the pub.
Robin follows his gaze. Years ago, when he could afford to drink more often, the Crofter’s Head was a regular haunt. The local bars were full of rowdiness and characters. But London has swallowed up Croften since. Too many of the old guard are gone, the lucky ones selling up and moving to the seaside, the rest ushered out by cancers and heart disease and swollen livers.
The new people are young, loud and, it appears, extravagantly happy. They hug each other too much for Robin’s liking and wear baggy clothes over dense, elaborate tattoos which peek from beneath sleeves and bared midriffs. Earlier, the boy who served him at the bar, no more than nineteen with his wispy blonde moustache, offered an ironic smile when Robin took out cash to pay for the drinks.
“You prefer a card?” Robin had asked, heat rising in his cheeks. Next to him, a young woman somehow paid by scanning her phone on the reader
“Nah mate, it’s all good.” The boy said, still smiling, like Robin was a joke he would tell his friends later.
He wishes they’d stayed in, like usual. Alice watching one of her murder mysteries on TV while he doom-scrolled his Ipad on Facebook, looking for people to disagree with. They weren’t wanted here.
The big folksinger interrupts Robin’s melancholy line of thought, speaking loudly into the mic, “So, here we are, The Old Crofter’s Head”
His accent is strange to Robin’s ear. A southern voice, Kent or Middlesex, but strong, the way you rarely hear these days. “Would you like to hear a story?” It comes out as “stury”.
A young man’s voice from the back calls “Hell yes!” followed by laughter.
The tables around Robin and Alice fill up briskly as drinkers move from the bar towards the stage. A man in his twenties with a long beard and thick-rimmed glasses, stares at them.
“Perhaps we should go.” Alice says.
Robin grimaces and shakes his head. “We’ll listen to the music. I…” but he is cut off by the older folksinger announcing their first song. “Old John Barleycorn,” he says.
On the final syllable of this odd title, his partner picks at guitar strings, discordant notes plodding one after another like tired travellers labouring up a hill. And the piper joins in, offering a reedy, breathless refrain to each trudging riff. They lean forward to their mics and sing.
Robin feels it and sees it in the others too. The young people on the tables around halt their chattering and, as one, turn towards the stage. Alice puts down her glass and stares, wide-eyed.
The woman’s voice tangles with her counterparts’, lending a weighty, demanding quality to their harmony, a tune sodden with the past. Robin has heard hints of this vocal texture before, from other folk-artists, records he treasured as a young man. But nothing like this, nothing so strangely powerful.
“There were three men came out of the west,
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow,
John Barleycorn must die.”
Robin looks over to Alice and is surprised to see her smiling. He cannot recall the last time that simple expression of happiness illuminated her face. And now she is mouthing along to the song, singing silently.
How does she know the words?
“They've ploughed, they've sown, they've harrowed him in,
Threw clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead.”
And the song goes on, describing indignities and assaults inflicted on some walking crop made human in form. The lyrics might even be amusing were they not delivered in such haunting tones.
When it ends, the audience is momentarily frozen in silence. Robin finds himself holding his breath. Then the room explodes with raucous applause and cheering. The reaction is visceral, shockingly so to Robin who found the song only disquieting. He looks around at the thirty or so customers and staff. Almost everyone is standing and clapping, including Alice. Some pound the tables in excitement.
But Robin spots another in the room bemused by the rapture. The boy behind the bar, the one who made fun of him paying with cash, looks on with a frown.
As the din subsides, those who were standing, sit. Alice takes her place back on her seat and Robin leans over to her. “You like it?” he asks.
She turns and stares at him, like he’s asked her to name every county town in England in alphabetical order. She gives a small shake of the head and then pats him on the leg.
Robin is torn between relief she no longer wants to leave, and concern at her sudden change in demeanour. When they first met, forty years ago at the wedding of a mutual friend, her unpredictability had excited him. A night out with Alice always held surprises, often welcome. But overtime, it had taken on a darker edge. She could turn on him without warning, wound him deeply with a few sharp words.
He should be pleased to see her happy, for once.
“Can you see it, Robin?” she asks.
“Him. Coming down the road.”
Robin screws up his face in confusion, but there is no time to ask what she means before the piper announces the next song. “Old John Barleycorn” he says.
Robin waits for the jeers of derision at the mistake. When nothing comes and the opening riff of the same song starts up, he says it himself, almost apologetically, “You just played this.”
Nobody joins in with his gentle protest, so he starts to say it again, louder this time. “You just…” but Alice cuts him off.
“Quiet Robin.” she says, holding up her finger to her lips. “People are listening.”
Robin looks around. Most of the audience seem unconcerned to be hearing ‘Old John Barleycorn’ for a second time, in fact, most appear rapt as before.
“They've hired men with their sharp pitchforks
who've pricked him to the heart,
And the loader he has served him worse than that.
For he's bound him to the cart”
For a moment, Robin forgets about the barman and Alice, and loses himself in the words and the music. He stares only at the string hand of the guitarist, watching him pick out the same pattern again and again. Calm drifts over him. His worries about Alice, his discomfort at standing out among this youthful crowd suddenly feels incidental, trivial even.
On the third verse, he lifts his gaze to find the pub and the people and tables and chairs are melting away. Colours shift and meld, forming and reforming new shapes and horizons. It’s like sinking into warm water, suddenly moving through space in a thicker, denser medium. There is no panic, no sense of disturbance around him, just a smooth transference from one state of being to another. A new world is opening, inviting Robin in.
He is in the middle of a lush green field on a summer’s day. The folksingers are still there, playing their song in front of him, but there are no mics and no stage anymore. The sound of their playing and singing is wider and bigger, as the tune escapes into the bright blue sky.
“They've hired men with the crab-tree sticks,
To cut him skin from bone
And the miller he has served him worse than that,
For he's ground him between two stones”
Small lights flicker in the air all around and it takes Robin a few moments to understand what they are: the candles from the tables. Somehow, the tiny flames transcend the two places – resting on tables in one place, hovering above the ground here.
Robin knows he has not moved, not really. He is sitting in precisely the same place. This is Croften before there were homes and shops and pubs and roads. The music has, magically, conjured a time when the land was everything.
There is a path, a dirt track, meandering through the modest hills. Robin can see it over the shoulder of the piper. At the furthest visible point, perhaps a mile away, a figure shambles towards them. Its outline is hazy, ill-defined, but Robin does not like its size, relative to the trees he passes, nor the way it moves.
It is in the shape of a man, but huge, much larger than a man should or could be. It judders along the pathway. There are no clothes or boots or hat on this shuffling mass and it has no naked skin to hide. Instead, the figure is made up of green and brown tendrils which waver at the edges, as motion and the wind catches them. Robin looks back to the guitarist, who is smiling as he sings, and then to the face painted on his guitar.
When Robin looks again, the beast is closer, much closer, only a field away now. He can see the dust pluming as its massive legs shuffle along the dirt track. Robin does not want to look at its face, knowing the reality will be much worse than its rendering on the guitar.
He tries to stand up, but his body will not obey. He twists in his seat and looks behind.
All the others are there, moving, dancing. He wonders how he did not notice them before. His senses are suddenly so treacherous. Alice is skipping in a small circle to the rhythm of the song. Her arms flap back and forth at her side, propelling her around and around. The tattooed, pierced and smiling twenty-somethings flail and jig around her.
“They've let him stand 'til midsummer's day
'til he looked both pale and wan,
And then Sir John's grown a long, long beard
and so become a man”
Every dancer skips and leaps to their own private design. Together, the mass of disjointed motion makes Robin think of bluebottle flies buzzing around a light. They seem oblivious to their surroundings, lost in the whirl folksong
Robin turns and sees the piper staring at him. He takes the instrument from his lips and says it again, louder this time, angrier. “Dance. Now! Dance for Old John or he won’t be best pleased.”
Robin finds he can stand. His arms sway.
“Dance or you’ll be the first he kisses.” The guitarist says.
The beast has entered their field and Robin wants to scream. Some long-buried instinct stops him at the final moment. It would be dangerous, perhaps fatal, to interrupt the music in the its presence. The music and the monster are related beyond words. The song has conjured him, joined two worlds. For what? Ceremony? Worship?
Robin looks again, cannot help it, and sees the face.
Black holes where the eyes should be, surrounded by features made of grass and crop. Reeds shift and slide in a moving tangle lending the face a creeping, crawling texture. The mouth is formed by rows of oversized barley seeds surrounded by hairlike strands, giving Old John the messy whiskers noted in his song. The mouth is open. Inside, more massive seeds point up and down creating sharp incisors that nash at the shifting grass which crawls in and out of the gaping hole.
He begins to dance. He hops and skips in imitation of his wife knowing that he will do anything, absolutely anything, just so long as he never has to see its face again.
Robin wants to be sick, wants to run, but instead he dances. He is the only one who seems aware of the peril they are in.
The song is going on for longer this time, more verses added.
“Old John saw mother’s land
scourged and scraped and scarred,
His soil locked in by men who did,
scorn her yard for yard.”
The endless knitted storks and stems which form his face and body, move in and out of him, a glistening wetness to them. There is a smell too, of rot and fermentation.
And John swore by the power of his hand
That a spell most just would cast,
He’d bring her back with the blood of those
who thought her time long past
The folksingers are smiling broadly, enjoying the presence of a cognisant listener. Their words and grinning make Robin dance more avidly. Even beneath his breathless panic, he is starting to understand. The beast, these people, they want vengeance on everyone, on young and old alike.
For there’s no pity on a curse’d city,
when the time’s right he’ll show,
That blood and soil and soil and blood
Will part no more but flow
The two musicians play on, keeping up the plodding riff and refrain, no longer singing, as if their job is largely done and the instrumental alone will now suffice.
Robin continues to dance, they all do. The older folksinger watches them, the message clear in his furious stare: You must always dance for Old John.
The woman in white moves, steps out from behind the men and goes to a nearby tree. From behind the huge trunk, she picks an object from the ground and brings it out for all to see. A scythe.
The long handle and endless arcing blade dwarf her. She holds it upright, like a soldier bearing a regimental flag. The blade flashes against the sunlight, its razor edge making a silent, deadly promise. When she brought it back to the beast, she brings the blade down to her lips and kisses it. The creeping crawling thing holds out its hands and takes the scythe from her.
The ceremony has a familiar religious quality, like the mass Robin attended as a child. The beast stands proudly before his assembled audience and holds the scythe to the sky.
He roars. A massive, spine-chilling explosion which shakes the soil from which it was born. Robin’s lips tremble and, still-dancing, he lets out a desperate sob.
“May…” A voice from behind him.
There is a sudden shift in the atmosphere. Next to the monster, Robin can see something broad and solid which has no place being in a field on a summer’s day. Wood stained in varnish, just like… Just like… He hears it again, an intrusion, a word.
The sound of it is wrong. A ripple in this strange new reality. The nature of the scene playing out around him seems suddenly, beautifully open to question. The edge of the horizon behind the woman in white loses its definition, then returns.
There is a hand on his shoulder, but when Robin turns to look, nobody is there. All he can see is Alice and the others, dancing manically. But Robin’s shoulder continues to judder, some invisible force shoving him back and forth.
And then he is falling, away from the field, away from the beast, from the woman in white.
“Mate, snap out of it.”
Robin blinks and opens his eyes wide.
Part 2 can be accessed here: https://www.abctales.com/user/charlie77