Away With the Faeries
by Russell Cruse
‘For tonight is Halloween
And the Faerie folk ride.’
Most pubs have one: an individual who has for reasons best known to themselves, arrested their own development. In The King’s Arms, it’s the old rocker with his greasy hair and leathers that haven’t trembled to the throb of a Norton in thirty years; in The Wheatsheaf, the punk with her torn fishnets and spiky hair whose inky blackness is at odds with the lines on her face and the liver spots on her hands.
And in the Crown & Anchor, it was Rosie.
From her flowing hair to her leather sandals, by way of a diaphanous flowered skirt and velvet waistcoat over a purple silk blouse, she was every inch the ageing and raddled hippy chick. It was said she could be reasonable company when sober but I didn’t often see her in that state. Usually, by the time I got to the Crown, she’d be away with the faeries; and so it was, that evening when she plonked herself down at my table, her pint swilling onto her hand and dousing her match-thin roll-up.
‘Fuck. Got a light?’ she said, flicking beer over my book.
‘I don’t smoke, Rosie.’
She shrugged and put the cigarette into the cloth bag that always hung about her shoulders. I returned to my book and Rosie fiddled with her phone. As she did so, the heavy bracelets on her wrist clattered on the oak table, creating the only sound in the place. Presently, as I knew she would, she spoke again.
‘I expected there’d be more people in here tonight,’ she said.
‘Why’s that?’ I asked, without looking up.
‘Is it really?’ I replied, underwhelmed. Rosie spread her hands, saying,
‘Why doesn’t anyone celebrate Halloween any more?’
‘You’re three days early,’ I said, jerking my thumb over to the bar, above which a chalkboard, complete with badly-drawn pumpkin, bat and witch’s hat, announced: “Haloween Night. Sat. LATE BAR!”
‘They’re three days late,’ she said and called over to the landlord,
‘You’re three days late with that, Jack! It’s Halloween tonight!’
‘Not everybody’s prepared to stay up ‘til all hours getting pissed on a Wednesday night, Rosie,’ Jack called back.
‘People have lost touch with the earth,’ Rosie said. ‘Nothing seems to chime with the grain of life any more.’
‘That’s very poetic,’ I said and immediately wished I hadn’t.
Now, I’d spent a fair bit of my youth in cheesecloth and velvet pants but even back then, I thought the whole nature thing a bit wet. Unless I reckoned there might be a chance of sex at the end of it, I steadfastly refused to go along with anything that involved standing around barefoot in long grass, holding hands and communing with Gaia.
Rosie smiled, rested her chin on her hand and for the first time in… well, ever, she made and maintained eye contact. I flattered myself that she had begun to flirt with me. Mind you, she flirted with lots of people, but I hadn’t been flirted with in a long while so I let her knock herself out. Suddenly, she said,
‘Up then spake the Faerie Queen
And O an angry Queen was she.
“Pay me my tithe this Halloween
Or an ill death ye shall die!” ’
Not quite knowing what she expected me to say, I went with,
‘That’s a very impressive Scottish accent.’
‘I am Scottish,’ she replied. ‘Did you not know that?’ She’d evidently decided to employ this accent for the remainder of the evening. ‘My old grandmother taught me that ballad. Do you know it?’
‘Can’t say as I do,’ I said and, hoping to forestall the second verse, I stood up to go to the bar. Immediately, I realised that I’d have to ask Rosie if she wanted one. She still had plenty in her glass so it mightn’t be too painful.
‘Can I top you up?’ I asked.
‘I’d prefer a Scotch.’
‘Sure,’ I said and mouthed ‘Fuck!’ at Jack, who gave me his best beaming landlord grin.
‘It’s about a girl who falls in love with an Elf,’ she said, as soon as I’d sat down again.
‘Ah! You don’t believe,’ she said. She leaned forward with her chin almost resting on the table and looked up at me.
‘You know, I’ve seen Elves,’ she said. ‘And faeries.’
‘I’ll just bet you have,’ I said.
I’d assumed that people like Rosie were pretty thick-skinned but I knew I’d upset her. She’d been trying to strike up a conversation; she hadn’t been rude, unpleasant or even mildly irritating and my contribution had been to make a crack about her mental health. Without a word, she downed her Scotch in one. I felt wretched – like I’d slapped a child. Keen to soothe my raw conscience, I asked if she’d like another. She stood up and said,
‘It’s all right. I’ll get these.’
From then on, I suppose I indulged her. I listened to her stories, made an effort to look interested: even asked the odd question, and after an hour or so, it dawned that I’d reached That Moment.
That Moment: when the woman you find yourself with at the end of a particularly dull evening begins to look… all right. Sure, she carried some of the scars of dissolution but I reckoned in her day, she would have been a looker. And let’s face it, I’ve not exactly aged well myself so when, around eleven, she suggested I might want to help her finish a bottle of Laphroaig at her place, I readily agreed.
She lived in the village so we didn’t have far to go. Or so I thought. As we walked, she continued to regale me with her faerie crap. I wasn’t really listening until I heard the word, ‘Naked’.
‘I said you have to be naked to dance around a Faerie Ring.’
‘Hang on… what? Where do you live again?’
‘Walden,’ she said. It’s a hamlet about mile out of the village. I looked about and saw we were in the sunken lane that leads to Walden. She took my hand and clambered up the bank.
‘Come on; this way.’ And then I began to realise that That Moment was beginning to pass. It was midnight, cold, decidedly damp and I was a mile and a half from home, being dragged through brambles to dance naked round a Faerie Ring.
‘Rosie,’ I said, ‘I think I’d best be getting back.’
‘We’re here,’ she said, laughing and flinging her bag to the ground. It was swiftly joined by her entire outfit and I began to sober up.
She began to dance. I’d seen her dance once or twice in the Crown: hair flying, arms flailing, skipping, gyrating… fully clothed.
‘At the turn of seven years,
I must pay my tithe to hell
A Man I’ll bring for the Faerie Queen
And seven more years on Earth I’ll dwell.’
The first thing I remember about them was the smell. Not the blue-green light, nor the metallic taste in my mouth, but the smell. It was like fox shit only worse. It rose around me: a miasma of stink that made me retch and sent twenty-six quid’s worth of whisky, ale and the odd bit of carrot swirling about my feet. When I looked up again, Rosie was no longer alone.
Around her, faeries frolicked. At least I supposed they were faeries – it was faerie ring, after all. But these weren’t tiny, lace-winged creatures from a Victorian picture book; these were big, muscular, grey-skinned and malformed monsters; and they had teeth. Fuck off big giant teeth, sticking out of their pig-ugly faces in every direction like steel chrysanthemums.
Rosie really didn’t seem to notice until the first one was upon her. A look of puzzlement crossed her face before being swept away by terror as first one, then another of the faeries sliced into her with their claws. This way and that they tore, in a frenzy of arms, legs and jaws. But even as the flesh was ripped from her with every stroke, it re-grew to be gouged away once more. Her screams sounded faint - as though she were miles away.
I suppose that was why I was able to hear the Faerie Queen whisper my name.
She looked like one of those bats with the flat noses and had she not been buried to her waist in the earth, she would have towered above me. She stretched out a flayed, bony arm and pointed back to the village. When she spoke, every sound was like fingernails on a blackboard.
‘I have my tithe and you are spared full seven years,’ she growled, her breath rank as the tomb.
I should have run like fuck but instead I said ‘I thought she said the tithe must be a man!’
‘I fancied a change,’ said the Faerie Queen.