Saturday, 31 October 2015

Around The Cauldron: Green grow the rushes


Footsteps thunder down the stairs as Jean opens yet another packing case. Ivy round the window casts a green gloom into the kitchen featuring a genuine Aga, which she plans to keep, and hideous 1950s cabinets she can’t wait to replace.
Adam is supposed to be sorting out the cupboards in his ‘new’ room?

“Never guess what I found!” he gushes at the doorway.

“You’re supposed to be putting stuff away, not dragging more things out.”

Blank stare.

“OK, go on. Tell me.”

“Ta da!” says the boy, pulling a large wooden disc from behind his back. “Isn’t it cool? Can we hang it on the front door for Hallowe’en?”

The size of large tea tray, but thicker and much heavier, it’s been carved from a solid piece of wood – oak or beech, perhaps. Intricate leaves and tendrils surround a man’s face leering up at Jean. Something about its grin makes her want to laugh, with unease. Dust blurs the lines, but does nothing to soften the gaze of the man staring out of the age-blackened wood.

She shudders. “Ugh. Creepy.”

“Exactly. Perfect for Hallowe’en!”

“I don’t want our new neighbours judging us by some old tat on our front door, so you’d better clean it up before I’ll consider it. You’ve got two weeks – plenty of time.”

Adam grins agreement and gallops back upstairs. Jean returns to her work, confident that his new find will be forgotten the minute he unpacks his GameBoy.

The afternoon passes in a blur of sorting and stowing in unfamiliar cupboards until the dying light of the watery sun reminds Jean of her rumbling stomach and the leftover shepherd’s pie in the fridge.

When Adam fails to respond to her shouts, she climbs the creaking stairs to his room. An involuntary ‘tut’ escapes her lips as she opens the door to a tsumani of Lego bricks. She stands for a moment, watching her son’s back as he sits cross-legged and intent in the corner, wondering if he’s too young for his fourteen years - and if it’s her fault for not bringing a father figure into his life. But no father’s better than an abusive one, isn’t it?

“Adam! Look at the state of this place,” she snaps. “Put that game down and come and have something to eat. Then, I want you to come straight back up here and sort your room out.”

“Not playing a game,” a sulky voice replies. Its owner doesn’t turn or stop its steady, repetitive, rocking movement.

Jean picks her way through the Lego minefield to Adam’s side. To her surprise, his hands aren’t busy with his Gameboy, but are doggedly rubbing with a damp cloth at the grime on the plaque he’s found. She can see it’s a good piece of wood.

“That’s a good start,” she says, touching his shoulder. “But you really need to get your room sorted out. And you must be hungry.”

After a double helping of supper and parental nagging, Adam leaves his mother to her after-dinner glass of wine and favourite soap opera. Heading upstairs, he swipes more rags from the cleaning cupboard and a bottle of linseed oil from her set of oil paints. She won’t miss it, hasn’t painted since that ‘retreat’ she dragged him along on after his dad raised his fist one time too many - and threatened worse.

That was five years ago, but Adam still feels a tightening in his chest every time he thinks of his father. He knows he’s better, calmer, safer, without him, but can’t escape the cloud of guilt for not missing him more.

Shaking off the thought, he starts collecting the bright plastic bricks strewn over his bedroom carpet. Funny, he doesn’t remember getting his Lego out….. but he must have.
Bricks safely gathered in their box, schoolbooks stacked on the desk and the last of his clothes safely stuffed into drawers, he settles down to the task at hand.

The Green Man waits, silent and strong. Bidden by a voice only he hears, Adam nods solemnly, sits down and starts wiping away the years. A branch from the hawthorn tree outside his window taps a soothing staccato on the pane, giving a gentle rhythm to his work. As he rubs away the grime, the wood warms and reveals details he hasn’t seen before: an oak leaf crown, woodbine tendrils tinged the faintest green snaking out from behind ears, delicate fern fronds intertwined with shaggy eyebrows, bullrushes surrounding the neck like a raised collar.  

By the time he hears his Mum call a tired goodnight through his door, the plaque is clean. Tomorrow, Sunday, he’ll finish it off.

Laying back against his pillows, Adam listens to the unfamiliar swhoosh of the wind through the trees in the copse at the end of the garden. An owl hoots. Further off, something – a fox, maybe? – screams. He’s asleep before the moonlight breaks its cloud cover to send cold light through a chink in the curtains onto his smooth cheek.

“Good morning, sunshine!” Jean trills as she bustles in and throws open the window. “It’s a beautiful day. Unpacking’s finished, the sun’s shining and I’m in the mood to explore. What do you say to a proper fry-up and a walk in the woods?”

Smiling down at her son, she’s surprised to see the first fuzz of facial hair. Where’s that come from? How hasn’t she spotted it before? Dammit, her boy’s finally growing up and she’s too busy to notice. Adam blinks and stretches luxuriously before turning back over. But the smell of toast and bacon soon works its magic and he joins her in the kitchen, disheveled and sleep-smudged, rubbing the soft bristle feathering his jaw and mumbling “Thanks, Mum”.  

As Jean hangs sheets out to dry in the autumn sunshine and prepares a chicken for the Aga, Adam brushes oil over the knots and whorls of the Green Man’s face. He polishes it to a high sheen like a conker in the grass on a November morning, admiring the details his work brings out – tiny veins in ivy leaves and a twinkle in the eye that almost seems to be winking at him.

The morning passes in a warm glow of mother-son companionship walking the woods, identifying trees, spotting a tangle of mistletoe high in the branches of an old oak and gathering armfuls of apples from the orchard at the bottom of the garden.
Peeling windfalls at the kitchen sink, Jean smiles to herself as she watches Adam through the window. No need to worry that he’s young for his age. After just a couple of days since moving into the old house, he seems taller, more assured. Almost a man.

A rook’s harsh caw makes her look up. Adam is at the far end of the garden, where the woods begin. He seems to be arguing with someone, his flailing arms shouting anger. Or fear?

He looks her way, flashes a fake smile and stomps back to the house. With a grunt, he pushes past her and heads upstairs before returning and thrusting the restored Green Man into her hands.

“Wow!” she says, admiring his handiwork. “That’s great, Adam. Well done. But, who were you talking to out there?”

“No-one. Just some stupid dog.”

His fingers trace the warm wooden outline of the Green Man’s face, moss-furred cheeks, hooked nose and grinning lips. The leaves surrounding it have leapt into life after cleaning, and the rushes around the man’s collar seem somehow taller. Adam takes the plaque and turns it over, checking its hook, then opens the front door and hangs it from a nail left over from some long-forgotten Christmas wreath.

“There. Now it’s a proper home,” he murmurs. “And we’re a proper family.”

A frown flutters across Jean’s brow but she decides to let it go.

Monday morning. Dim light floods the front bedroom at Cernunnos Cottage. A hand emerges from beneath a thick quilt to beat the alarm clock into submission. Its owner throws the covers aside and sits up to face the first school day in a new home.

Jean pulls on her robe and heads for the bathroom, knocking on her son’s door as she passes. “School day. Time to get up, Adam.”

Minutes pass. Teeth cleaned. Tea brewed. Toast made and cereal placed on the kitchen table. No sign of Adam.

Angry now, Jean stomps up the steps yelling “Get up!”

She stops short outside his room. A strand of ivy is creeping beneath the door and heading for her room. She laughs at her own over fertile imagination. They must have brought in on their boots after their walk in the woods.

She pushes her way into a room swamped in damp green light. The window is covered with ivy leaves and a hawthorn branch has broken through the latch. Fern fronds creep up the walls, thickest where the bed sits in the northern corner. Inside, where Adam lay down the night before, a thicket of bullrushes has taken root.

At the front door, the Green Man’s grin stretches a little wider as laughter echoes through the woods.

This story was featured in an evening of dark tales and improv in the Iron Clad Improv & Castiron Theatre's 'Halloween Dukeanory' at the Dukebox Theatre in Brighton, Sussex, UK, on Friday 30 October 2015.

Big thanks to everyone at Iron Cast & Castiron for making my words part of their night. For more about what they do, go to 

1 comment:

  1. I love stories about the Green Man and this is a neat take on him. It has a real air of mystery to it that I enjoyed, there is a lot of room to speculate on the nature of what happened and also on what might happen next :)