19 December 2015

Mummers and Poppers: A Devices Story for Christmas

Another imminent Christmas means another Christmas story, and another all-too-rare update to this all-but-abandoned blog. Except that what I sent out with my Christmas cards last year was a tie-in story to my Devices Trilogy novels, and has already been published on the Snowbooks website. Still, I don't have another one for you, sorry.

This story is set between The Pendragon Protocol and The Locksley Exploit.

A Devices story for Christmas

If thee will leave thy tanning trade
and bide in greenwood with me,
my name’s Robin Hood, and I swear by the wood
I will give thee both gold and fee.’

The Kempsford Mummers’ Play

         As Christmases go, this is a weird one. Weirder than normal for the Green Chapel, I mean, because I realise sleeping in draughty tents in a forest, wearing several layers of thermal underwear inside your sleeping-bag and having to break the ice on the communal water-butts before you can have a wash in the morning wouldn’t be most people’s preferred way of spending the festive season.
         It’s all down to the allies – the ‘devices’, as our opposite numbers in the Circle insist on calling them. The living mythic archetypes of Britain have been kicking up a fuss, to say the least of it, ever since open warfare was declared among their human representatives, between the modern avatars of the Knights of the Round Table and Robin Hood’s Merry Men.
         That sort of thing puts the collective psyche of the whole nation under strain, and – though they’re nothing compared with what we’ll be facing later in the year – there’ve been some unusual manifestations emerging. Criminals from armed robbers to drug-dealers have been getting ideas that are strangely similar to stuff in myths, and those of us who live routinely with the influence of legendary figures are getting a bunch of very odd ideas turning up in our heads. The allies don’t dictate anyone’s behaviour, but they can introduce impulses which it’s quite difficult to control.
         So, for example, at the Circle’s Fastness – as Merry Wendiman’s learnt through her remaining contacts there – a bunch of the more credulous Knights are expecting a sign at Christmas, like the sword in the stone appearing on that day in the Morte D’Arthur, which will presage the long-awaited return of the ever-absent Pendragon device. The Seneschal’s doing his best to discourage the rumour, but every Knight who hasn’t been detailed to a quest elsewhere is sticking close to London till the New Year, just in case.
         This gives us a slight respite: recently we’ve been having to decamp and move every week or so, as the Knights come sniffing at our metaphorical door. The current thinking among those who do our decision-making is that the Chapel’s going to have to split up and go to ground – some of us camping, but scattered; others in squats in major cities where that kind of thing goes unnoticed; others kipping on friends’ floors across the country. It’s a long-standing contingency plan, but it’ll be the first time it’s happened in our recent history.
         It’ll be a worrying time for us all… but, thanks to the Knights’ temporary bout of greater-than-usual insanity, probably not until New Year or so.
         In our own ranks too – if ‘ranks’ is the word for the members of an anarchist cell – there’ve been some worrying midwinter manifestations. The other day, two young kids who’d been hiking in the forest and got separated from their parents turned up at our camp, all panicked and tearful. A search of the woods was the last thing we needed, so Zara (the Bosnian ally of Robin Hood’s Saracen pal) and Rev Cantrell (Friar Tuck’s ally and the Chapel’s holy man, for a certain very lax definition of ‘holy’) undertook to reunite them with their family.
         Citing a concern, and on the face of it a perfectly reasonable one, that their descriptions might lead the Circle to us, they insisted on going in disguise. Watching them leading the children away into the woods – Rev, bewigged and compulsively adjusting the generous padding needed to fill out a dress a good many sizes too big for his skinny frame, and Zara, in shirt and trousers with a false moustache, slapping her thigh with a nervous and entirely assumed bonhomie – was our first hint that the pressure of the schism between Chapel and Circle might be forcing the allies to manifest in unaccustomed and frankly disturbing ways.
         The absence of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can’t be helping, of course. This is the time of year when those two traditionally slug it out with axes, enacting a mythic ritual thingy of decapitation and rebirth that presumably symbolises the death of the old year, vegetation, sunlight and so forth, and the return of all of the above in the forthcoming spring.
         According to Merry at least, that would have provided some much-needed release for all this pent-up devicial energy – but there is, of course, a problem. The ‘Green Knight’ is what the Robin Hood ally used to be called before there was a Robin Hood, and what the Circle still call it. It’s something the Chapel’s been noticeably missing since the death of Shafiq Rashid a month ago at the Circle’s hands.
          Which brings us to our guest, Jory Taylor – or ‘Dan’, as we’re all still calling him. Shaf’s friend, Merry’s boyfriend and the former bondsman of Sir Gawain among the Knights of the Circle, he’s been moody ever since we rescued him from his own people on his way to their private psychiatric prison, and despite the fact that most of us consider him the heir apparent to the Robin Hood ally – Merry being our own Maid Marian, after all, and someone we trust implicitly to choose well – he’s yet to show much sign of leadership.
         Indeed, with the possible exception of Merry herself when they’re in private, he’s not been saying much to anyone at all.
         It won’t be till later that I’ll realise that Jory, who used to bear the device of Sir Gawain and is now being expected to take on the mantle of the Green Knight, might be experiencing quite a bit of inner conflict around this time of year.

* * *

         This year’s Midwinter Day is bright, crisp and clear – the sunshine actually warming at times, though not enough to make you take off any of your extra layers. A white Christmas is clearly out of the question, but the moss in the shadows under the trees surrounding our communal clearing still bears the night’s frost as late as lunchtime.
         Which is when Ahmed becomes the latest of us to start acting strangely. Without any obvious provocation, the young Somali – the ally of the relatively obscure Merry Man Arthur a’Bland, and normally the sweetest guy in the world – starts insulting Jory, calling him among other things an arrogant, muscle-headed English idiot with unadventurous taste in food. You can tell he doesn’t get much practice being abusive, but he seems in a genuinely belligerent mood about it.
         Jory, who’s been quietly reading next to his and Merry’s tent, looks confused and a little hurt. Merry seems more concerned. While some of us try to tell Ahmed not to be such a prat, Merry unships her laptop and fires up the 4G.
         ‘Relax kid, there’s no need for any of this,’ Rev points out reasonably.
         ‘Aye, Dan’s a big guy,’ grunts Scar, Will Scarlet’s ally and Zara’s girlfriend. ‘You take him on, it isn’t gonna end well.’
         ‘I don’t care. That swine has had it coming,’ Ahmed inexplicably insists, and tries to launch himself in Jory’s direction. Scar and Zara grab an arm each.
         ‘I honestly don’t know what your problem is, Ahmed,’ Jory tells him sincerely, ‘but I don’t want to fight you. Let’s drop it, shall we?’
         ‘Ah, so you’re scared of me, you coward?’ Ahmed sneers. Jory starts to look justifiably irritated.
         ‘Hold on, hold on,’ says Merry, standing up. She’s scanning her laptop screen rapidly. ‘It looks like this is another of those seasonal things. Ahmed, calm down, your ally’s riling you up deliberately. It’s trying to act out the plot of a traditional Christmas mummers’ play. Well, one set of variants anyway. You’re going to end up getting knocked unconscious at the very least.’
         Ahmed doesn’t seem in much of a mood to listen, so Little John’s ally Big Jack Bennett steps in. ‘Listen, pal,’ he says, ‘Dan’s our guest here, aye? He doesn’t need you in his face, acting like a pillock.’
         And at this point, his ally obviously too stoked-up to be held back any longer, Ahmed breaks free of the women and hurls himself, not at Jory but at Jack.
         ‘Bugger,’ mutters Merry. ‘That’s in the script too.’
         I try to skim the text of the play over her shoulder. It does indeed look like a free adaptation of the ballad ‘Robin Hood and the Tanner’, where Arthur a’Bland, the Bold Tanner, turns up and needlessly antagonises Robin Hood, but ends up fighting Little John.
         With reality mimicking drama now, there’s only one way that’s likely to go. Jory may be bigger than Ahmed, but Big Jack must be twice the Somali lad’s body-weight, and has probably been brawling longer than he’s been alive. It doesn’t take an especially epic bout of fisticuffs before the big guy punches Ahmed’s lights out.

* * *

         ‘So what do we do now?’ I ask, as we all gaze down at Ahmed lying, nose bloodied but looking kind of peaceful, on the chilly grass.
         Merry’s frowning. ‘I think, now we’re here, we just let the scenario play itself out,’ she says. She flicks through the script. ‘We’ll need a doctor to cure him.’ (I’ve never looked much into mummers’ plays, but I know that bit isn’t in the ballad.) ‘Preferably a drunken, boastful one. My doctorate’s in psychology, so I’m not sure if…’
         ‘Hey, I’ll give the kid first aid.’ Rev shrugs. ‘No doctorate maybe, but I qualify on those other grounds.’ He lopes off to his tent to get his things.
         ‘Well, I don’t recall this happening before,’ I say, as we wait for him to come back. As the bard of the group, Alan a’Dale’s human ally, I’m supposed to be intimately familiar with the Chapel’s oral history. ‘Anyone else?’
         There’s a general shaking of heads. Even old Brian – the sole survivor of the ’60s version of the Chapel, whose Friar Tuck was a failed guru on the run from creditors in Bradford and whose Marian was a drag queen called ‘Marion Repent’ – says he’s never seen the like.
         Rev hurries back. ‘Hold this a minute,’ he says to Jack, handing him a small glass vial. He bends down to hoick Ahmed into the recovery position.
         Big Jack gingerly unstoppers the bottle and sniffs it. He reels back and stumbles over a guy-rope, sprawling backwards into a tent which immediately collapses. A squeal of protest emerges from its compressed occupant.
         ‘Apparently the doctor’s pretty much the only constant in these plays,’ muses Merry, as Zara tuts and retrieves the vial. ‘Apart from the slapstick,’ she adds as Big Jack sits up groggily and finds himself entangled in a cat’s cradle of guy-ropes. ‘The combatants are more usually St George and either the Dragon or a Turkish knight, but someone always ends up getting brought back to life. I’m guessing the tradition originated as a midwinter death-and-resurrection drama, but so watered down now it’s practically homeopathic.’
         ‘You mean like the Gawain-and-the-Green-Knight story?’ I wonder. Then: ‘Oh, I get it. You reckon this was, what, filling in? Little John and Arthur a’Bland as understudies for the big two?’
         ‘I suppose they were the best alternatives available,’ Merry agrees. ‘We’ve got a Saracen, but no St George.’
         ‘I think you loosen his clothing enough now, Rev,’ Zara observes neutrally, passing Cantrell the vial. ‘What happen next, Merry, in this play?’
          Behind her Big Jack uses another guy rope to pull himself upright. A nearby tent falls over under his weight, disgorging an indignant semi-clad couple.
         ‘Well,’ sighs Merry. ‘The best way of bringing the whole thing to a dignified close would probably be to have Old Father Christmas turn up and suggest everyone has a feast instead. Although I’m not sure how much significance Father Christmas would have for Ahmed.’
         Suddenly Ahmed sits up with a gasp. ‘What was that?’ he asks, grasping Cantrell’s wrist. Rev’s been waving his vial underneath the lad’s nose. ‘What’s in that bottle?’
         ‘Ah… just a little something I had about the place,’ says Rev evasively. ‘Let’s just say it acts as a pick-me up.’
         ‘You just gave Ahmed poppers?’ groans Scar. ‘Jesus, Rev.’
         ‘Amyl nitrite,’ I explain helpfully to Jory, seeing his puzzled look. ‘It’s a gay scene drug. Ahmed will be on a short-lived high right now.’
         ‘Hey, you expect me to have smelling salts lying around?’ Cantrell asks defensively. ‘What am I, the vicar in a Jane Austen novel?’
         I realise we haven’t resolved the Father Christmas issue, but Jory steps in at this point. ‘Hey, Ahmed,’ he cries, ‘You’re feeling better! We need to celebrate! What do you say to a good old Green Chapel party, eh?’
         For a moment Ahmed simply looks confused, then a wide smile spreads across his face. ‘My friend, I like your attitude! Yes! Yes, I’m in a party mood!’
         ‘Someone get some music on, for God’s sake,’ snaps Merry, and there’s a general scurrying to set things up for a shindig. Someone produces some finger-food, someone starts dragging out the homebrew, and someone even finds a box of party poppers – the kind that go bang this time.
         A couple of minutes later – which, from what I gather, is about when one might expect Ahmed to start coming down – everyone’s happily grooving away to Claxton and the Ranters.

* * *

         ‘I didn’t like being cast as Robin Hood,’ Jory confides, half an hour later when a few of us get a chance to chat at the makeshift bar. ‘I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable with that, to be honest. I just can’t see myself as a leader. If I have to be Santa Claus to avoid it, then so be it.’ He grabs a beer and wanders over to where Burn, our street-conjurer-in-residence, is doing tricks for the kids. A girl called Finn is claiming stridently that she saw exactly where that coin went.
         ‘Hell, if I’d known the part of Santa was available, I’d have passed up the doctor,’ Rev tells us. ‘Fat, jolly, holy, drinks far too much sherry? Sounds like my kind of guy.’ Collecting a drink of his own, the scrawny man heads back for the impromptu dance floor, where Ahmed’s cheerfully boogying arm-in-arm with Big Jack.
         That leaves just Merry and me. ‘There’s something, isn’t there?’ I ask her. ‘I saw your expression just then, and earlier too. Dan perking up suddenly like that… that means something.’
         The smile that comes over her face doesn’t quite avoid being smug. ‘I think it does,’ she says. ‘You see, Old Father Christmas… he isn’t Santa. The whole gift-giving thing came much later. The traditional British personification of Christmas is older than St Nicholas.’
         ‘Who is it, then?’ I ask.
         She’s definitely smirking now. ‘Well, he wears green. Holly and ivy leaves, too. He turns up at Midwinter, and invites people to a feast where he plays host. He represents the bounty of spring and of the vegetation, the hope of renewal persisting through the winter. He sounds, you know, an awful lot like…’
         ‘Ah,’ I say, looking over to where Jory’s cheerfully handing round the cheese straws. ‘Yeah, I see.’
         It looks like the Green Knight’s paid us a Midwinter visit after all.

‘Here come I, old Father Christmas.
Christmas comes but once a year,
but when it comes it brings good cheer,
roast beef and plum pudding.
A little money in our pockets, ladies and gentlemen?’

The South Cerney Mummers’ Play
A very merry Christmas to anyone who's still reading.