So, I’m hating having to write “Blue-Eyed Stranger”, that morris dancer/reenactor romance I mentioned. Possibly this is because the flu has settled into something bronchial and also blocked my sinuses. Possibly being knackered and ill and having the face of ache is enough to make me not want to work on this novella. But possibly it’s just because it’s a contemporary. I don’t know.
It shouldn’t be a burden. So far it’s covered the topics of Cotswold or Border? Jubbly or authentic? Blackface – racist or not? How many people can you seat round a firepit? and Do plastic dragons eat chips? But I’m still failing to feel any warmth for it.
Do you think this is because I’m ill, or is it just that I’m really not cut out to write contemporaries? Have an excerpt to judge.
To a person, Billy and his side closed around the gap into the arena, Matt turning on the organiser. “It does say the Stomping Griffins now, doesn’t it?”
He, poor man, took off his flat cap and smoothed down his bald patch contemplatively. “It does–”
“But it also says ‘Combat display by Bretwalda.’ Sorry, we’ve double booked for some reason. Maybe you can–”
“Well, we were obviously here first.” Matt signalled to the musicians. Nancy had placed her enormous drum on the ground – a gorgeous red painted thing with the team’s black griffin on the side, its goat-skin drumheads tensioned with snow white ropes. Now she picked it up and shrugged on the harness, bent over it like the sickle moon over the shadow of the earth.
She hit it. Boom! And again. Boom! The melodeon struck up with a bagpipe-like drone just as one of the Vikings on horseback was trying to shoulder his way through the close packed black of the dancers. Maybe the drumbeat spooked it. Maybe it was the way the Boy gave an automatic leap in answer to the music. Perhaps it didn’t like this big dark faceless flapping thing jumping at its nose. All Billy knew was that the horse reared onto its back legs, kicked out, its hoof punching a hole in the drum. Wood splintered and the horse squealed, bucking and dancing to try to shake this terrifying red thing off its leg.
Bravely but very unwisely, Nancy tried to pull her ruined drum away. Billy saw the disaster in the making but not fast enough to get there in time to stop it. He was still running forward when the full weight of the horse drove up against the eighty-year-old’s shoulder, picked her off the ground and threw her. She went sailing in a way that might have been comical in a woman a quarter of her age, slammed the edge of her back into the straw bales and rolled over them to lay still on the inner edge of the arena.
“You fucker!” Billy had a stick in his hand. He didn’t think twice about running up to the horseman and belting him across the armoured shoulder for being a sick fucker who rode down old ladies. “What do you think you’re doing, you fucking wanker?!”
The rest of the side were with him in a kind of synergy that only ever happened in the dancing when they were really on form. Pudgy Matt and the Boy – who was only five years younger than Nancy himself – the normally straight-laced Pete, terminally skeptical Colin and suave Andy just as fired up by his side. Margery had siezed a spare stick and was wading in too, while Annette and Christine were on either side of Nancy’s fallen form, carefully, carefully proferring hankies and support.
The horseman didn’t even have the decency to reply, leaning down over his mount’s neck, whispering to it. But the rest of the army poured out from all around the animal and closed ranks in front of it.
“Fucking watch what you’re doing with the fucking horse!” Spectacle-helm guy got up in Billy’s face and pushed him in the chest. A hell of a lot of weight there, the shove might have knocked Billy off his feet if the dancing hadn’t made him agile enough to twist in the air and come down four-square and balanced.
“Did you see what he did? Did you see him knock down an old lady?”
“She fucking asked for it.”
Even hard-nosed spectacle-Viking himself seemed to realise he had stepped over a line with that. His eyes went wide, he backpedalled a little, raising his hands. But it was far too late for that.
“You utter…!” Graham, the bagman, danced on a Wednesday night, and did karate on a Friday. A tall man and athletic – the guy Billy was in competition with for the unspoken acknowledgement of being the side’s best dancer. He wore a short trimmed red beard and would have looked quite at home in armour, if the roles were reversed. Billy’s untutored slice to the shoulder had bounced off the horseman’s armour and been disregarded, but when Graham hit spectacle-guy in the sternum with the heel of his open hand, the guy reeled back five paces and went down.
Whisper snick sounds of swords being drawn – long blade-shapes of steel sliding against the metal lined mouths of scabbards. And Billy could see they were blunt, the points carefully rounded, the edges a good milimetre thick and smoothed off so as not to break the skin. But they were still heavy steel bars a good two feet long. They might not cut, but like the side’s sticks he was pretty sure they would still break bones.
Some of his righteous anger faltered. There were rules to this – the other side backed down in front of the threat. If they had any decency, they backed down and did not force actual blows. But this lot weren’t backing down. Even the ragged edges of the army – thin guys and short androgyns with nothing more menacing to their name than long tunics and itchy trousers were massing in backup of their leaders. Behind the swords, the jackals of this army were aiming spears at the side.
A long, tense moment, and in it the black Viking caught Billy’s eye. He could see his own thoughts reflected on the man’s handsome face. This is all getting a little out of hand.