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Hatherleigh Carnival. As predicted the weather’s turned atrocious. I’d just finished making a second batch of quince cheese scenting the house with a honey sweetness; fires burnt snugly, curtains drawn, muffling the sound of wind rattling and shaking the world. I sunk into the sofa cradling a mug of hot tea. Bliss; so tempting just to snuggle in for the evening. Robert was away in London.
The phone rang, it was Adam. “Just phoning about the carnival. Are you still going? It’s such a shame – the weather, so dreadful. I was only popping in to see the judging and will probably be going straight home after. If you want I…”
“No, no” I interrupted “It’s okay. I’ll make my own way in. I want to take pictures of the tar barrels so I’ll be hanging on a bit. I’m sure I’ll meet up with Sally and Marcus. But thanks anyway. Maybe see you.”
The phone rang again…
“Are you still going?” it was Philip “We were all ready to, but, it’s just too appalling.” Philip, Lisa and their twins generally meet up with us on carnival night.
“Well, yes, I am. I want to get some photos of the tar barrels. The weather’s turning it into rather an adventure.”
“I don’t think you’ll get much of a photo in this!”
Olly came down stairs. “Mum, surely you’re not going. Have you seen?”
“Yes I am. I’ve got to. I feel sorry for everyone. So much hard work. Some of those floats take almost a year to work on. But they said the storm will be swift, if violent. And look, I can see the moon!”
I donned my mountain walking gear, wellies and waterproof trousers. Outside the back door a torrent, no, a flood hurled past the door. The dip in the lane had turned into the Amazon as water careered across the culvert, no sign of the surface anymore. Onwards I drove. The road down to the river meadows had become a series of rapids foaming with the detritus of branches, leaves and acorns; blocked ditches and drains spewed great gouts of angry water hurtling towards the river. The two miles into Hatherleigh was more of a car swim than a drive. After parking in a flooded gateway where the water almost came to the tops of my wellies, I sloshed the last quarter of a mile into town, the moon now shining though scudding clouds.
The atmosphere was exhilarating. The crowd, large enough to cause a buzz, was still small enough to create a tingling intimacy. The black slicked roads reflected lozenges of colour and light. The air hung with a concoction of musty wool, burning paraffin, the metallic tang of beer, with fried fat and the hot sweetness of fresh doughnuts. I found a group of friends and was handed a flask of warming ginger wine spiked with whisky.
The band struck up, drums resonating and vibrating inside us. The torch bearers followed leading the carnival parade, headed by the president, the queen, the prince and princess. Then the floats of intrinsic and exquisite work pulled behind gargantuan tractors, their lights hard and bright like slant-eyed monsters. The walkers joust and tumble in an array of topical satire, goading, egging and capturing the crowd with their capers and antics.
Suddenly it’s over, the procession with all its din, colour and excitement has passed into the quiet seclusion of the market place. The crowd wait, the darkness throbs with electric expectation.
At the top of the hill a shout goes up, raw and harsh “Oggie, oggie, oggie. Oy! Oy! Oy!”
The response slow to begin with growing in strength and volume
“Oggie, oggie, oggie, Oy! Oy! Oy!”
And down they hurtle, the chosen young men of the town, blood up, veins pulsing, their faces blackened by smoke, dragging a raft of wildly flaming tar barrels. Egged on by a swelling crowd the shout becomes a guttural chant “Oggie, oggie, oggie. Oy! Oy! Oy! Oggie, oggie, oggie. Oy! Oy! Oy!” Faster and faster they career down the streets the mood changing from one of light-heartedness to something far more raw and instinctive.
Now running on pure adrenalin they arrive at the bon-fire, heave the barrels onto the stacked timber to set it alight, only to lie gasping on the ground as the exertion, admiring girls and crowd catch up with them. Soon the flames and heat capture and still both thought and limb. The people of Hatherleigh, satiated and contemplative, start to remember who they are, returning reluctantly to the present from some distant time when the elements held sway and nature was a mysterious and capricious force to be respected and placated. A time when just occasionally it was OK to let primal, tribal, instincts reign.
This last weekend we had cause for celebration, Will’s birthday. Backalong, in the days of our rapidly expanding family, when we were young, our dreams were golden-ripe and ready for plucking, and pennies were few and far between, we devised different ways of celebrating. Unable to afford the more conventional bought birthday presents we made, invented and recycled our gifts. The centre piece of each birthday became ‘the table’ – as it’s now referred to. And when the birthday boy came down in the morning the table would be transformed into the theme of his birthday, his passion of the moment – knights, dragons, space ships, monsters and castles, anything. With gathered branches, flowers, objects, homemade papier-mâché, presents and cake, I would create some kind of wonderland which signified the specialness of the day. This homespun tradition hung on over the years, gradually becoming more of a complementary backdrop. Will, though, holds onto the childhood magic fiercely; he’s a full-on birthday kind of guy, jellies and all.
Last year he was working up in Scotland. Rushing headlong towards deadlines and living in temporary rented accommodation he told us not to bother. We’d celebrate later, at some more convenient time, he said. We duly did as he suggested, phoned, emailed and texted our happy birthdays. But without the celebration he was devastated, felt miserable and forgotten – abandoned! To make sure it didn’t happen again he’s been reminding us gently, and then rather more urgently, about his birthday for the past month or so, reaching a crescendo of calls this last week.
This year the theme was orange, I’m not sure, why. Orange flowers, montbresia and nasturtiums were picked and arranged, orange shredded paper festooned from the overhead chandelier (yes, we are dead posh), presents wrapped in yes, you guessed it, orange paper, and so forth. Rob wore an orange shirt from his youth. The chocolate cake was adorned with tangerines –just joking, they were cherries.
Will, never one to let feelings of pleasure show, grunted mild appreciation and started to open his presents with agonizing slowness. Drawn out, excruciatingly-tantalising elongated delight. The family left him to it after an hour or so, he’d only managed to remove the envelope from one card.
Today is the real birthday. Happy Birthday Will!