CHAPTER 5 - Midsummer's Eve

Tony lay flat on the ground at Laura’s signal, and kept very still. She was watching the other boys, further down Wildside, to help Tony get into her garden unseen.
“Quick! No-one’s looking! Run the rest of the way!”
Tony scrambled to his feet and pelted in through the gate, which Gemma was holding open.
“Let’s go into the house,” said Laura. “Then no-one will see us.”
“I don’t see why you have to be so secret,” grumbled Gemma. “Are you ashamed of talking to us?”
“ ’Course not,” said Tony. “It’s not you, it’s what we’re doing. It’s not a thing you can mention, believe me. Not if you’re a boy.”

All three of them were wild to go to the sprites’ party. They’d got together to work out how they were going to manage it.
“Midsummer’s Day is 24th June,” said Gemma. “I asked my mum. That means Midsummer’s Eve is 23rd.”
“What day of the week is that, this year?” asked Tony.
“We need a calendar. There’s one in the kitchen. Hang on.”
Laura ran to borrow it, leaving the kitchen door and the living room door open behind her.
“It’s a Friday. But we’ll never be allowed to play out in the dark.”
“Oh, there must be something we can do!” cried Gemma. “You can’t be invited to a sprite party, and not go!”
“Let’s have another look at the invitation,” suggested Tony, hoping there might be a clue he hadn’t noticed before. To his surprise, there was. That last bit hadn’t really sunk in when he’d read it before.
“Why does it say ‘Thanks to Sally Cain’ ?” he wondered. “Who’s Sally Cain?”
“I am,” said Laura’s mum. “I couldn’t help hearing,” she said, coming in and sitting down. “Have you really had an invitation from some sprites? It’s not a game?”
“Would I be here if it was a game?” said Tony seriously. “Look, it’s real.”
He held out the invitation for her to read.

They watched Laura’s mum reading it, and saw her smiling as if she was remembering happy things.
“I suppose you thought no-one would believe you? Well, I do.”
“You’ve seen a sprite, haven’t you, Mum?”
“Yes,” she admitted. “I never said I hadn’t. But I didn’t want to tell you I had, in case longing to see one yourself upset you too much. But now you have, that’s different.”
Tony felt rising hope. With a grown-up on their side, it might be possible.
“Why does it say, thanks to you, Mrs. Grey?” asked Gemma.
“I think they mean they know they can trust you,” she answered thoughtfully. “I never told anyone about the elf I met, so because of that, they trust you, too.”
“Tell us about your elf, Mum!”
“He was called Rowan, and he’d fallen out of a tree while playing some sort of elf-game. But he fell down a well. I managed to fish him out and save him from drowning. He came home with me to get dry and make some new clothes, and he said he was going to tell his people how kind I’d been. It was a long time ago. I was about ten, I think. Perhaps it got written down somewhere."
“Oh!” said Laura. “Is that why our Rowan’s called Rowan? The lucky thing! I wish it was me!”
“Never you mind, Laura, you’ve seen a sprite, and that’s more than Rowan has. And you’ll be going to their party... oh yes, of course you must go, it will be wonderful, something to remember all your lives.”
“Could they both stay the night?” asked Laura.
“Certainly that would be the best thing for you to do, Gemma; just an ordinary sleepover, like you’ve done before. But we don’t want Tony getting teased by his brothers. Let me think.”
Just then, Sally’s cat strolled in. This was a pedigree Burmese, it never terrorised Wildside like the thug from number four.
“Oh, is she having kittens?” exclaimed Tony. “When are they going to be born?”
“About ten days... oh, brilliant, that’s our answer.”
“On the evening of 23rd, Tony, I’ll phone your mum and ask her if you can stay the night because you’re interested in seeing the kittens being born. Your brothers would be OK about that, wouldn’t they?”
Tony was thrilled. With a bit of luck, he’d see the kittens and the sprites.

The next ten days crawled by in an agony of slowness. Gemma said it was worse than waiting for Christmas, because at least then there were other exciting things to keep you going, like parties, and school breaking up, and decorations to do. But now it was just normal school, and it made the waiting so hard.
When Friday 23rd finally came, Laura and Gemma had a terrible day at school. They couldn’t concentrate, and they got split up for talking too much. But all that was forgotten as they rushed home. Gemma dashed into her house, picked up a bag that had been packed for days, kissed her mum goodbye and rushed next door.
“Goodness, calm down!” laughed Sally. “There’s still hours to go. No, you can’t get changed yet. You’ll have to have your tea first. Sprites don’t eat, you know. They only have drinks. What would you like to take? Come in the kitchen and choose something.”
They knew Tony was bringing orange, so they decided to take blackcurrant.
“If the sprites liked orange, they’ll love that,” said Laura.

At half past six, Sally phoned Mrs. Connolly and said she thought Smokey’s kittens would be born that night - which was true - and could Tony come to watch? Mrs. Connolly felt that was a really kind thought, and said so. A few minutes later, Tony arrived, with a bottle of orange and a big smile on his face. He hadn’t put any special clothes on, but he had had a wash in honour of the occasion, which was a great compliment.
When he came, he went straight to Sally.
“Thank you,” he said. “How’s Smokey?”
“Hiding in my wardrobe. It will be tonight, sometime.”

At ten o’clock, the girls came down in their party clothes, sparkling with nail polish and with glitter in their hair. They were brimming with excitement.
“Time to go,” said Sally. “I’ll walk down the garden from time to time to see you’re all right. When the party’s over, or you get too tired, come straight back here, right? Don’t go anywhere else. If anyone but sprites goes near the tree, also come back here. They can hide, you can’t. I’m trusting you all to be sensible.”

Hearts thudding, they set off across Wildside, Laura and Gemma hand in hand, in front, and Tony walking steadily behind. As they got near the chestnut tree, an occasional glint of light shone through the branches, but when they stooped below the curtain of leaves, it was like stepping into a well-lit cavern. There were lights shining out of the ground, reflected in hundreds of pieces of glass and mirror that were fixed to the branches overhead. Next to the tree trunk was a stage, with guitars and drums and amplifiers on it. There was a long table covered with a snowy white cloth, and on it were a huge bowl of milk, rows of cups, and two flutes.

Tony just stared. He’d been expecting this, and looking forward to it, but now he was seeing it, it was almost too much to believe. There was Madge, she was bringing another fairy to meet him, a fairy as old as herself, with skin tinged pale purple, streaked with dark green.
“Hello, Tony!” said Madge. “Don’t worry! Relax and enjoy yourself. I know it’s a bit of a shock seeing sprites when you’re not used to them, but nothing peculiar’s going on. We’re a part of the natural world too, you know. It’s just that not many humans know about us. I’d like you to meet my friend Heather, I’ve told her a lot about you.”
“Er, hello,” said Tony weakly.
“Nice to meet you, young man,” said Heather. “I’ve just flown over from Wales to spend Midsummer’s Eve with Madge. I didn’t know there was going to be a party like this, though.”
“I’ll tell you who everyone is,” said Madge. “Those two squeaking with Laura and Gemma are called Rose and Clover. This is Hogweed. He’s a goblin, that’s why he’s so tall. Do cheer up, Hogweed, it’s Midsummer!”
Tony smiled at the goblin, then bit his lip to stop himself laughing as the goblin tried to smile back. It made him look even uglier.
“This is Cory, the senior resident of Wildside.”
“How do you do?” said Tony politely to the stately old elf.
Cory bowed, formally. He wasn’t sure he wanted to meet humans, especially not the ones who lived in the houses that had been built on his farm, but he wasn’t going to make a fuss on Midsummer’s Eve. He liked it too much for that. It had taken him a great deal of effort to get here, even with Ace’s help, and he wasn’t going to spoil it now.

“And here are the other elves,” beamed Madge, as four slim young figures stepped out of the shadows into the light. Tony’s mouth dropped open. They weren’t a bit like he’d expected. They were dressed alike, in black leathers and sleeveless black t-shirts that had writing on. The writing said Wildside Elves in red lettering of an odd triangular sort of shape. He knew instantly whose the guitars were, and instantly discarded every idea he’d had about elves. He realised with shame that he’d been thinking of sweet little creatures with pointed ears. How wrong could you be? He’d never seen anything or anyone look so cool, so strong, so self-confident.

He wasn’t to know that inside, they were all feeling nervous. Will was convinced the amps were going to explode. Ace couldn’t remember the first line of the first song. Dan was worried her guitar wasn’t in tune, and Phil was just terrified. But they all smiled and said hello to Tony as Madge told him their names.
“And here come some old friends of yours!” she finished, and Tony gasped with astonishment as six exuberant woodmice came chasing and rolling in. They all shrieked with excitement when they saw Tony and started clambering all over him. Laughing, Tony tried to greet each one individually, and when he’d managed it, Madge called for everyone’s attention.

“Let’s do the formal bit. Everyone stand up.”
Everyone stood up, and Madge passed the cups round.
“Ace, make them a bit bigger for the children, will you?”
Tony stared again as one of the elves just seemed to look at three of the cups and make them grow to a more comfortable size.
“Now, in order of age, fill your cups.”
Cory stepped to the table, and dipped his cup into the bowl of milk, followed by Madge and Heather, then Hogweed. Clover came next, with Rose after her, then Will and Ace together, then Phil, then Dan.
That’s all the sprites, thought Tony. I must be next.
Feeling very self-conscious, he did as the others had done, and first Gemma, and then Laura, followed him. Finally the mice filled theirs, and everyone stood in a circle, serious now.
“Midsummer’s Eve,” said Cory. “Pledge the summer, pledge Wildside, pledge each other.”
The children watched and copied as they all drained their cups. Then the two young fairies picked up the flutes and moved into the centre of the circle, and started playing a jaunty tune that Madge had taught them.
“Oh, I like this one,” said Heather, and she and Madge gently started everyone moving.
I don’t believe I’m doing this, thought Tony. I’m dancing round and round in a circle! And if you ask me, those elves don’t believe they’re doing it, either.

He was right there. Will, Ace and Dan couldn’t get out of it now, not with Rose and Clover playing the music, and all those guests there.
“This is stupid,” muttered Ace through clenched teeth.
“You are not kidding,” said Will.
But just then, Phil, who’d been got at by Madge earlier in the day, jumped out of the circle, making the children gasp. It was the first elf jump they’d seen. He jumped to his drumkit and set up a throbbing beat on the bass drum, in time with the flutes, but gradually leading them on, faster and faster, until the beat became one with the rhythm of their hearts, and the moon in the sky and the earth beneath their feet. The circle moved faster, feet stamping harder, their whole bodies responding to the beat of the drum. Rose and Clover were dancing too, as they played, their fingers flickering over the flutes, dancing inside the circle. On and on they went, celebrating Midsummer and the joy of being alive, at one with each other and the world around them, yet each lost deep in his own thoughts. When the music finally slowed down, and the circle shuddered to a halt, they were all quiet for a moment, recollecting where they were. Tony felt as if he’d been on a long journey. He shook his head, trying to concentrate. Madge spoke to him.
“That’s ring-dancing, that is,” she said, with an amused glance at Ace and Will, who were staring at each other with puzzled frowns as if to say, What happened? “You do sometimes meet sprites who think it’s boring. But if they think it’s boring, they’re not doing it right.”
She turned to the elves.
“Bet you don’t feel nervous now, do you? Let’s hear it then!”
With joy, the elves realised she was right. They felt wonderful. They could do anything. They were the greatest rock band in the world. With great yells, they leaped onto the stage to join Phil. Tony turned to Laura and Gemma.
“This is great, isn’t it? Are you OK?”

They nodded, eyes shining, then they all looked at the stage. The elves were ready. Dan had taken her baseball cap off, and her yellow hair, as long as Will’s and Ace’s, hung loose past her shoulders. Ace and Will had thrown their jackets off, but Dan hadn’t, of course. The three guitarists, heads nodding in unison, counted themselves in and started playing a steady rhythm with short flourishes of drum here and there, filled with the tension of waiting. Then suddenly the tempo doubled and the drums exploded into life, like the young pilots of the Battle of Britain getting the call to scramble. Ace and Dan played together over the throbbing, relentless bass, then Will took up the tune on the bass as Ace began to sing.

There goes the siren that warns of the air raid,
Then comes the sound of the gun sending flak…

Tony was enthralled. What a fantastic sound! He didn’t know it was an Iron Maiden song, he just watched Phil thrashing the drums and cymbals, he was loving every moment of this. Heads together, one so dark and one so fair, Will and Ace sang the chorus together in harmony.

Run, live to fly, fly to live, do or die,
Won’t you run, live to fly,
Fly to live, Aces high.

The three guitars played the riff together, then Dan launched into the lead guitar solo. This was her turn to shine. She dived to her knees and really let herself go, her fingers flying over the frets. The whole band responded, she was so inspired, and it pulled together better than it ever had before. Their audience was going wild, it was so exciting. When the song finished, as Ace screamed out the final high note, they knew they were a triumph. Grinning, they held the guitars in the air to acknowledge the stupendous applause.

They played a slightly quieter one next, called Strange World, then exploded into Running Free. Tony found he was struggling to stay awake. This was awful. Gemma and Laura were having trouble too, by the look of them. He felt as if his whole head was slowing down, his eyes were drooping. He fought it, hard. How could he fall asleep with all this going on? It wasn’t that much past bedtime! As the elves finished their third song, they jumped down from the stage. They only knew six songs so far, thanks to Dan who’d insisted they learned one properly before starting another. This was the interval, and they were thirsty.

Will sat down next to Tony, his cup full of orange juice. He drained it in one long gulp, and Tony filled it up for him again. It wasn’t easy pouring into such a tiny cup, but he managed it. Suddenly, he was feeling much less sleepy.
“Thanks,” said Will. “Did you like the music?”
“I’ll say,” said Tony. “You were brilliant. I never imagined elves would play guitars.”
Will grinned. “We wanted something loud.”
“How do you power them?” asked Tony curiously.
“Wet cell battery,” said Will. “Want a look?”
He took Tony round the back of the tree and showed him the big battery (like the sort you see in car engines) that was connected to the guitars and amps.
“We can’t do electricity,” Will explained, “so we just make batteries when we want power. Same with the lights - they’re just torches buried in the ground.”
”You make batteries?” said Tony. “But how?”
“That’s a bit hard to explain,” said Will. “Sprite science is a bit different to human science. Not fundamentally, of course, but practically. Does that make sense?”
“No,” said Tony, “but go on. The trouble is, I don’t know much human science yet. I’m only nine.”
“Is that all?” gasped Will.”You seem much cleverer than nine. Well, let’s keep it simple. Everything’s made of atoms, right? Basic building blocks. Now if you want to make a table, you have to get a piece of wood the right size, because you can’t change the atoms. But we can, you see. A sprite’s imagination is so powerful it can make the atoms multiply themselves. That table there was made from a tiny scrap of wood. Oh, and you can imagine how long it’s to last. It’ll go back to how it was at dawn.”
“So that’s what Ace was doing when he made the cups bigger?”
“That’s right, but don’t tell him, it would only confuse him. He does it without needing to know how it works, you see.”
“How can he?”
“Well, you’re putting atoms of oxygen into your bloodstream right now, without thinking how it works.”
“Am I?”
“Yes, that’s what breathing is. But you don’t have to think about it, do you? Same with Ace and the cups. He’s only got to look, and imagine.”
“Yes!” shouted Tony. “I knew it wasn’t magic!”
“Dead right,” said Will approvingly. “People - and sprites too - have always called things magic just because they didn’t understand how they worked. Clover thinks television’s magic, you know. It works both ways. But it’s pure science.”
“Will, what are you boring on about science for at a party?” demanded Rose. “Hello, Tony. He can’t help it, he’s clever as well as mad, you can’t have a normal conversation with Will.”
“I thought it was very interesting,” said Tony.
“So there, Rose,” sniffed Will.
“Well, I wanted to talk to Tony, I’ve hardly seen him yet. We were there, Clover and I, the day you met Madge. We were allowed to watch because we’re learning things. Are you feeling any better?”
“Better?” said Tony. “Better than the day I met Madge? I feel like a different person. Everything’s so interesting I think my head’s going to explode. I like your wings. Can you fly, Will?”
“Gosh, no, elves don’t need to fly. We jump. Watch.”
In a flash, he was gone, and Tony saw him waving down to him from a branch high above.
“Feeble,” said Ace, strolling over. “Saw you move. Much too slow on take-off.”
“It’s these new clothes,” said Will, jumping down. “I can hardly move in them.”
“And what do goblins do?” asked Tony, looking over at Hogweed, who was having a go on the drums, with Phil kindly showing him what to do.
“Cause trouble, mostly,” said Rose.
“That’s right,” Ace told him. “Some of them are really awful. They’re very strong, though.”

Madge and Heather came to join them. Ace noticed that Heather wore a wristband too, the same as Madge’s.
“What do you really think about Rose and Clover joining the army?” he asked.
Madge smiled. “It doesn’t matter what I think. They were called, and they listened. That’s all there is to it. Mind you, that doesn’t mean they’ll make it. They’ll have a lot of difficulties to face. But I think they’ve got what it takes.”
She hugged Rose encouragingly, because she was looking a bit worried. They all looked at Clover, who was chatting to Laura and Gemma, with Cory sitting nearby and smiling benevolently at her. Clover had always been his favourite.

Ace was feeling odd. Madge hadn’t said anything, yet he had a feeling that she thought Rose and Clover were doing something brave, something he wasn’t brave enough to do. So he sprang into action.
“Let’s do some more music!” he called to the others, and they took their places on stage once more.

Madge turned to Heather, and sighed.
“It’s always harder for elves,” she said.
“Always,” agreed Heather. “Do you think those three will manage it?”
Madge shook her head.
“I honestly don’t know. I hope so, of course. I think they’d love it. Certainly Ace and Will would never go without the other. They’re twins, you know.”
“I saw they drank from the bowl together.”
“Yes, born the same day. Inseparable, of course.”
“And what about the little dandelion?”
“All I hope to do for her, is help her accept who she is. And she’s a long way from that.”

Everyone stopped talking as the band began to play again. They had to, it was so loud they wouldn’t have been able to make themselves heard. They were really wild now, hands moving like fire over the strings, hair waving around as their heads rocked with the beat. As the final chord died away, they stood in triumph, each with one foot on the amps, guitars held high, and Phil holding his drumsticks up in salute. Then they noticed what the others hadn’t seen. At the back of the audience, the children had fallen asleep. The elves jumped off the stage and went to see.

“Gosh, were we that boring?” said Will.
“Oh!” said Clover. “I know!”
“Yes,” said Rose, “it’s very simple, Will. It’s a matter of frequency. Sprite voices singing are at a frequency that slows down humans’ brains, and that’s what happens when you fall asleep. Plain scientific fact, everyone knows that.”
Madge and Clover clutched each other in hysterics at the look on Will’s face when he heard Rose coming out with that. Heather gently woke the children and told them not to worry, sprite singing had that effect on humans, and Rose, well-pleased at astonishing the elves, poured out blackcurrant juice for everyone. This was new to most of them, and they were very impressed.

“It’s gorgeous, Laura,” Rose told her. “Thanks for bringing it.”
“Yes, and thanks for the orange, Tony,” said Will. “Bit cheeky of me, really, putting that on the invitation. But we weren’t, well, quite ourselves that night.”
“You were drunk, you mean,” said Clover.

It was getting close to midnight, and Midsummer’s Day was near. That it was going to bring awful news to Wildside, no-one knew yet. The mice, the children and the sprites were happy and light-hearted as they went home. They switched off the lights under the tree, and came out from under the branches, standing there quietly until their eyes became accustomed to the moonlight.
“Beautiful,” said Rose, looking at all the familiar plants, a few lights glowing in houses, and the moon and stars above. “This has been the best Midsummer’s Eve ever.”

They took Cory home first, slowly and carefully, then streamed off towards the railway. Hogweed slipped away, and on the embankment the mice left them, waving their tails. From there it was a short step to number sixteen, where Sally was waiting for them at the gate.
“Sally Cain! Hello, Sally Cain!” shouted the sprites, jumping and flying around her.
“Hello, sprites. Come in, everyone, the kittens are being born.”

The children and the sprites rushed into the kitchen and gathered in awe around a large cardboard box on the floor, and watched in silence as four tiny kittens were born. Maybe because he was born at the very stroke of midnight on Midsummer’s Eve, or maybe because at that very moment Rose was imagining what a sprite cat would be like, but one of those kittens was going to turn out rather special.
Laura and Gemma were wilting with tiredness and excitement, so Sally put her arms round them both as they watched the sprites whirling and weaving home.
“Mum,” said Laura. “I love sprites.”
“So do I, Laura,” smiled Sally. “So does everyone who’s lucky enough to meet them.”

Everyone else had gone in. The fairies had gone to their houses, and Phil to the shed. He was sleeping there now, so the bud wouldn’t get lonely. Ace and Will stood alone in the middle of Wildside. They were quivering with excitement; they weren’t going to bed.
“See you in the morning, then,” said Ace.
“Yeah,” smiled Will. “Have a good night, Ace.”
They gave each other a quick hug, then turned and walked apart. Will walked along the bank of the brook, through thick shadow, until he came to a willow tree, its size hidden by the surrounding bushes, its strong roots going down into the water. His tree. Safe in the knowledge that no-one could see him, he smiled at it for sheer love, then jumped effortlessly into its branches and sat back to watch for the dawn.