I’ve always had a Romantic view of Paganism. Wise Druids, bearded and robed, wandering lonely footpaths, sharing wisdom and insight with reckless young warriors and chaste maidens pretty much rings my bell. Lifetimes dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge bound to the Earth and the changing seasons; ceremony and ritual and the ancient oak. And witches, wild and mysterious; meeting at midnight and bathing in moonlight, their sweet incense burning from bitter herbs, sanctifying the circle and purifying the offering of devotion to the Goddess. Spells cast in darkness bringing love to an unknowing world. And Odin’s hoard sailing in from the North, scary and unpredictable but compelling in their savagery. God’s placated through violence and conquest. Pirates and sea-wolves sharing moments of tenderness with their wives and children. And Nature alive, beneficent in Spring, rolling through the glory of Summer, the burnt orange of Fall and the crisp, cold, silent Winter; a reminder to us all of our own journey and our own journey’s end. There’s justice as well in this world; and mercy tempered by a simple law… harm no-one, a commandment easier said than done but offered with the acknowledgment of the following in the attempt as much as in the outcome. Life validated not by achievement but by the striving after it; the search for the City of Gold, not the finding it.
But Romance isn’t memory, imagination isn’t truth and I don’t live in Camelot… I live far, far to the east.
23:00hrs on a Friday night. Jack and Lylia stumble from the Rose and Crown. Her mind numbed by vodka and his fuelled by cannabis and lager, he is focused upon immediate pleasure. He holds Lylia’s hand and walks up a side alley to the back of the pub. Pushing her against a wall he limits foreplay to the half-perceived necessity of a mumbled “Come on” and pulls her skirt above her thighs. Grasping at her waist he forces himself into her. Aged sixteen, it’s her first time.
At the entrance to the alley two brothers and Lylia’s best friend, Jenn, stand and wait, not knowing if the muffled groans they can hear Lylia making bespeak ecstasy or regret. Minutes later Jack emerges out of the darkness. “Fucked her,” he says as he pushes past them and walks away into the night. They wait for Lylia to join them. Hunched against the chill the older brother puts his arm around Jenn, feigning comfort while wondering if she might be receptive to a similar fate. Tears well in Jenn’s eyes as she thinks back to a time when another young man held her in his arms and offered nothing but unconditional love. Unwillingly, her mind forces her back to recall the night she had rejected James and her head bows in recognition of the path she should have taken and the question she never answers, “What have I done?” Lylia steps out from the alley, “We’d better go,” she says “Mum is waiting up for me.”
The four walk down the street together towards the taxi rank. A youth from another group shouts an insult at passers-by, one of whom swears back while his friend spits on the pavement. Street lamps and brightly lit shop fronts illuminate the walkways. Three girls get out of a taxi, laughing and speaking loudly, clearly excited by their night out. In the distance a siren pierces the air.
A young man lies motionless in a shop doorway. Many have passed by already assuming he is drunk. Those that bother to check, stoop down to see his bloodied face, assume he got what he deserved and walk on untouched by his obvious distress. Montague Street on Friday night is fresh out of Samaritans. The four also glance at the man and walk by without a word. As they reach the taxi rank the brothers wave goodnight and press on towards the station. Jenn helps Lylia into a taxi and, looking back down the street, pulls out her mobile and directs an ambulance to the shop where the injured man is laying. She gets into the cab and they journey home together.
04:00 is an inauspicious hour. Lylia lies sleeping in her bed, comatose by alcohol, temporarily unaware of the events she must re-visit in the morning when she wakes. Jenn lies on the floor wrapped in a sleeping bag, but with sleep evading her. Her hand reaches out to touch the base of the bed where her friend lies and contempt overcomes her, “Stupid bitch.” Her thoughts run back to James and a lyric rises up in her mind to taunt her as affectionate moments, now fixed in time past, flash before her closed eyes. Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Seeking refuge from the realisation of all she has thrown away she turns her thoughts to the future and alights upon the English homework due in next week. She lays motionless as the reality of the drama she has been studying unfolds before her and for the first time she glimpses a greater truth. “Romeo and Juliet, it’s not a tragedy”, she whispers, “The tragedy would be choosing to live”.
As dawn arrives she still can’t sleep. She gets up and stares out of the window. Looking out into the garden from the pale sky she sees a sparrow hawk swoop to its prey, land on the back lawn and pulse the life from its captive; hunter and hunted bearing witness to the final vestige of nobility. She lies down again and as sleep overcomes her she dreams of an old man, bearded and robed, telling her about a city of gold and of a lost pathway that will take her to it.