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Star Gazing with the Green Man – a short story by Lynne Voyce

Star Gazing with the Green Man

Calling it a love story doesn’t quite explain it. It was a collision: his world of nature went smash-bang into my world of commerce. Of course, he couldn’t stay.  Still, sitting here, miles from the city where we met, round bellied and sleepy, the January sun reaching through the dirt dappled window, I can’ help but reminisce.

It was the first Tuesday of March, Shrove Tuesday.  In a seven o clock dash around the supermarket, stinking of printer ink, fingers aching from bashing at a keyboard, I bought the ingredients for pancakes. I would make them in my narrow kitchen, douse with lemon and sugar then eat them with my fingers, standing up in stockinged feet, washing it all down with a bottle of soave.  Slut that I am.

‘Pancake Day’ had been big in my family.  But while other villagers celebrated it then observed Ash Wednesday and Lent with excited self-sacrificing zeal, we simply gorged ourselves with fried batter and sugar then gave up nothing after.  Winters were always hard in such isolation, so, for us borderline heathens the celebration of its end with a feast was necessary rather than religious.

So many bleak, bitter winter nights had been spent by a draughty window, staring at the mist hemming in our cottage, that I seem to have missed life as a teenager.  I longed to get out and lose myself in a city full of fascinations.

Then, there I was, slam bang in the middle of the metropolis.  But I was too busy to be fascinated by anything.  My world was as small and grey as ever: my flat, to the underground, to the office and back again. Morning and night.  And while my bank account grew, my life shrunk even more.  I could barely breathe; it wasn’t the city smog that stopped me but the suffocating pressure and alienation.  I was drowning among a tide of papers and monitors.

So, when I stood in the checkout queue, pancake ingredients in my basket, ravenously eating a sandwich I’d yet to pay for, I was incapable of feeling anything.  I wasn’t even ashamed when the checkout girl shook her head in disgust as she scanned the empty butter stained sandwich packet.  It might as well have been a flag emblazoned with the phrase, “lonely workaholic who was too ‘busy’ for lunch”.

I was still licking the egg mayonnaise off my fingers when I stepped out of the supermarket and into the underground station next door. It was then I saw it: a midnight blue poster pasted to the pale green tiles, silver pinprick stars spelling out, ‘Star Gazing.  All Welcome. North Gate of the heath, 9 p.m.’ It was a dreamy, magical notice, shimmering and childlike.

I hadn’t looked at the sky for months.  I didn’t even know you could still see the stars in the city, with all the light pollution.  And surprisingly, even to myself, in that moment I decided to go.

So, after pancakes and wine I put on a coat, hat and perfume.  I didn’t have any gloves.   Somehow, I hadn’t felt the London winter merited buying them, although there’d been moments that year when it seemed as if my fingers and toes would snap off like icicles.

When I arrived at the North Gate of the heath, there was a small gathering of people, breathing streams of steam, each pretending to be an adventurer.  I placed myself in the ring, smiled; there were nods and return smiles.  But the smiles disappeared, when at eight o clock exactly, in the clear dark, there was a shaking beneath the grey tarmac, as if a slumbering earth was shifting in her sleep.  And to add to the excitement, the moment the gasps and terror subsided there was a rustling in the copse that formed that end of the heath.   The low branches of the oaks and beeches began to tremble; the squat bushes at the edge of the wood shook and parted. Our guide emerged, rising from the undergrowth as if he had been there all along.  He strode towards us wearing brown and green, as if for camouflage.  A tall, young, bearded man with shining malachite eyes, illuminated in the shaft of light from the street lamp where we gathered. His sanguine smile only served to delineate our sense of disquiet.

“Did you feel the tremor?” one of the group asked as he joined the circle, right next to me.

“I did.  It’s just the earth shuddering from all the punishment she takes.”

His intoxicating scent of grass and coltsfoot along with his powerful presence were a heady mix.  I swayed towards him.  Then, as if it was a perfectly natural thing to do, he scooped up my right hand.  “Your fingers are cold.  Don’t you have any gloves?”  His sonorous voice swept past me; I had to listen hard to catch it.  He lifted my fingers to his lips, his warm breath making them tingle – the whole of me tingle.  The rest of the circle just looked on.  It may have been just a passing moment to them, something a young, free outdoors man might do to a city woman as she stood on the pavement, waiting to be shown what wonders the natural world still held. “My name is Ingram,” he said to us all, “there are some fascinating constellations visible tonight.” Then we went through the North Gate.

At the end of that night, after staring at the sky long enough for the pin prick stars to appear from the haze of streetlamps and lit office buildings, the group arranged to meet again at the weekend. Ingram said the sky would be slightly darker then, so it would be easier for us to see.

That weekend was the first time I hadn’t worked a Saturday for as long as I could remember.  During the afternoon I went for a walk, bought a bunch of daffodils, made a meal with vegetables from the local greengrocers and climbed onto the roof of my block of flats to smoke a cigarette I’d found at the bottom of an unused handbag.

I arrived at the North Gate, clear headed and relaxed, joining the waiting circle.  Ingram silently walked towards me from the direction of the wood, immediately taking my right hand in his. I didn’t pull away, rather I let his warmth envelop me. We held hands for most of the night.

I kept returning to the star gazing circle for the whole of March and most of April; no longer was my Saturday spent at work.  Instead, I’d wake early and go about my domestic business while noticing every last detail around me: the shifting clouds; the shade of the sky; the daisies pushing through the gaps in the pavement.  I let my skin feel the wash of rain and the kiss of the spring sun.  The world was alive again.

By mid-April, Ingram and I were seeing each other alone.  We would walk on the heath, or around the garden squares, or stroll beneath the hornbeams and plane trees that lined the avenues off the high street. We watched the bare branches take on their clothes, a whole palette of greens, splashed with pink and white blossom.

By the end of May, the wood that bordered the heath was thick and dense again.  We negotiated it with a torch one night, Ingram leading the way, holding my hand.  At its very heart, in a place invisible to the road or path, we stopped.

“Why are we stopping here?” I said.

Ingram didn’t answer.  Instead, he took his pack from his back, pulled out bed rolls and blankets.  “It’s going to be a dry night.  Let’s sleep here.”

“But we can’t see any stars,” I murmured, feeling foolish and a little afraid.        “Yes, but we know they are there.”

“I’m cold”

“I’ll make a fire.” Almost instantly he set about clearing the leaves and undergrowth, creating a stone circle with found rocks.  I stood in the clearing with the torch, wondering whether to turn and run.

Soon, we were in the orange glow of the flames, stretched on the blankets, a ring of darkness around us.  His daytime scent of grass and coltsfoot still lingered and there was a crackle of magic that seemed to have come alive with the dancing fire.  He leaned over, put a hand on the curve of my hip, kissed me.  His warm, sweet tasting mouth was soft and insistent.  It was a potent sensation.  He smelt earthier now, and when I reached up to his hair, I could feel waxy leaves tangled in the soft curls.  I cannot remember the details of what happened next but I remember the feelings.  We made love and it was, by all accounts, the most thrilling, profound night of my life.

When I woke, to the song of a blackbird, even in the densest part of the wood the stippled sun shone through.   Ingram lay next to me, his face glowing gold, the blanket over his shoulders strewn with emerald leaves and vegetation.  He opened his eyes, they shone a hypnotic black.  “How do you feel?” his voice was a whisper.

“Alive,” I said.

“You know what I’m going to tell you, don’t you?”

I nodded.  I had always known.  His leaving was inevitable.  Yet, I wasn’t bitter or even upset; instead I felt an overwhelming sense of liberation.

“I’m sorry. I have to go.” I sensed his regret; I think he wanted to spend the summer with me.

“I won’t forget you,” I murmured as I stood.  The mellow, woody air was sensual against my nakedness.  He just lay there and watched as I pulled on my clothes.  I turned to leave. But as I was about to step out of our enchanted circle, I looked back to say a last goodbye.  I could barely make him out against the verdant carpet of spring.

On the High Street, the rising sun bled orange across a clear sky.  The early shopkeepers and marketeers wore shirtsleeves and thin jumpers.  Vivid fruit and flowers were being unloaded from the back of vans. There seemed to have been a change.  It was the beginning of summer.

And what a splendid summer it was, hot and sultry. I yearned for Ingram but I didn’t feel alone.  The streets were busy; people in the neighbourhood I had rushed past so many times, were friendly to me now.  They’d beckon me for pavement coffees, invite me for beer garden drinks.

It was September before I realised I was pregnant.  Upon my discovery I momentarily wished for Ingram but that gave way to rejoicing at his precious, parting gift.   Even though I was alone, in a small city flat, I felt nothing but hope and excitement.  I trusted – and still trust – that fate will provide for her, just as fate and nature gave her to me in the first place.

Soon, despite the city glowing ochre and bronze in the autumn light, the pavements strewn with amber leaves from the steadfast trees, it no longer bewitched me.  I resolved to move somewhere a child could be closer to the earth, could see the uninterrupted stretch of night sky that is the canvas for the constellations.

Now, here I am in my narrow, rickety cottage in the midst of winter, the raging fire merely biting the ends of the draught from the ill-fitting front door.  The frost is thick and hard across the garden.  The nearest shop for milk or a newspaper is a fifteen-minute walk, but I can walk at my own pace and breathe again.

Every so often I feel the fluttering shift of tiny hands and feet inside me, then a bold, boisterous kick.  She will be born in February. Her name is Muna.  All I can do is hope that one day, next spring, he will return to see her. SLQ

Lynne Voyce

Lynne Voyce

Lynne Voyce has had more than fifty short stories published in books, magazines and online. She has won and been placed in many competitions.  Her first solo short story collection was published in December 2014 by Ink Tears Press.  It is available from their website and on Amazon in first edition hardback and Kindle.  Lynne is currently working on her first novel and blogs outlining her journey.  She lives with her husband, two daughters and various animals in Birmingham, where she works as an English Teacher in an inner city comprehensive.  She is an avid reader, watcher and talker.

Star Gazing with the Green Man by Lynne Voyce won second prize in the Sentinel Annual Short Story Competition 2015 judged by Alex Keegan.

Lynne Voyce

SLQ Fiction

Bee Keeping in Alaska

The slabs of beeswax placed in neat rows on the pollen dusted kitchen counter sit beside jeweled rows of amber pots, golden treasures washed up on the tide of summer.  But summer is over now.  Outside the sky is ashen and the streets are frozen; planted in the bank of snow that lines Allen’s path is a sign: ‘Honey for Sale’. He sits in the gloomy quiet waiting for someone to come and buy.

 

But no one knocks with dollars in their hand.  In fact, no one knocks at all.  He is so often alone these days.  As the afternoon wears on Allen feels the Alaskan winter enfold him.  It reaches through the threads of his jumper and the fabric of his jeans, through his skin to his nerves, his bones, his heart.  He is winter now, just like everything around him.

 

The firelight plays on the jars of honey, casting yellow shadows on the wood beneath.  Allen remembers the colour and heat of the sun.  But more, he remembers her: Queenie.  His queen bee. 

 

Spring was beginning to bud when Queenie had knocked on the door: “I am here about the small ad.  Do you have a room?”

          “Yes,” Allen noticed her long sable coat and quince coloured scarf, her navvie’s boots and her delicate fine boned face.  “Do you have references?”

          “Yes,” she said, “Do you?”

          “My last lodger will vouch for me.”  Allen was a little offended that she would even suggest he needed a reference.

At that moment the Fed Ex man arrived. “Mornin’,” he’d said without looking up, “sign here.”  The box was big, yellow and black tape plastered across it, saying:  ‘Handle with Care’ and ‘This Way Up’.

Flustered, Allen struggled inside with the package, murmuring, “You’d better come in,” to the young woman.  As he put the box on the kitchen counter, he noticed the enormous carpet bag she carried. 

“I can move in now, if everything is in order,” she said.

“Very well” he said, distracted now, “Your room is at the top of the stairs.  Now, if you don’t mind I would like to open my bees.”

*

“I’m only dancing the season here,” Queenie told him early on, “I want to work for the New York City Ballet.  It’s my dream.”   Allen didn’t have the heart for dreams anymore, not since his wife, Christine, left to pursue hers.  He’d raised four bee colonies since the divorce, so that would be four years.  At first he did it to take his mind off things and, he has to admit, because he liked the occasional sting to stop the emptiness.  But soon the bees became more important than her; they became the most important thing.  He no longer wanted them squandering their little lives on a single sting that would simply give him a masochistic thrill.   Then came Queenie.  And meeting her made every sting hurt: hurt beyond pain.

*

When the summer hit its stride Queenie would dance in the garden in a yellow chiffon dress.  Allen called it her bee dance.  “Look at what I’ve found here,” he imagined the dance said, just as bees dance when they find a trove of pollen.  Allen wanted Queenie to love his home.  He wanted her to be happy.  He wanted her …

 

          In those hot months he was so content, he didn’t even wear a veil to tend the bees, he didn’t have to, just his shirt and trousers.   The bees didn’t need to be smoked into a drowsy stupor either; they were as serene as he was. And though he didn’t wear a gown or a veil he was, indeed, the beekeeper bride.  He loved the bees for the whole summer and they loved him.  The beauty of the honey combs and the heat of the sun were what he dreamed of every night.  And Queenie, of course.

*

When Queenie came home from the theatre, feet bruised, exhausted, the sheen of performance on her skin, Allen would make her supper then they would drink wine.  Rather than speak they would leave the kitchen door open and stare at the white hive in the garden.  In that little house every bee in the colony had its job and did it with care and love.  The hive became something between them: a talisman.  Queenie knew it had once represented the loss of Christine; then it was a reason for Allen to get up in the morning; finally, she suspected, it symbolised the precious time her and Allen were sharing.

Both wished that looking at the little bee house together would last forever. But both knew that life had to move on and theirs were moving in different directions.  Neither wanted to speak the sad secret they held between them because really it wasn’t sad, it was momentarily glorious, and that made it all the more awful: they were in love.  But soon they would have to part.  So it was best to pretend after all.  Allen had been stung so many times, he feared one more might finish him.

*

“I will go next weekend,” Queenie had said one night in the cool garden as the autumn sun began its struggle into the sky, “I thought I’d tell you now to get it over with, especially with today being the day that…”

          “Yes.” Allen had replied, as if answering a hundred questions at once.

 

And then she’d stood there with him, saying nothing, as he poured the soapy water into the hive.  Every bee would die.  He had done the harvest and Alaska was too cold to keep them over winter, although he had read about men that had.  The bees would be gone and soon, very soon, so would Queenie.  He looked across at her. 

“I don’t want to go,” she’d said softly, “but I must.”

“I don’t want you to go either,” he’d put his hand on the crook of her arm, “New York is very far away.”  He’d meant his heart was already breaking and to visit her and leave her once more would be too much.

“I won’t taste the honey,” she’d said, “bring me some when it is safely in jars.”

He’d shook his head. 

That night as he lay in the dark, he could hear her weeping.  Within the week she was gone.

*

In the failing afternoon light, Allen takes a slice of bread from the bread bin and a knife from the drawer; he turns the lid of a jar.  There is a satisfying pop and a feeling of sensuality as he pushes the knife into the honey.  He wishes Queenie would have stayed long enough to taste it.  He wishes a lot.  As he bites into the soft white bread, breathes in the golden smell and feels the sensation of the sweet glutinous liquid on his tongue there is a knock on the door. SLQ


Lynne Voyce is the multi award winning author of Kirigami published by Ink Tears Press, (currently available on Amazon). She is also a teacher of English who lives in Birmingham, UK with her husband and daughters. She is currently working on her second novel and everything else that needs working on.

Bee Keeping in Alaska by Lynne Voyce won Third Prize, Sentinel Literary Quarterly Short Story Competition November 2014


January – March 2015

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