Jonny wasn’t particularly a fan of folk music. He was tired and there were many more pressing issues requiring his attention than visiting the Stonehaven folk festival.
The mid-summer evening bloomed with a heady atmosphere of celebration. The abundance of stomping folk tunes weaved their way around the town square. One melody in particular had caught Jonny’s attention.
No; it had totally enraptured him!
He’d wandered around the town but had been unable to find its source – catching only fleeting echoes of it under the other rustic ballads. The music felt as if it belonged to a different age: The notes were as delicate as gossamer and more beautiful and inspiring as anything he’d heard before. Its near-magical nature helped lift the low spirits that always cursed him this time of year.
This was the twentieth anniversary of Ness’s disappearance. Ness had been with here when they first stumbled across the Stonehaven folk festival. They’d been drinking in the Merry Dancers pub when, at some point in the evening Ness had vanished. No one had seen nor heard from her since, despite a huge search of the surrounding countryside.
Following her mysterious disappearance, her friends would return to this same pub every year to remember their lost comrade with a vodka and coke – Ness’s drink. Sadly, over time the old gang had drifted away from each other, drawn apart by various family pressures; work pressures and life in general. So now, out of the original crowd Jonny was the only one who still managed make the sad pilgrimage to The Merry Dancers each year.
Jonny looked around the crowded little pub. Beneath its original 17th century beams troupes of eccentric morris dancers were gathered alongside knots of rowdy youngsters. Shinny antique horse brasses lined the bare brick walls, dividing up collections old black and white photographs of Stonehaven’s past. The rustic features spoke of its age, but there was something else in the atmosphere of the tavern that hinted at a far older heritage. It was a feeling more than anything; as if the pub was shrouded by some ancient lore; long forgotten by the modern day.
The old-world presence seemed to be captured in the ancient plaque that hung behind the bar telling of the legend of the Merry Dancers. These faerie folk had been sighted in and around Stonehaven for hundreds of years; singing and dancing through woodlands and gardens. Those who chanced upon them reported feeling drawn to join in their celebrations. But to do so would be unwise. For once immersed in the sweet music and frivolous dancing the unfortunate individuals would most likely either dance themselves into insanity or unwittingly follow the faeries into the Otherworld where they would become trapped and unable to find their way back from the faerie realm.
Outside the cider-guzzling folk band strangled another song with a flurry of wild fiddles and galloping accordions. It drowned out the other-worldly tune that Jonny had experienced but he hardly noticed, as a movement caught his eye.
A young woman with long dark hair wearing a very short sparkly mini-skirt and high heels wobbled over to him. Jonny quickly found himself staring. His usual composure flooded out in disbelief. This woman was so familiar it was uncanny. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“Alright Jonny-Boy” Ness said breezily.
For a moment Jonny was stunned; unable to form any words as Ness draped an arm over his shoulders in greeting.
“I’ve just met these amazing people outside” she explained cheerily. “You’ve got to come and meet them, they’re hilarious. They got me dancing round the beer garden. I’m just glad none of my kids at the youth club saw me because they’d really rip the piss out of me!”
He watched, speechless as Ness pulled up a spare barstool and perched herself next to him as if the last twenty years had never happened.
“So, where are the others?” she asked rummaging through her small handbag to produce a packet of Sovereign cigarettes. “Hold on a minute, what’s that on your face, Jonny?” she asked as she noticed the stylish beard he now sported. “I didn’t even notice that earlier. Ere, can I borrow your lighter?”
“Ness!” Jonny managed in a voice so thin and high he hardly recognised it. He swore to himself in disbelief, shaking his head. “Oh my god, I can’t believe it, Ness. You’re here!”
“Well, yeah? Where else would I be?”
“Oh man! So much has happened while you’ve been gone” Jonny gushed.
Ness tilted her head on one side and gave him a sarcastic look that said: You’re mental! I’ve only been gone a few minutes.
“No one knew what had happened to you” Jonny stumbled over his words as the sense of unreality pressed in.
“Whatever!” she declared. “Talk to the hand, Jonny” Ness stuck her hand in his face and purposefully looked the other way. She ordered a vodka and coke from the young, harassed-looking barmaid who scowled at the unlit cigarette in her mouth.
“We thought we’d never see you again”.
“You Muppet” Ness chided. “I told you I’ve been in the beer garden”.
“But you’ve been gone so long Ness… Hang on; I’ve got to phone the others”. Jonny laughed, wiping an unexpected tear from his cheek. He swiped it on, forgetting there was no signal out here in the middle of nowhere.
Damn it! He’d make sure he called them later – they’d never believe this – Ness was back!
He felt breathless just looking at her, marvelling at the impossibility of it all. She still looked like her old twenty-year-old self; just as she did on her Facebook Memorial page. Over the years he’d had wild fantasies about seeing her again and what he’d say to her if they did meet.
“We’ve got to be quick” Ness urged. “Those guys – I think they’re locals because they seem a bit odd – they said they’d wait for us. So we can’t be long”.
Jonny felt a stab of unease and he glanced at the dusty old plaque on the wall behind the bar.
Outside in the beer garden the folk band was trying something more contemporary. Their buttery West Country accents attempted a re-enactment of the ‘Friends’ theme tune by The Rembrandts. This inspired Ness dance precariously on her barstool, just like she used to in The Litton Tree every Saturday before she’d hit the dance floor.
“OK” Jonny began. “I don’t know if you realise this or not, but a lot of time has passed since anyone last saw you” he paused to let that sink in. When she didn’t appear fazed by the statement he continued to fill her in on the significant events of the last twenty years. He told her that her disappearance had spurred him to go to university where he got his master’s degree. Following which he’d quickly risen through the ranks of his insurance company to become one of the directors. He finished by proudly telling her about his recent knighthood from the Queen.
“So I should call you Sir Jonny now?” she laughed.
“Most of the others have moved away” Jonny continued, feeling a murmur of regret in his voice. “Vince and his husband are busy living the high-life in Rio where they spend nine months of the year. Little Sarah is living in Rome working for some international fashion house. Oh, and Ross has moved to California now, still doing his computer work”.
Ness gave Jonny a look of infinite patience; as if she were talking to one of her young people who’d just told her an obviously whopping great lie.
“I’m just so shocked” Jonny said again quietly.
Ness continued to gaze at him but now a slight frown was beginning to crease her forehead. Her barstool dancing had slowed to a metronomic nod before that too ceased. She sat very still, momentarily lost in her own thoughts. Jonny said nothing, allowing her time to process the enormity of what he had told her. She took another sip of her drink and peered cautiously around the pub. Something heavy seemed to move beneath the surface of her mind. Jonny could feel it, like a great shadow as the pair was enveloped in a moment of deep reflection.
In that quiet space, Jonny heard that mesmerising tune again. It’s magical quality playing just at the edge of his senses and tantalising him with a joy he hadn’t experienced for a long time. Ness was listening to it as well and he wondered if anyone else in the pub could hear it to.
Ness was looking around the pub again. She peered closely at Jonny, taking in his beard; his greying hair and; the deep wrinkles gathering around his eyes.
He felt she was about to say something profound.
“You’re taking the piss!” she concluded. And the moment was gone.
“Plus that beard, Jonny, makes you look like a paedo!” She cackled with her characteristic lack of tact that every loved her for.
“So the others aren’t here anymore?” Ness blustered on. “Bloody lightweights! It’s just like that time in Corfu. Do you remember that holiday?”
Jonny smiled as other long forgotten memories resurfaced. That had been a wicked holiday. Back in those fun carefree days life had few complications. Nothing like the pressures he faced today running a huge company. Jonny welcomed the window opening out onto his misspent youth. He sat there enjoying the warm memories of those day trips to Alton Towers; the beach; Cheddar Gorge, and of the horrendous journeys in Ness’s dodgy little Mini. Then of course, there were those fancy-dress parties at New Year and that famous Care bear outfit! Sadly, those days were long gone now, he acknowledged with regret.
“They’ll want to start dancing again” Ness said quietly, bringing Jonny back to the present.
“Already?” Jonny asked in alarm.
“Don’t worry” Ness reassured him. “Wait here and I’ll bring them inside”.
She picked up her cigarette again and held it in her mouth. The barmaid gave her another witchy look and Jonny had to tell her that people couldn’t smoke in pubs anymore. Ness huffed in disbelief and hopped off her barstool.
“I’ll be back in a minute” she said over her shoulder. He watched her bob up and down through the crowded pub towards the beer garden. He wanted to stop her but he was still paralysed from the shock of seeing her again.
Ness was near the door now and as it opened out onto the beer garden a flash of light was reflected onto the antique plaque behind the bar. Jonny read its ancient warning again and he wondered about that distant tune. He wasn’t sure if he could still hear it or if he was just remembering it, but the notes seemed to be singing in his mind again. He felt drawn by the playful melody as if it were calling to him, inviting him to join others in an endless celebration that would take him far from here.
A sad smile passed over him.
Ness was with them now; the Merry Dancers. Still partying and having fun, enjoying her youth for all eternity. She wouldn’t come back. Of that he was certain. And he knew that if he joined her he would never return either. That alluring music was too enticing. He’d never heard anything like it. It somehow made him consider that, although he had gained many successes in his life, as well as prestige and influence; suddenly none of that seemed important anymore.
The band outside started up again with a rumbling intro to a classic song that Jonny recognised immediately. This powerful piece never failed to strike a chord within him and it often moved him to tears.
What the hell! He’d made up his mind.
“Ness! Wait up I’m coming” he called after her as a folk version of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now boomed out over the beer garden.
Andy loves writing short stories with a horror / supernatural flavour. Please visit blackcattales.weebly.com to see more of his work. Andy has had his stories published on other websites and local magazines in the New Forest, UK, where he lives with his beautiful wife and two amazing kids.