It’s not quite the Midwinter Solstice yet — that’s on the 21st. But it’s half-way through the week, and past the half-way point through the month, three quarters of the way to Christmas…
So now seems like a good time to think about rebirth and renewal, as embodied in the tragi-comic figure of John Barleycorn, whose story is told in this ballad:
There’s more about him in Part Two of ‘Jim Bloom’s Van’, a story that first appeared in my collection Last Stop Wellsbourne, which you can purchase here. For a recap, in Part One of the story, Wellsbourne Council gardener Sam Jordan has just found out that his colleague Simon Rugby is in intensive care after a mishap with an aerating machine…
Jim Bloom’s Van, Part Two.
How the hell had he managed to do that?
Simon had somehow become trapped underneath the aerating machine. It reminded Sam of those news stories where someone runs themselves over with their own car. He’d never understood how that happened either, but it did.
He was no stranger to the perils of using horticultural machinery himself, after almost losing a thumb when his hand became caught between a hefty Ferris mower and a wall when he’d got too close and been unable to find the cut-out switch in time to stop it. Then there were minor eye injuries sustained while hedge cutting, from flying debris. Finally, actual mishaps aside, there was the general wear and tear on the muscles from prolonged machine usage that gradually took its toll on your body. Rheumatism, arthritis, hand-arm vibration.
But this was a new one on him. Aerators have a system of rotating plates, each with nine pointed spikes for making air-holes in the turf. Picking one up once, when removing it for cleaning, Sam had been unnerved by how sharp they were.
Imagining his colleague perforated like a Tetley tea-bag, he nodded, unsurprised though shaken, when Bone told him at lunch time the lad hadn’t made it.
“Jim Bloom?” said Maz. “Knew him? I went to his wake. But everyone was there—well, all the freaks anyway. What a party! People dancing in the woods up near the recreation ground. Naked…”
Sam’s dealer broke off to take the spliff his customer had handed him. It was mid-afternoon. Bone had gone home early out of respect for the dead, saying he was taking compassionate leave until further notice. Confused because the same hadn’t happened when news of Bloom’s death had reached them, Sam had asked what he and Paul should do. “Do what you want, mate,” the foreman had said indifferently and left. His two subordinates followed suit not long after, Sam deciding there was nothing for it but to go and get stoned. The dealer had greeted him, responding to his comment about what a shit month January was by saying something about “the time of Janus, the two-faced one.” Thinking of the way he’d treated his late colleague in the past, Sam had begun to wonder if this was a dig on Maz’s part. Probably just paranoia.
“Fuck! In December?” he replied to the dealer’s description of the wake, blowing out a mouthful of smoke. “Must have been off their tits on something, yeah?”
Maz nodded, passing the joint back, his eyes watery and bloodshot. The sweet, heavy aroma laced the dealer’s small flat.
“At one point, I went for a piss and found a couple doing it in the mud.”
“Yin and yang style, if you catch my drift…”
Sam thought about the image.
“Noshing each other off?”
“Funny way to mourn somebody,” Sam remarked.
“If I knew Jim, he’d have wanted his mates to enjoy the Saturnalia, to keep his memory alive like.”
“Right,” said Sam, staring at the ash tray.
The whole idea of “mates” and Jim Bloom in the same sentence was a new concept for him, let alone the thought they might join together to celebrate his life with bawdy revelry. No, he thought, allowing his cynical everyday self to over-ride any starry-eyed notions the substance he was smoking might encourage: more likely they were the types of wasters who’d use any excuse to get off their faces.
Not like him, he reminded himself, sitting here toking away with one of those same wasters! And all because one of his colleagues had managed to get himself killed on the job. He wondered how many people would turn up to Simple Simon’s funeral. Apart from Fred Bone. His befuddled brain suddenly became aware of the background music.
“What’s this playing?” he asked his host.
“Traffic,” Maz replied.
“Yeah, but what’s the name of the track?”
“‘John Barleycorn.’ An old, old song. Goes waaaayyyy back…”
Maz’s bloodshot eyes stared at him, his yellow teeth grinning, stubbing out the spliff husk in the ash tray.
“Why?” the dealer asked.
“Nothing,” said Sam, remembering the whistling in the dark. It was the same tune, wasn’t it? Or maybe he was just feeling suggestible because of the dope, whose miasma shrouded the dingy room. “So what else did they get up to in the woods?”
“Oh, just a lot of mumbo jumbo mainly, the kind of stuff he was into. I’m not a believer myself. But I respect what they were doing, laying him to rest out there. It’s the natural way.”
“What? Scattering his ashes in the woods and that?”
“His ashes? Oh no! They buried him out there whole, man. No ‘scattering’ about it. But there was a whole load of chanting, people going all Glasto and smearing themselves in mud and stuff. Your turn to skin up…?”
Things had become a little hazy after that, understandably. He vaguely recalled Maz spouting something about the legends of the place and what other, more ancient inhabitants had buried up there, long before Bloom’s dippy, hippy mates had planted him there. The dealer, his eyes wild and red-rimmed, had ranted on about it for a while—how it was once the boneyard for the denizens of the Iron Age hillfort nearby, how there was a reason why it had earned the name “Wakeman Recreation Ground.” Sam couldn’t remember much more than that, apart from some drivel about “eyes in the trees” and “whispers from the soil.” That must have been the wacky baccy talking, but it seemed pretty way out even considering that, especially coming from someone who claimed he didn’t buy into all the occult bullshit. Whoever had made the funeral punchbowl must have spiked it with LSD or something.
All the same, he couldn’t resist googling “John Barleycorn” when he got back home.
“There were three men came out of the west, their fortune for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn should die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in, cast clods upon his head,
Till these three men were satisfied John Barleycorn was dead.”
Something about the words unnerved him. Maybe it was the number of John Barleycorn’s persecutors, though he told himself to put that thought right out of his head, like right now. Don’t even go there.
Then there was the way, after his ordeal—the burial in the ground, the binding to a cart, the pricking with pitchforks, the hacking up with scythes and so on—the song’s hero kept coming out on top:
“Little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl and the brandy in the glass,
Little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl proved the strongest man at last.”
But that was the trouble with looking at stuff like this when he was stoned. It made him anxious, paranoid. And the problem with that was he needed to get more stoned to take his mind off it.
Obviously not enough, because when he went back to work a couple of days later, he found himself whistling that damned tune. He didn’t even know he was doing it until Bone said, “Give it a rest—you sound like Whistling fucking Jim!”
“Sorry, Boney,” he said.
“You fucking will be if I hear you doing that again.”
The foreman stormed out, leaving him to exchange meaningful looks with Paul.
“Don’t mind him,” his colleague said. “He’s still cut up about Si. It’s made him a bit edgy. Thinks someone’s been playing silly buggers with the machines to get at him. Reckons that’s why the accident happened.”
Sam glanced out of the mess hut to see the foreman fuelling up a chipping machine, a lighted roll-up hanging from his mouth.
“Fucking hell,” he muttered, wondering if sabotage was any more of a factor in Simon’s death than the generally sloppy safety standards here. He ought to say something, but he didn’t dare, the mood his foreman was in.
By some miracle, Bone finished refuelling the machine without turning into a human fireball in the process. Sam began loading the van with Christmas trees from the pile near the yard, which had grown to gigantic proportions while the three of them had been on “compassionate leave.” As he did so, Fred and Paul moved the chipper so that Flock could start feeding smaller trees directly into it, pointing it at a nearby border so its chippings could land straight on the bare soil around the shrubs. Tying the trees down on the flatbed, Sam drove away, glad to escape the tense atmosphere of the yard.
They broke off late that morning to attend Simon’s funeral. Closed coffin of course. Simon’s mother thanked them for attending. Sam could see why. They’d doubled the numbers.
The next day was Thursday, two days after Simon’s accident. The dumped trees were piling up in the yard. Sam went for a piss before setting off in the van.
“Off to shake hands with the unemployed, mate?” Bone called after him, drawing crude laughter from Flock.
He seems to have cheered up, thought Sam as he relieved himself. Amazing how quickly things get back to normal after a tragedy.
He could hear Bone congratulating himself.
“Good one, eh, Flocky?”
Remembering Tuesday afternoon spent in bed with Rosie, smoking weed and literally fucking about, he knew there was no substance to Bone’s jibe.
“Where d’you think you’re going?” the foreman demanded as he made for the van.
“To take some more Christmas trees up the tip.”
“No, not today. I want you on marking out up Wakey. I’ll get Flocky to feed the trees into the chipper like yesterday.”
“But it’s still dark,” he objected.
“It’ll be light by the time you get there.
“Not scared are you?” The foreman sneered.
“No,” protested Sam, wiping all traces of alarm from his face.
It was far from light by the time he got there.
Maybe that was why he took the risk of driving onto the field to get as close as possible to the football pitch he needed to mark out. He averted his eyes from the woods that held Bloom’s remains if he was to believe Maz. But the dealer had said some pretty mad things. “Haven’t you ever heard the stories about why it’s called Wake-man Re-creation Ground, Sam?” he’d said, eyes pink as an albino rabbit’s, pronouncing every syllable of the name to give it a sinister meaning. “Of course I don’t believe all that mumbo jumbo,” he’d added, the words coming back to mock Sam, who didn’t either, except when he was in a field daylight still stubbornly refused to touch, within spitting distance of his dead colleague’s improperly buried cadaver.
Best not to think about it. Best to get on with his work. But as he began mixing up the whitener, his work mobile phone rang with Bone’s number.
The foreman’s voice was quiet, unusually so.
“He’s after us,” he said.
“What d’you mean?” Sam asked. “Who’s after us?”
“He’s got Flocky now.”
“Flocky?” Sam repeated dully. “What’s happened to him?”
“The wood chipper happened to him. Remember how that dickhead Bloom was always saying how we should use organic fertiliser rather than chemicals….”
Bone’s voice sounded tinny, cavernous and on the verge of hysterical laughter.
“Well, he’s got his wish now. Flocky’s all over that shrub border now! All over it…”
“What the fuck are you on about, Boney?” he shouted, over his foreman’s peels of twisted merriment.
The line went dead.
He let out a sigh. Bone hadn’t been making sense. He couldn’t have meant Bloom was after them. He was dead for fuck’s sake! But what had happened to Flock? The foreman hadn’t made that clear, though Sam had some nasty suspicions. If they were correct, he might as well start heading back. The marking out would have to wait. There was no way he was staying here, even if it was almost light now.
Yet that very illumination now showed him his mistake. Despite the murky fog that lingered, leaching away the daylight, he could now see how waterlogged and muddy it was in the part of the field where he’d pulled to a stop. It was likely the van was stuck and would need towing free. He started punching in the foreman’s number, then stopped, dreading his reaction when he told him what had happened.
He tried moving the van. The wheels just spun round, digging deeper and deeper grooves in the mud.
But he mustn’t panic. If the worst came to the worst, he might just have to sit tight here for a bit.
Nothing for it but to ring the foreman and get him to arrange a tow.
No answer. It went straight to answerphone. In any case, Bone might well be too preoccupied with whatever had befallen Flock to answer it, let alone deal with Sam’s predicament. He would just have to try again in a few minutes.
It was so quiet here.
But not totally silent. There was that whistling for a start.
Very faint, in the distance, too quiet to make out the tune yet, but unmistakeably whistling. And coming closer. He looked out to see who was there, thinking to ask them for help. Maybe all the van needed was a push. Unlikely, unless the whistler had enormous strength, but from what he could see of the faintly-outlined figure, he was extremely thin and moving laboriously, as if each step were a painful effort.
He couldn’t see the face, shrouded in fog and shaded by a battered straw hat with some kind of garland around its wide brim, but he could hear the whistling more distinctly now. It had a hissing, distorted quality, as if the whistler were struggling to force air through a misshapen mouth full of broken teeth.