The stall seemed to be manned by a tall good-looking guy in blond dreadlocks and a girl with long red-gold hair, a great figure and a loose purple dress ...
It was our first visit to the Green Festival. In past years I'd learned about it after the event, or we were doing something else, or ... well, anyway, this year we went along: my wife Pamela, son Michael and stepdaughter Emma.
When we arrived there seemed to be plenty going on. Lots of stalls and tents, noise and people. Our first priority, though, was food: somewhere to sit and eat the picnic we'd brought with us. We found a suitable spot close by a huge felled tree that was providing children with a makeshift and ecologically sound climbing frame. We attacked our picnic with good-natured greed to the accompaniment of the loud, live, 70s music emanating from a marquee somewhere close behind us.
My first hunger pangs assuaged, I sat back to take in the surroundings and indulge in a little people-watching. Perhaps from a desire on the part of parents to remain within hailing distance of their newly arboreal offspring a clear, roughly circular area around the Tree was circumferenced with other little grass-sitting groups like ours.
Looking closer at some of these groups, though, I realised it was unlikely they were all parentally motivated. Some of them seemed too young to have children of their own. The plastic beer glasses and trademark khaki and camouflage attire proclaimed many of these to be students (I have been a student myself, I can say these things). Perhaps, I pondered, there were other, more primitive, totemic forces at play about this Tree.
Half an hour later, our picnic eaten and our bodies refreshed, the four of us set off to explore. Too many sights to describe properly. Hot and cold food of every description and cuisine, mostly veggie and richly spiced. Stands promoting the WWF, garden composting, Freedom to Roam and varied uses for hemp. Second-hand and ethnic clothes (a big attraction for Pam and Emma). Honey sticks. Foxglove cuttings for 25p each. "Can I have one, Dad?" No, Mike, they're poisonous. "I know that. Can I have one?"
We bumped into a friend of ours who we'd not seen for some months. Chatting away, following the direction our children were taking through the trees, Pamela, Cal and I found ourselves all at once in a secluded clearing.
I write "secluded" and it is an uncomplicated word. No doubt the image it conjures for you approaches how things first appeared to us as we entered the space. Yet it is worth a moment's elaboration because, looking back, the seclusion of the place was its very essence.
My word processor's dictionary defines the verb seclude as "To set apart from others / To screen from view." Well, the belt of trees through which we had just passed certainly screened us visually from the rest of the Festival - and screened the rest of the Festival from us. Looking back I could see nothing of the bustle and bright colours, tents and stalls and people we had just left. Only the trees. Not even a lamppost.
We were less effectively screened from the sounds of the music playing outside. Yet even so there seemed to be a certain - attenuation - that is hard now for me to describe. The sounds came through to us, but it was as if their brashness and volume and nearness were being filtered out, leaving just the music's essential poetry. The beat and message crossed the half hundred feet of sparse woodland as readily as it had traversed the twenty or thirty years since most of it was laid down.
All of this is in retrospect, of course. At the time it just seemed like a nice place to be. The three of us found a place to sit. While the children explored and Pamela and Cal talked I looked about.
The clearing was perhaps thirty feet by fifty: an irregular ellipse delimited by the trees on one side and on the other by a swathe of large bushes bordering the park. A number of tents - signs on a couple pronounced them to be yurts - had been erected against the bushes. The Healing Yurt. The Quiet Yurt. The entrance flaps on most of these were closed but on the one closest to us they had been left tantalisingly parted. Inside it looked quiet and peaceful and part of me wanted to crawl inside and rest. But a stronger urge to caution held me back.
A number of other people sat or lounged about on the grass. Off to the right a group were seated on bales of straw about a small wood fire. I watched with pride, a little parental caution and not a little envy as Mike walked over to watch the flames and was soon chatting away to one of the women. I felt Outside.
More or less directly across the clearing a kitchen stall boasted a fiercely vegetarian cuisine. Strung between branches overhead a broad shimmering silk banner proclaimed the legend "Home Eleven". I wondered if it was the name of the kitchen or of the site itself. A strange name, in either case. The stall seemed to be manned by a tall good-looking guy in blond dreadlocks and a girl with long red-gold hair, a great figure and a loose purple dress.
Maybe I was staring because the girl looked up suddenly, catching my eye. She turned to Dreadlock, said a word or two, then smiled across the clearing in my direction. I smiled back feeling strangely - inordinately - elated. Not (just) because a pretty girl had smiled at me but because her smile seemed to include me in everything that was happening in that place. Instantly, I felt Inside. Then someone wandered over to the kitchen and she turned away to serve them.
I lay back in the sun and closed my eyes. I felt totally at peace now. More simple words but I'd read what "at peace" feels like and this was it. Seclusion. The music coming to me through the trees and down the years. The sound of my wife and our friend talking beside me. Now and again a delighted shriek from Emma and Mike as they played. I tried to remember other times I'd felt that good.
After a while I sat up again and took out my camera, carefully composing one of my panoramic series of overlapping pictures. I stood up and wandered off with the intention of taking some more. At the edge of the clearing I took another series of shots, panning around the site. Ginger was still at the kitchen and I framed the picture, planning to take one to remember her by. Then someone moved beside me. Lowering the camera found Dreadlock staring at me.
"Her name's Ellen," he said flatly. I felt embarrassed but after a moment he smiled broadly and extended his hand. "And I'm Kai."
"Martin," I said, smiling back. Kai had the same all-encompassing smile as Ellen and, whatever they thought of me I felt no offence had been taken. Kai turned back to gaze across the clearing. I looked at him more closely. I have said he was tall, blond. But close-to, what I noticed most about him, apart from his hair and that smile, were his eyes. Deep, wood-smoke grey. Eyes that seemed inordinately alive.
In fact his hair was not dreadlocked but tightly and intricately braided. He was dressed in a patchwork waistcoat of green and brown velvet over baggy cord pants. On a silken cord at his side hung a slim silver pipe, like a penny whistle but of much finer work. Another touch of silver was the inch-long leaf shaped brooch on his waistcoat. It might have been a beech leaf. I'm not that hot on trees.
A strange character, certainly, with the air of a Pied Piper. Fey. I couldn't guess what or who he might lead off with that pipe, though.
"Are you hungry?" Kai asked. I might have been but I didn't want to spoil the moment. I was also still a bit wary of walking up to the girl - Ellen.
"No thanks. Not at the minute."
I didn't know what else to say. I felt rather in awe of him, to be honest. A part of me has always felt a romantic attraction for the kind of life I imagined Kai and Ellen enjoyed. When he spoke next, he might have been reading my mind.
"We move around the country, from fair to fair, festival to festival."
"You are Travellers, then?"
"We - travel, yes."
"What do you do in the winter. I mean, when there aren't any festivals?"
"There are always festivals, Martin. If you know where to look."
Once again there was silence. I guessed Kai was waiting for me to speak. I felt it was important for me to say the right thing.
"All this - the feel of the place - it reminds me of Glastonbury." Kai still didn't speak. I wondered if he knew what I meant. "The Festival, you know?"
"Yes, we are at Glastonbury. Every year."
Memories flooded over me, as though someone had pressed the PLAY button. Those two long, hot weekends at Glastonbury had been so important to me. What do they call such things - seminal? Me and my three closest friends in the world. The two years' Festivals were different, of course.
The first was a totally new experience for me: like waking up one day on another planet. A planet that intuitively felt like Home - and yet, on which I wandered like an Outsider amongst innumerable, wonderful aliens. No, "Observer" would be a better word. I had wanted to Belong, so much, but hadn't quite dared to let go.
One year later: Glastonbury 84 with the same three friends, now at the end of our years together at University and about to move out into the world. The weekend of sun and music marked that transition: its wonder and strangeness now even more wonderful and strange - and even more remote. Kai didn't speak for a while. Until my thoughts had come full circle and returned me to the music and drumming of the clearing in the park.
"It is good, Martin, that you feel these things about a place. Not many people do."
"I guess so," I said, lamely.
"What do you feel?"
"Yes, right now. What does this place feel like to you, Martin?"
I knew the question was important. But not as important as my answer might be. I looked around the site again. Carefully. Trying to see. To feel. The group of students lounging on the grass in front of the kitchen. Another group off to the right, playing at rhythm on a set of bongos (had they brought them with them?) One guy had one of those huge multicoloured felt top hats that in any other setting would have been ridiculous but here made him seem to Belong. Across the clearing my wife sat, still talking with Cal. Somewhere close by - every now and then I could hear them - my children played, weaving new friendships and games out of smoke and sunshine.
"It feels like coming home," I said.
Another pause. After a full minute, as I was about to speak again, Kai continued.
"For some of us, Martin; for some of us there is no coming home. Then one must make the most of where one is."
"'Home is where the heart is', you mean?" As I heard my words I cringed. They sounded so corny.
"Something like that, yes."
Kai went silent again and looked away from me across the clearing. I wondered if my unintended flippancy had annoyed him. Suddenly, it was important to me that it should not have. I glanced across at him. In the short time since we had met, his face, and especially his eyes, had been bright and alive - Present was the word that occurred to me. Now, though, those grey eyes were undeniably Distant, as if beneath the trees he saw other faces and heard a different music.
I followed Kai's line of sight and met Ellen's gaze again. Only this time it was not me she was staring at but Kai. No, not staring: it was as if the two of them were joined by their shared look. I knew, suddenly, instinctively and without any sense of surprise, that Ellen was experiencing whatever Kai was seeing behind his distant eyes. And I sensed that neither of them were anywhere near as young as they had first appeared.
Their intensity unnerved me. I was getting into something deep. Something was happening around me. Something that might include me, if I dared to let it.
A loud laugh from Mike caught my attention and I glanced across in the direction of the fire. He was there, with Emma and a little girl they seemed to have made friends with. All was well. Then I noticed two of those sat around the fire were staring across at us. At Kai. The man's long hair, dark grey peppered with white like a frost upon slate, cascaded about the shoulders of a blue robe. I'd have put his age at maybe fifty, though in retrospect I am not so sure.
His companion appeared a woman of similar years. She wore a dark green dress. Her hair, though, showed no sign of age and shimmered like gold in the sunlight which fell upon her through the trees above. For a moment she turned to her companion and I caught a flash of silver from a brooch at her breast.
I shook my head. What was going on? Who were these strange people? Assuredly, they were not Outsiders like me and Pamela and Cal and the students still drumming in the centre of the clearing. The four of them Belonged here.
I looked at the drummers. They all seemed intent upon their music and paid me no heed. The rest of the people about the fire the same. Outsiders, too. The drumming was getting to me, nevertheless, and I glanced back at the players. One of them stood up - the guy in the big felt hat. Taller and older than he had appeared sitting down, he seemed to be leading the others in the rhythm.
For just a moment he looked over in the direction of Ellen, who was still stood at the counter of the kitchen stall. As he caught her gaze the pulse of his drumming paused agonisingly. A glint of silver again, this time upon the brim of his huge, ridiculous hat. Then he sat back down and brought the drumming about him to a crescendo of thrumming sound.
Kai moved beside me and I glanced back at his face. The distant look had gone and he was Present again. The drumming stopped short amid laughter and cheers from those taking part in the music.
"Are you sure you wouldn't like something to eat?" Kai asked me.
"Okay," I replied this time. "Yes, I am hungry."
Kai led me across to the kitchen.
"Ellen," he began. "This is Martin. He'd like something to eat. Can you fix him something?"
"Of course. What would you like, Martin?" She gave me another of her smiles, but this time its effect on me was more normal. I blushed deeply.
"You choose. Please."
I watched Ellen moving - easy, graceful - as she fixed me what looked like a piece of plain bread on a platter of leaves. I'd rather had my eye on the gooey-looking vegan chocolate cake. As she handed it to me I glimpsed what I now more than half expected to find. At her belt a silver brooch just like Kai's.
"Thanks. The bread looks good."
I bit into the bread and almost choked in surprise. It was delicious, far better than it appeared. Ellen laughed out loud.
"It's great!" I exclaimed.
"I'm glad you like it. Good, simple, food means a lot to us."
Us. I looked round for Kai, but he seemed to have vanished. The older couple were still sat by the fire, but were paying no attention to anything beyond the dancing flames. I finished the bread: it was easily the most wholesome food I'd ever tasted.
I knew it was time to go. That whatever it was that had happened, had happened and was over. And yet I also knew something had changed for me. In an important way I had been allowed Inside something big and wonderful. Nothing could be quite the same again. I handed back the leaf platter.
"Thank you, Martin. Here, take this leaf in return." And with that Ellen unclipped the brooch from her waist and placed it in my hand.
"I don't know what to say," I began. "But - thanks!"
I made to leave. To join my family and the Real World again.
"Just one thing," I began, turning back to Ellen and nodding to the branches overhead. "Why does the banner say 'Home Eleven'?"
She looked up; paused for only a moment before replying.