Chapter One: May Day

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Once upon a time, my Dad died.

That's not the start of a fairy tale. It isn't even a story, really. It's just something that happened one day. An ending. No magic. No monsters. No witches or princes or talking cats. Just the sound of the doorbell on a spring morning, and my mum's tears, and the horrible, hollow realisation that I'd never see him again.

It was never a fairy tale.

The first Monday in May is when I miss him most.

That Monday is a big deal in my hometown of Hastings. Years before I was born, the town decided to dedicate the day to the pagan tradition of Jack-in-the-Green, an ancient nature god who represents the wild darkness of the woods. He's ritualistically slain so that winter can end, and summer can begin.

In Hastings this means that a man dressed up like a big green bush leads a parade through town, from the tall black fishing huts on the seafront through the ramshackle houses of old Hastings, and on to the ruins of the Norman castle that overlooks the sea. The promenade fills with folk musicians and dancers dressed as forgotten gods and spooky spirits, and with huge papier- mâché puppets of dragons, devils, and giants. There are jugglers and drummers, fire-eaters and jesters, chimney sweeps and fiddlers, and they all dance down the High Street and along the prom. Revellers come from all over to jingle and jig, and men with wooden horse heads snap at children's ears like angry nutcrackers.

I used to find those guys terrifying.

That first Monday is a national holiday, so our town floods with tourists and overseas students, and leather-jacketed bikers who come down in their thousands for the London-to-Hastings rally.

The result is a good-hearted scrum that packs the town from seafront to hillside. And when the parade is over, poor Jack is torn to pieces on the castle grounds, and his leaves are thrown to the crowds.

And everyone buys fudge and jam at the market, and tickets for the raffle.

May Day is either a profound pagan tradition that goes back centuries, or a clever bit of tourist marketing that goes back about forty years.

Somewhere among the big bearded bikers eating periwinkles out of paper cups, and the sunburned families bruising their feet on our stony beaches, you could always find the Frazer family, waving off squawking seagulls as we try to enjoy our fish and chips.

Five years ago, when I was twelve and my brother Danny was fourteen, Danny got to be part of the parade. He wore the Jack-in-the-Green costume, which was just a tower of chicken wire covered in paper leaves and ribbons. He spun and skipped along the street while dancers with painted faces chased after him, clacking sticks and shaking bells. Jack's followers are 'bogies,' which is a type of goblin; a naughty forest fairy. They're also the ones who tear Jack apart.

That year was the first time in ages that Dad had been home to see the parade. It was also the last time he'd ever be there.

He died the following April from an explosion outside Kabul during a routine road survey.

I didn't want to see the parade after he died. Mum insisted. She said Dad would want us to go. He'd want us to remember how much fun we'd had together. He'd want us to smile again.

So, we went. And I smiled. And I cried.

And we went again the next year, and the next, and the next—always with Dad in our hearts. I'd come to look forward to it. It was one of the ways we could remember him.

But this was the last year. In a few months my brother would be stationed overseas with the Army Corps of Royal Engineers, and I'd be away at university, if I got my grades.

I told Mum we should keep the tradition going. We should all come home for it, no matter what.

Mum said that was impossible.

"You should never keep doing things just because you've always done them, Ben," she said. "That's no way to go through life."

She told me we'd come up with other ways to remember him.

But knowing this was our last May Day together made me miserable.

I'd spent the morning failing to revise for an algebra paper three weeks away, and trying to put thoughts about May Day out of my mind. I couldn't concentrate. The studies were not going well. Half the time I was obsessing about where I might be in a year, and half the time I was staring out of the window and thinking about Dad.

He would never let a bright sunny morning like this go by unappreciated.

But before I could have some fun, I had to study. I promised myself I would not look up from my textbook until I'd read and understood the next two pages.

I got half a page before the windows rattled and the sunlight faded out of the day.

A bank of black clouds moved across the sky, and a powerful wind rustled the bushes on the hill. A discarded newspaper whipped into a dance along the street, and all at once it was dark as night outside. The wind cut through the house and sent a chill through my bones, and the world became eerie. Empty. Strange.

And then, just as quickly as the black clouds came, they pulled away. Sunshine was restored. The world was as it had been before, only a little too quiet now, without the roar of the wind.

None of this was normal. We don't get strange weather in Hastings. We hadn't even had a big storm in years.

My brother Danny was always more scientifically-minded than me, so I thought I'd ask him to make sense of what had just happened. But a note stuck to his bedroom door said, 'Gone to the Arm—call me when you're coming down.'

I checked my watch and realised it was gone midday, which meant we'd have to get going if we wanted to catch the parade. Forget the weather; we had fish and chips to eat.

I pulled out my mobile to give him a call, but there was no signal. That was odd. I always had signal at home.

I ran downstairs.

"Mum? We're going to be late!"

Mum didn't answer.

I assumed she must be in the kitchen on her laptop, neck-deep in spreadsheets, and drinking tea. Sure enough, there was a mug on the kitchen counter with a teabag tag hanging over the side. The electric kettle puffed steam, but it was switched off.

And there was Mum, sprawled on the kitchen floor.

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