“One of Us” by James Burt, read by Matt Fleming

Performed at “Crazy & Sane” on May 27, 2019.

The morning after, all the shops are closed, just as the signs had warned. Tourists from the campsite wander about, looking for food or coffee. They assumed someone would be about; but the shops, even the pubs and cafes, are locked up and dark. I watch them give up, deciding to drive hungover to the next village. I could ask any of these visitors for a lift out of the village, and then I could call the police from somewhere safe. If I wanted to.

I walk as far as the bridge and don’t feel any better. Among everything else, the Appledon Festivities involved a lot of booze. I feel rough, but I can never sleep through a hangover.

It had started with a letter from an Appledon, who had found me through an online DNA test. He said that my birth-sister had just passed away and I’d inherited her cottage. I joked with colleagues about the solicitor being named Mr. Bones, but called him anyway, just in case. Mr. Bones himself picked up, no secretary: there was a little village festival in a couple of weeks – why didn’t I come then and meet everyone? The Appledon Festivities are famous throughout the country, he insisted. It sounded like a good idea.

Hungover on the high street, I bump into Mr. Bones. When I first met him, I thought he might be the oldest person I’d ever seen. Last night he’d been naked, but for a crown of antlers, his body painted with a dark brown dye that I guess must have been woad.

He shakes hands with me. “Good morning! You’re up early.”

“Yes. I needed some fresh air.”

I don’t mention the night before, the visitor with his hands tied, being whipped with brambles by the pub’s landlady. This morning, we are back to being civilised.

“It is lovely, isn’t it? There’s nowhere quite like Appledon. I do hope you’ll take over the cottage. You’re fitting in very well.”

He clasps my shoulder then walks on. I know I should call the authorities and tell them what I’ve seen. But, even after one night, I’m not sure I want to give up my life here. The cottage has a garden; my flat in the city has a couple of cactuses I killed with neglect and haven’t thrown out. Here, I have a view of a field; back home my windows look out on a ruined factory, where drunks shout at night and keep me awake. After what I’ve seen, I’m not scared. Instead, it makes me feel as if I’ve been accepted.

I unlock the cottage and take my shoes off in the hallway. My cottage. My home. It is the sort of place you’d imagine retiring to, if things went well – if you could afford to retire. My adopted parents had raised me as well as they could, but student loans, high rents and low pay held me back. Yet it looked as if things had somehow worked out. Even after what I’d seen, could I give this up?

The day before the Appledon Festivities, I went straight from the station to Mr Bones’ office. As well as not having a secretary, he had no computer and his rotary phone was so old-fashioned it would have been sold as an antique. We chatted about the journey while he looked for the cottage keys. “You’re going to like it here in Appledon. It’s quite a place.”

He had shown me into the cottage and told me to get myself settled. “Someone will come and find you during the Festivities. We have a special ceremony afterwards – but don’t mention it to anyone as it’s for locals only. You must join us.”

That evening, as the summer day faded to night, I bought cider from a stall and watched the parade. There were groups of Morris dancers, costumes, bangers, and a giant puppet. Visitors took pictures and uploaded them to social media. I felt relaxed for the first time in weeks.

As the girls from the village school scattered rose petals at the end of the procession, I felt a hand on my shoulder. The man behind me was huge, faded tattoos on his massive forearms. “I’m Bob,” he said. “I run the butchers: Butcher Bob. We have a little thing for residents only if you want to come along?”

He offered me his hip-flask as we walked towards the mansion house at the village edge. Two security guards stood at the gates wearing hi-vis jackets, hired in for the occasion. I wasn’t expecting more than some food and more drink, a chance to escape the tourists. I followed Bob along the path, not towards the house but into the orchard. In the distance, I could hear the pub’s sound system, keeping the visitors entertained. The landlady was here with the rest of us, leaving some temp staff to run the place. Nobody from outside would realise that the whole village was in the grounds of the house.

Everyone crowded into a clearing, in front of a tree that was decorated with strips of cloth, a cow’s skeleton laid out in front of it. I don’t know if Butcher Bob’s hip-flask was spiked, but I remember very little of what followed. I remember Mr Bones leading the ceremony. I remember the antler head-dresses, and the Old Dancers, doing a very different performance to the one I’d seen before, drawing thin lines of blood with the ceremonial swords. And I remember Butcher Bob, leading the sacrifice into the clearing. The man wore a suit and, when the gag slipped, he yelled angrily rather than begging: “I’ll sue you! I’ll sue you! All of you!”

I woke up in my cottage, arms aching, not sure what else had happened, but knowing nothing would be the same.

I knew that I should report what had happened. I made coffee, it got cold, I poured it away and made another. I might have sat there all day if someone hadn’t banged on my door. I opened it to see Butcher Bob, his bulk filling the doorway. He grinned, looking so happy that he didn’t seem threatening.

“I wanted to come and see how you were,” he told me. “I know what you think, that you’re a newcomer. But you were Karen’s brother. Even if you weren’t raised here, you are one of us.”

“I appreciate that,” I said. “I really do.”

He walked to the dresser and touched a name and date that was etched into the wood. “Me and Karen did this,” he told me. “Your Mum went ballistic. We thought it made the place more atmospheric.”

He was close to crying, and I realised I was too.

“Will you stay?” asked Bob

What did I have to go back to? A collection of friends, who were mostly old colleagues I couldn’t get rid of? My flat above the kebab shop, all those creaking steps to climb every day? Here in Appledon, I had a place, I was Karen’s brother. Watching an innocent man brutally sacrificed by people dressed as forest creatures just once a year seemed a small price to pay for a home.

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