In a field.
On the edge of a town.
In a country. It doesn’t matter which.
Something was going on: something unusual.
My eyes were opened that day, when the unusual happened, and I learned to smile again.
The unusual event occurred because of the actions of a young girl named Tabitha. Tabby, as her parents liked to call her, was nine at the time and very much enjoyed all the standard activities of any other nine year old girl from her home town: arm wrestling, breeding leeches and baking wholefood Halloween cupcakes all year round. Tabby was also fascinated with the world around her – with plants and hedges and what life was like down the drains.
But Tabby lived in town. Yes, there were hedges but they were usually neatly trimmed privet or towering conifer screens. Yes, there were plants, but not the ones she was hoping to see – the hemlock, the meadowsweet and the elder. She was, I am sure you’ve worked it out by now, training herself to become a hedgewitch – a person whose knowledge of nature and use of home-made potions give her the skills to change the health and wellbeing of those who come to her for help.
But, Tabby was only nine years old, and all her friends went to the local doctor’s surgery or chemist when they were unwell. Nobody thought to ask Tabby what to take when their throat was sore (and she knew – a confection of sages and honey and yarrow would do the trick) or when their heart raced too speedily (that was one she’d yet to learn).
So, Tabby became disheartened: a healer not allowed to heal. Here she was, with all these useful skills and all this incredible knowledge and nobody seemed to care. It sometimes made Tabby cry, but other times she wanted to run away and leave the city for somewhere a little more sympathetic.
But where could a nine year old girl go when her very youth forces her to stay with her parents? And if she was to depart, what would she do when she got there?
It took a great many days, but soon enough Tabby forgot about escape, and forgot about witchery. Instead she settled into her schoolwork and began to build up her arm muscles for better wrestling.
One day a speaker arrived at her large, red-brick junior school surrounded by high fences and security systems. He followed the head teacher into assembly and took the green chair behind her. Tabby looked in interest because this man didn’t look like a teacher or fireman or policeman (the school’s usual visitors). Instead, he looked shabby and a cross between a farmer and a circus performer. His hair, like Tabby’s, was a mass of springy black curls, and his clothes were brightly coloured and, though she hated to think of it, they were a bit silly.
He was the only person Tabby had seen who wore an embroidered waistcoat and a scarf round his neck when he wasn’t outside in the winter.
Nevertheless, Tabby impatiently listened to her head teacher burbling on about the child in year 6 who came top in a swimming competition, and the sad news that Hamish in year three was beginning his second round of chemotherapy. They all said a little prayer for Hamish, and Tabby joined in, but her heart wasn’t really in it. Come on, come on, she urged, but still… she and the speaker had to wait till the end of the head’s talk before any introductions were made.
The man was called Ted, and he owned a farm some 20 miles away and he was asking all the schools in a circle round his home to discover if there was any enthusiasm for a family festival to be held on his land. There would be music, food, circus skills and (and this interested Tabby the most) full training in natural healing. To Tabby it sounded like heaven on earth, and she raised her hand with enthusiasm when the head teacher asked for a handful of volunteers to stay behind after assembly to talk to Ted and give him suggestions.
The stay-behinders were few. Just the one – Tabby. Disappointingly, all the other kids laughed and one of them shouted ‘dirty hippy’ at Ted as he left the hall. Tabby waited patiently in her chair until all the children had left. Just her, the head teacher and Ted were in the room.
Ted walked up to her and sat down on the row of chairs in front. He offered his hand for her to shake. ‘Ted Tuesday,’ he said, ‘Festival Organiser. Perhaps’. Tabby grinned at him as she shook ‘Tabitha Frost,’ she said. ‘Trainee hedgwitch.’
And so their friendship began. That day Tabby gave Ted so many good pieces of advice, so much so that even the head teacher became fired up with enthusiasm. Because Tabby knew so much and come up with so many ideas, it was agreed that Ted would visit the school every Friday lunch time and that he, the head teacher and Tabby would work on the festival plan together. Tabby was delighted. It was what she had been born to do, and what every life moment till that point had been about. Her parents came in to meet Ted and came up with some good ideas too – a classical music area, a young performers’ tent, and a wholefood internet cafe.
Plans really were progressing, and Ted had even received official permission to hold the festival. A date was arranged – the final weekend in July, when most of the kids would have completed the school year and would be looking for something fun to do. Ted had designed and distributed posters and flyers and had created a website, linking it to Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, and all kinds of what’s on sites. It seemed that Tabby had a talent for promotion too as she handed out cards and flyers and even went on the local radio station to talk about it. Interest was growing, even within the walls of her dull school, so much so that six other children had volunteered to help over the weekend, and eleven full families had ideas – stalls selling everything from made-soap to imported musical instruments.
One family, Tabby observed, with great delight, actually made teepees, and they had offered to display their communal, conical tents. Tabby could barely think of anything else.
Finally, the end of school term was upon them, and the children ran happily from their classroom and towards the gates. Tabby was as keen and lively as the rest, because she had the festival to look forward to, but Ted was there, standing next to her dad, and both were looking very worried indeed. What on earth could have happened?
Ted’s usual smile was missing even as Tabby ran to him, her face saddening. ‘What’s wrong?’ shouted Tabby to Ted, but it was her dad who answered. She saw in his eyes that something bad had happened. Tabby’s first thought was that her unborn brother or sister was in trouble, but what dad said made her realise why Ted was the one looking so troubled.
‘I don’t think the festival can go ahead, Tabby,’ her dad said. ‘The field’s flooded and the council have looked at it and said no. It will be too dangerous for the younger children, as it causes and carried diseases. Basically, it really isn’t a good idea. Ted would get into so much trouble.’
Dad hugged Tabby’s shoulder and she sighed, patting Ted’s arm as she did so. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said, then immediately corrected her fake politeness. ‘Actually, yes, it really does matter. We’ve worked really hard on this festival. We need to do it even if the field is flooded.’
‘But we can’t,’ Ted said. ‘The field really is bad. You just missed the storms last night here, but we were in the middle of them. I just don’t know what to do.’
‘I’ll tell you what to do,’ said dad. ‘Come back to our house and we’ll all have a cuppa and think about how we might be able to get round this.’
Ted agreed and the three of them walked back to Tabby’s house. On their walk the grown-ups talked of many things – mainly finding alternative festival sites. They considered an old fairground, a school, a playing field etc, but all their suggestions were lacking in at least one necessary feature. Maybe they weren’t big enough, or there was no car parking, or there were no water taps, or they were too near a motorway or a residential area where people might complain at slightly later night noise.
By the time they got home, all three of them were downhearted, especially Tabby who took herself off to her room as soon as she had got in and taken her shoes off. It was hard to believe, she thought, just how different the weather was at the farm, because here things were dry and warm and the weather forecast said it would stay that way.
‘Wait a minute,’ Tabby shouted out loud, shaking the walls of her echoing room. She knew the very place for a new location – the enormous field her friend’s ponies were kept. Tabby ran downstairs to yell the idea to her dad and to Ted. ‘Jess’s field,’ she said, ‘…the pony field’. She’d said enough. Her dad and Ted looked at each other, and dad nodded. He went to make a call.
‘Jess’s mum says fine. They’ll put the four ponies in the horse box and bring them to your farm for the weekend. You pay for the feed and you clean up after. Either that, or they stay, and we offer them as a festival feature.’
‘Either is great. It’s a deal,’ agreed Ted. ‘Now I must get onto the council – they’ll need to come and look at Jessica’s pony field. What’s the address? What size is it? What facilities does it have?’
It didn’t take long for Ted to make a phone call and to rush off. ‘They’re coming now,’ he said on his way out. ‘I’d best go meet them.’ And with that, he rushed into the hall. ‘Thanks all,’ he shouted again. ‘Will give you a ring as soon as I know anything.’
Tabby went upstairs with both sets of fingers crossed. She was reluctant to uncross them even for a moment in case she jinxed the council person’s decision.
After three hours it was nearly time for Tabby to go to bed and the phone rang. ‘It’s on,’ Ted shouted. ‘It’s on. Start setup tomorrow, for the next three days, and we’re ready to go.’
Well, of course, Tabby was far too excited to sleep. There was so much to do, and best of all was that she was so close – only a five-minute-walk from the festival site.
The following morning was a whirlwind of packing vans, unpacking cans, putting up tents and tables, laying out stalls, sorting signs and partitioning the four fields that had been made available to them. The food vans, the portable toilets, the bands and entertainers and people running workshops – all were told about the change of address. Everything was going smoothly and everything was on track. The ponies were all settling in well to the spare field at Ted’s farm. It had been decided that at least two of them were too grumpy to be safe around young children.
Ted and Tabby were excited, but also nervous. There was so much that could go wrong – so many things that may have needed cleaning up and sorting out, but Ted seemed confident. He seemed it, but wasn’t really. He was a wreck. Everything that could possibly go wrong was there in his dreams actually going wrong.
Tabby woke up earlier than the birds the next morning, and got dressed without alarm clock or reminders. She appeared at the breakfast table as mum and dad had just begun to pack their breakfast in bags ready to take to Jess’s fields, or The Festival Field, as it was now known. It took more time than usual as mum was unwell and needed to keep sitting down, but they got there in the end.
Tabby had been to this field many times before but had never seen it like this. Flags and bunting: hundreds of flags all the same blue and silver and red flags strung from high posts. Gravel paths had been laid. There were tents and a large stage. There were all kinds of people there, and old-fashioned fairground rides – even an old fairground helter skelter. And Tabby certainly wasn’t too old to have a go on it.
Tents had been set up for kite-making, mask-making, and lots more crafts and circus skills, and already lots of people were arriving and buying food and clothes. A man on stilts was followed by a juggler on a horse, and behind a pile of wood logs was a mud pit, already being played in by a couple of dogs and some very grubby children.
Tabby gasped and adjusted her sunhat as she walked further through the site. Ah, she could smell them properly now: the candy floss and the rich, deep aroma or strong curry. Tabby licked her lips. Suddenly the sandwiches in mum’s bag didn’t seem half as appealing, despite her own hunger.
Someone bumped into her as she was walking, entranced by the smell of onions and hot dogs. When she turned to look it wasn’t what she had expected. She’d been bumped into by a large metal bed frame on skis, being pulled by a dog team of two teenagers. They were raising money to help a sick child, but Tabby had no money so smiled and walked on towards a group of groups of kids learning to juggle beanbags and wobble diabolos. There were ten swingball sets too.
Tabby didn’t even see Ted till the loudspeaker stopped playing the pop music and introduced the festival’s organiser onto the stage. He was wearing his patterned waistcoat and was introducing a couple who played guitar and flute. He gave Tabby a huge thumbs-up and invited her onto the stage, where she made a speech.
The festival was a huge success. A great success. A miraculous, dry success.
‘Same time next year?’ Ted asked Tabby as she set out to find her parents, on her way to the hot dog stall. She hadn’t forgotten her hedgewitchery and her need to heal, but what was more important was her need to be part of this amazing festival. Oh, and to eat lots and lots of junk food. Just for today.