This is my second re-write of my childhood story Midsummer Night. Midsummer Night (v2) made significant changes to the plot and structure of the original. This version changes the tense from past to present, and cleans up some of the excessive imagery imported from the previous version.
Simon lies awake, listening to the rain falling outside his window.
It is the eve of his eleventh birthday, and it is Midsummer’s night, the shortest night of the year. In Simon’s mind it is the most magical night, when you can hardly tell dusk from day, when the sun barely slips out of the sky before it is back again.
When the sun rises there will be a party, and presents, and cake, but Simon is really more excited about the night itself than the day to come.
As long as Simon can remember he has had a dream, that on Midsummer’s night something special happens, that the whole world changes - just for an instant - somewhere in the depths of that almost night. In previous years he has tried to stay awake and catch that moment, but always the half-light has lulled him to sleep and he has missed it.
Not this year.
By the side of Simon’s bed, a clock is ticking. The faintly glowing minute hand is edging closer to midnight, and Simon is far too excited to sleep. Outside the rain strokes the rooftop with thousands of little fingers; trickles soporifically down the drainpipes; patters a lullaby on the concrete of the backyard. It is so soft and gentle that it is hard for Simon to keep his eyes open, hard not to drift away dreaming of birthday presents - but he props his eyes open, sits up, stays awake.
Abruptly there is silence.
The hands of the clock have reached midnight. They hover over the number twelve, trembling, but do not move. Outside the rain has stopped. The world seems to be holding its breath.
Simon can hardly believe his eyes as a golden glow begins to gather at the edges of the window frame. It creeps across the ceiling of his bedroom, like the headlights of a car rolling to a stop outside, then floods down the walls — illuminating stuffed toys, bookshelves, discarded clothes. Along with the light comes a curious noise, the faintest creaking and popping, like the stealthy inflating of a bouncy castle.
Simon can’t keep his excitement in check a moment longer. He leaps out of his bed and runs to the window, bare feet slapping on the bedroom floor.
Outside the sky is dripping in colours. Flocks of clouds are stacked up so high above the horizon that he gets dizzy looking at them. They are full of light. Rainbows of old sunlight shimmer between cloud islands, and below them - closer to the horizon - the golden glow dances in the air, beckoning him on. When Simon throws open the window the air that floods in is rich and warm, and heavy with the scent of flowers.
There are plants unfolding all around the window, shedding the rain as they uncurl. Where, on any other night, there would be a few strands of sickly ivy clinging to the peeling slats of an equally sickly trellis, Simon can see vines like cables, leaves like dinner plates, heavy white blossoms the size of coffee pots. The trellis has been transformed into a scrollwork of iron that will be easy to climb.
Simon doesn’t hesitate. In an instant, he is out of the window and climbing down the trellis. He is so excited to see that his dreams are true that he doesn’t even stop to take off his pyjamas or put on his shoes.
Down at ground level, there are plants so large that Simon feels like an ant, crawling under their leaves. This should be the backyard, which is normally a cluttered square of concrete that leads onto the steep lawn and the trees beyond. Now it is a tangle of flowers as tall as houses.
There are leaves as big as golf umbrellas, with stems as thick as lampposts holding them up. They are beaded with silver raindrops the size of crystal balls, each with a little Simon reflected in them. He holds his breath, sure that if he breathes too loudly the dream will go away - but the flowers don’t vanish even when he touches them and so he goes on.
He walks past chair-sized strawberries, and shiny black aubergines as big as sofas. White berries as large as his head dangle down all around him. When he looks back he can hardly see the back wall of the house between the oversized leaves.
It is wet under the flowers - the pleasant dampness that follows on from summer rain. The air is rich with sweet scents: heavy, luxurious, sugary smells that seem to have colours and shapes. One bush smells orange, another violet, a third is bubblegum pink. Even the sounds seem to have colours. The dripping raindrops tinkle with silver, while the rustle of the unfolding leaves is black and velvety.
A little path winds between the tree-trunk stems, each side marked with a row of terracotta. It snakes its way along under the canopy of leaves, curving here and there, always uphill. The gravel of the path crunches under Simon’s bare feet as he walks — hiding the sound of other feet, little feet, that are creeping along behind him.
Simon doesn’t notice, he has eyes only for the view ahead.
He steps out onto the edge of an enormous lawn. Above, the sky has been cut into strips and dipped into colour. Simon thinks that it looks like the squares of old stained glass that sit over the front hall doorway. The light dyes the lawn a dozen colours, sinking into the banks of flowers around its edges. He stares into the half-light, trying to make out the line of trees, and the back wall, that ought to mark the end of the garden, but he cannot see anything other than islands of flowers and mountains of blossoms.
For what seems like hours he wanders, from one grove of flowers to another, through the shadows of curling ferns, over grass striped purple and magenta. He creeps into overgrown arbours, where crumbled sundials and lion-headed benches glimmer in the darkness, and under arches of stone filled with moths that are two hands big and as grey as dust.
Beyond the arches, Simon finally finds a line of trees — what must be an hour's walk away from home. The trunks are as thickly packed as the flower beds, their branches intertwined until the sky is almost hidden from view. The tiny gaps between the branches look like bits of broken glass. Underneath is only blackness.
Simon could go around, perhaps, but somehow the thought never crosses his mind. He has to go forward.
When he ventures onwards, Simon finds that there is light under the trees after all. There are oranges as big as grapefruit dangling from the branches, which glow with their own internal light. Looking straight up at the fruit Simon is shocked to see that there are leopards there, sprawled across the branches; one, two, five - watching him with amber eyes. In the orange light, they seem to smoulder, like molten bronze.
He shies away — frightened — almost turns back; but the leopards just watch and pant, their lolling tongues pale in the gloom. One yawns, a lazy stretch that reveals teeth as big as letter openers, and he rushes past them through the trees.
Behind him, unnoticed, little figures follow, pausing at each mark his feet have left on the multicolour lawn.
At last Simon reaches the other side of the trees. This is where the wall should be, back in his own tiny garden, but there is no wall here, only another vista, another marvel. It feels like he has been in the Midsummer garden forever, and yet no time at all. A corner of his mind remembers the clock on the bedside table, and wonders where the hands might be pointing now, but then the view catches him and he forgets.
Beyond the trees, the landscape opens up, endless and wonderful.
In the distance, there are mountains as dusky as the sky, suspended beneath clouds as massive as the hills. Between the mountains and the clouds, the sky is orange bright and indigo dark, shimmering with curtains of aurora green. Closer than the mountains, below the clifftop where Simon stands, there is a forested plain — thick with trees, and as dark as the night above. Great palaces thrust their rooftops through the canopy, and Simon sees turquoise domes and minaret spires, each glittering with their own trapped candle flames. There are rivers down in the darkness, sluggish and hot, that Simon can sense only from the slow turgid rumble of their waters.
Closer by, a spur of rock juts even higher than the cliff Simon is standing on. On its edge, a single Golden Palace is silhouetted against the night sky. Its high walls are pierced through with delicate fretworks of stars and flowers, through which the shining sky glimmers. Its needle towers are topped with balls of blue, and spikes of gold, that scrape gently against the sky above. They frame a golden dome that glows from within. Below the dome are dark walls filled with countless lighted windows. The sound of music and laughter drifts from within.
Between Simon and the palace, there is a path, edged with statues of boys and girls in fantastic poses. Their marble feet are hidden amongst tangled beds of overgrown flowers — normal sized for once — that have been laid along the clifftop. The statues are covered in tiny birds. They twitch and flutter as Simon creeps up the path, darting from statue to statue in front of him. Their wings are as bright as beetles’ shells, and Simon can hardly see the statues past their iridescent shimmer. When he steps close they rise up in a whirling cloud, filling the air with tumbling bodies.
Half-way up the path, someone has set a marble fountain in the centre of a circular platform with archways around it, but no roof. The path enters and leaves through two of these archways, and there are statues of children in the others, watching.
When Simon steps under one open archway a tiger emerges from the other. Vast and silent, with eyes of flame, it fixes him with its gaze and roots him in terror. When the tiger rounds the empty fountain, tail lashing, his legs turn to jelly.
He wants to run.
But something makes him hold his ground and the tiger turns away, soft-stepping its way between the flowers and the statues until it is gone.
This is Simon’s second warning, but he does not know it.
When he enters the palace atop the cliff he finds it strangely quiet. There is no sign of the music, or the people, he heard from outside. The rooms are dark and empty, lit only by the heavy golden light that seeps like honey through the fretwork shutters. The hot dark corridors are strung with paper lanterns that swing slowly in the night air, but none are lit.
For the first time since he left his bedroom, Simon cannot see the sky.
In the heart of the palace, Simon finds stairs, mahogany-dark and edged with railings. He puts bare feet on the steps and climbs, unaware that other figures are slipping through the doors behind him. When the stairs creak under his weight the sound masks their footsteps.
On the second floor, Simon finds empty rooms, shuttered tight. On the third, the rooms are filled with furniture, and the furniture has been carved into the shapes of fruits and flowers almost more lifelike than the ones he passed outside, what seems like a lifetime ago. When Simon puts his hands on the dresser knobs he finds them warm. The drawers stick, tug open, prove to be empty even of mothballs.
Simon goes from room to room, looking for an open window, but finds only antique mirrors as tall as himself. Their frames are bright, but their silver backs are crazed like the old mirror that sits in the garden shed, back in Simon’s house, and his reflection is indistinct. He looks inside a dozen drawers, finds dried flowers strewn on patterned paper, topiary designs inked on board, folios of garden plans pressed between heavy covers.
The fourth floor is the darkest of all, and for the first time, Simon thinks that he hears something down below, in the spiced shadows of the palace. A footstep on the stairs; the creak of a floorboard in a hall filled with cupboards.
No sooner has Simon heard these noises than he sees that there is a third cat sitting silently on the stairs ahead.
Not a leopard or a tiger, this time, but just a house cat. It is blue-grey and elegant, with knife-point ears and spark-blue eyes.
Somehow it is the most fearsome of all.
Simon can’t go forward; won’t go back.
He thinks that there are a hundred other things to see, a thousand ways to go. There are a dozen other palaces in the forest below, any one of which might be more fantastic than this one. He could run, jump into the wind, soar with the beetle-shell birds. But he remembers the glow of the golden dome, feels it lure him on, lifts his foot.
The cat looks down, uncurls its tail. Pads away.
This time he knows he’s been warned. Ignores the fact. Hurries on.
The topmost floor of the palace — under the dome — is a single room, with a polished floor and shutters that are thrown half open. Here there are golden screens that reflect the light, their surfaces decorated with butterfly wings, which have been plucked out and stuck down with varnish. They form a maze, so that for a moment he does not see the long table, laden with food, that sits in its centre.
A single candle burns in the middle of the table. The candlestick is brass — a lily flower on a fluted stem. Every other part of the table top is covered in dishes.
It is a feast beyond even Simon’s imagination. There are oranges and plums, strawberries and mangoes, peach slices and bananas by the dozen. There are fruits like yellow stars, sliced on beds of petals, and pears and nectarines candied hard with sugar.
There are are ices and jellies, cakes and pastries, sea stars and pickled eels, and fish swimming in a crystal urn. There are starlings in pies and lizards in aspic, pigs biting apples and roast ducks in pancakes. Cakes. Biscuits. Marshmallow platters. There is even a lion, carved out of ice.
Simon can hardly take it in. Everywhere he looks he sees a new dish, each one more his favourite than the last. He forgets the empty halls, the tiger, the leopards, the blue-eyed cat. He even forgets the ticking clock that still sits beside his bed.
He doesn’t notice the grey shapes when they emerge from the stairs, doesn’t see them flit closer behind the screens.
The voice that whispers is so quiet that Simon thinks he has imagined it, puts it down to his empty stomach. It has been a long time since supper, more than he knows, and his belly is empty.
“Eat,” voices sigh, “and stay with us forever.”
The golden light is dazzling. It pours through the windows. A thousand wonders reflect at Simon from the yellow screens. He wants to see it all. He imagines being in the Midsummer night forever — a king, a prince, a pirate chief. Someone drapes a cape across his shoulders, soft and velvet. Someone lifts a silver lid, filling the air with steam and the smell of honey. Somehow he knows that all he has to do is eat and all this will be his.
And then his eyes light on a cake dusted with beetles’ wings, and he remembers that tomorrow is his birthday and that all his family and friends will be there, waiting to see him turn eleven. When he looks up from the cake he sees that the candle flame in the lamp is flickering. It is already dangerously low, and the sky outside is brightening towards dawn.
He has stayed too long.
Simon spins around, panicking, and sees the creatures who have been speaking to him for the first time. They come at him all in a rush, a grey confusion of dark eyes and moth wings, dressed in cobwebs and old memories. One has a case in its hands, one a giant pin. Collectors! They grasp at him with fingers as dry as dead dreams. One gets a handful of his hair, and he feels his hair start to turn to stone. Another grabs his cloak and it hardens around him, but he wriggles out of the heavy cloth and dashes for the stairs, holding his arms over his face to ward off the cold touch of their fingers.
He blunders into screens, sends them flying. His bare feet slip on the polished floor as he slides onto the stairs, then scrambles down them.
The creatures are right behind him, reaching out with dry bone arms and moth-scale fingers. One of them almost catches him, grazes his neck, leaves a mark he’ll still have a decade later, but he is faster down the stairs and leaves them behind.
When he bursts out on the path he sees that the sky is even lighter. Somewhere just beyond the purple mountains, the sun is rising. When he sees the statues frozen on every side he knows that they are children just like him, trapped forever. He has to reach the house before sunrise.
He runs through the baobabs and the tiger-lilies. He splashes through a cinnamon scented river where twirling paper boats each hold a guttering candle. He sprints back through the fallen temples and the twisting arbours, with the grey folk just behind him. He runs through groves of cedars, through groves of pines, back across open lawns. The sky is bright over the mountains and full of birds, who are flying wherever the Midsummer creatures go when the sun rises.
There is so far to go! The sun is so close!
He slips on the damp grass, and one of the grey people almost gets him. There is a flash of silver and the long pin stabs into the earth, nearly impaling him. He rolls away as the pin pulls out, dead leaves and insects hanging from its tip.
He gets lucky. The grey man pauses to tug a beetle off the end of his weapon and Simon is back on his feet and running. One touch and he will be taking the next empty plinth by the fountain.
At last, he pants his way back under the giant plants, through curtains of dripping water. The plums and the blackcurrants are sickly sweet, going soft. They swing against him as sticky as glue. Tendrils like outsized springs tangle his feet. Stems sharp with spines whip at his legs.
He stretches for the iron trellis; clamps his fingers in the metal; climbs.
The grey people are in the courtyard now. They spread their moth wings to fly — one last grab, but he is up the trellis like a monkey, bare feet on cold metal that is already turning back to wood under his fingers. Behind him, the black forest is evaporating as the sunlight wipes it away, and the Midsummer garden is collapsing in on itself.
The sun flashes through a cleft in the mountains.
But Simon is already through the window, fishtailing over the chest of drawers and onto his bed. Over his head, the golden light hesitates on the ceiling and then pulls away, slipping back out of the window like an ebbing tide until the room is dark again.
The clock on the bedside table ticks. It is one second past midnight.
Eventually, on nervous hands and knees, Simon shuffles to the window at the head of his bed and peeks over the windowsill. He is afraid of what he will see, but it is only the familiar garden, black and grey through the falling rain.
The Midsummer garden is gone for now, but Simon knows that it is still out there, somewhere between one tick of the clock and the next — glowing; magical; waiting for him.
Next year he will sleep with his window shut. Next year he will keep his eyes closed through midnight. But he won't forget.
When he closes his eyes he is smiling.