Ben pulled the car in by the kerb and insisted they got out to stare at the vast drapes cascading over the metal pole. Wild garlic buffeted down from nearby woodland and scented the sodium lit road.
“I don’t get it,” Sarah said, arms around her waist as she tried to keep the cold at a distance.
“What’s to get? It’s a local tradition. They’re just like flags.”
They reminded Sarah of medieval tents. Striped pavilions draped high above their heads. Far out of reach of grasping fingers. She reached her hand up just in case.
Ben wrapped himself around her, resting his chin on her shoulder. His breath tainted with cheap motorway services coffee.
“I still don’t get it,” she said.
“It’s just something the town does every year,” he said, turning back to the car and closing the door. Waiting until she climbed back in before starting the engine.
“We never use the same patterns,” Ben’s mother said, reaching behind her for a photo album from the bookcase. A slight hint of the just finished chicken and roast potatoes lingered over the dinner table.
“Mum, Sarah doesn’t need to see them,” Ben said, making a half-hearted attempt to stop her.
His Dad poured more wine.
“Your mum is proud of her work. She’s embroidered the festival covers for thirty years. Longer than you’ve been alive, Ben.”
Sarah sat, saying nothing and smiling. It was the first time she’d met Ben’s parents, visiting home with him from university. Each family had its own etiquette and she had not spent enough time in their home to know the parallels and pitfalls of theirs.
Ben’s mum pulled up the chair next to Sarah and opened a vast book stuffed with old prints from black and white to fading laser printed photos on cheap paper. Ben started to clear the now finished meal from the table into the kitchen.
“We have to use the same colours and the covers always have to be three metres in length, but each year they change.”
“Do you get to choose how you make them?”
Mrs Sanders smiled.
“There’s a committee,” she started.
“But mum’s been the chair of the committee for aeons, so yes, she gets to decide.”
Mrs Sanders flicked to the last page.
“And these are this year’s. Did you see them on your way in?”
“What’s the reason behind the festival, Mrs Sanders?”
“There are lots of reasons, and call me Beth. If I’m sharing a bottle of cheap red wine with someone, then we’re far beyond polite titles,” she said, topping up both their glasses. “Community cohesion. A party. An excuse to behave disgracefully. Come and have a look at my sewing room.”
Beth’s sewing room was longer than Sarah’s whole university flat, with cupboards down one side barely holding back bolts of fabric, and an overlocker set up at the end of a vast table. Spools of cotton cascaded on top of each other in felt baskets by the side of the only chair, the back obscured by strips of gold brocade. In the corner a small radio sat in silence.
Beth walked over to the chair and swung it around, leaning on the back, glass held loose in her hand.
“I think you’re good for him,” she said, gesturing toward the door.
“I hope so,” Sarah said, feeling awkward and pleased at the same time. “Do you have any offcuts from this year’s covers?”
“Over here,” Beth said, dragging out a handful of fabric and dumping it on the table, sending up a cloud of cotton. Sarah picked one up and ran her hand over the velvet’s nap.
“How old is the festival?”
Beth took a sip as if the words wouldn’t come out dry.
“The story goes that it goes back before the Norman invasion. The tents were thrown over poles to hide what was underneath from the eyes of the locals.”
“That’s the story?” Sarah asked realising her glass was empty, but not wanting to leave the room. She heard Ben and his Dad washing up somewhere else in the house.
“The story, but not the truth. More wine?” Sarah nodded and Beth picked up the bottle by her feet, tipping in a generous measure, then topping herself up. “The truth is that the town was probably trying to attract more tourists.”
“Did it work?”