Today’s the first of May. As I’m currently living and working in London, this doesn’t mean much other than that maybe summer’s finally round the corner. For the three years that I spent at Oxford however, May Eve and May Day were filled with tradition and a real sense that something was happening. There were lots of interesting days in Oxford, but May Eve was always a particular favourite of mine.
Accordingly, in Oxford Blood, it’s May Eve when the plot really starts racing toward its conclusion and it’s probably the evening I linger over the most.
In the words of Caroline, “Summer doesn’t really get going until May Eve. There’s an all night party, then in the morning the choir sing from the tower. Once that’s done, we’re finally allowed to sit on the grass and use the punts.”
And to quote Tom, “It’s time for some fun of our own. Did you find out what it is they say about the first of May? Way-hey, first of May, outdoor fucking starts today.”
I don’t entirely know what the origins of Oxford’s weird May Eve celebrations are, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that it’s more than a little pagan. The year before starting at Oxford, I went through a bit of a pagan phase, and the 30th April/1st May is the time for the celebration of Beltane, the celebration of sex, fire and the start of summer. Outdoor sex was generally considered to be a standard part of that ceremony.
If I do say so myself, my college, Magdalen, was always the epicentre of the May Eve phenomenon. Officially, the entire point of the event is that at dawn, the Magdalen College choir sing from the tower. And fair enough, both the tower and their voices are beautiful.
This being a student event however, in practise, it’s mainly an excuse for a party. And also, for a wonderful endurance test of trying to stay awake long enough to actually hear the choir sing at 6AM, on an evening that always seemed to be spitefully cold and rainy. We had bops every other week at Oxford, but the May Eve bop had a special intensity to it. Everyone seemed to turn out. Then afterwards, it was a glorious combination of chatting in people’s rooms, wandering the town, and wandering the grounds of the college.
The May Eve sequence, at least up until the part where two vampires have a duel to the death, is one of the most autobiographical parts of my entire series.
In an old book about choosing universities, Magdalen had been described as “perhaps the most beautiful college in Oxford or Cambridge, known throughout the world for its tower, its deer park and its May morning celebration – when students throw themselves off Magdalen bridge into the river Cherwell.”
I read that phrase when I was about twelve and for some reason it stuck with me to the extent that when I was old enough to apply to university, as far as I was concerned, it was Magdalen or nothing. I saw the tower and the deer park from my first day, but I had most of the first year to get psyched up for the May morning celebration. There was something about the fact that I was participating in a ceremony that’s supposedly “known throughout the world” that sent me a little bit crazy.
Much like Harriet, I spent most of the evening in a pirate outfit. I spent some of it at a party, dancing like crazy. I spent part of it alone in a room with a guy Ii’d thought was just a friend. I spent part of it in someone’s room, where eight people had been tied together. I spent another part with my three closest friends, drinking tea and updating them on what had been going on. It spent part of it in the common room, eating pizza and watching a film. At times, it honestly seemed like the night had been going on forever and was never going to end, and I was pretty happy with that state of affairs.
Just before dawn, I changed out of my pirate outfit into a summery dress (despite the fact it was still very cold) and staggered blinking into the sunrise, determined not to miss the choir. I stood on the grass at the centre of the quad and watched and listened and had one last glass of Pimms. With sleep deprivation, you get a fifty/fifty chance between everything seemed unbearable and everything seeming magical, and that morning, I was firmly in the latter camp.
When the choir sang, I had this really odd feeling of being part of something. And then, I saw a group of students in white tie having a champagne duel. It almost embarrasses me to admit this nowadays, but I didn’t make that part of Oxford Blood up. And no, despite my best efforts at scouring Facebook, there are no pictures. I think they must have been deleted for the sake of people’s political careers. I was standing with my friends, and I could tell from their faces that they were taking the position of “what the hell are they doing? Didn’t they get the memo that Oxford is an inclusive place nowadays?”
I watched with a kind of weird fascination. I liked it. I wanted to be part of that world. And there was one boy who was taking part in the champagne duelling who I just couldn’t take my eyes off. I wanted that one. Sometimes you just know. It took me the best part of a year to get a chance to speak to him, but by the next May Eve, we were together and it was all about the rhyme. Nowadays, we’re engaged.
This is all a long way of saying that May Day is awesome. It’s a night and a day for saying that Summer is Coming, and a wonderful excuse for a party. And to celebrate the first of May, here’s the May Eve extract from Oxford Blood. For the full chapter, download Oxford Blood May Eve:
“Anyway, it’s time for some fun of our own. Did you find out what it is they say about the first of May?”
“I’ve still no idea,” she replied.
“Way-hey, first of May, outdoor fucking starts today,” he whispered, taking her hand and leading her out into the quad and then onto the Steele Walk as she giggled. Hands gripped tightly, they walked until they reached a sufficiently secluded spot, where he spread his jacket on the ground.
“Don’t mess up my outfit,” she said, giggling. “You don’t know how long it took me to get into this corset.”
“Then we’ll leave it on. It suits you.”
He pulled off her tights and her little pants, and leaving everything else where it was, began to play with her.
“Climb on top,” he commanded, once she was wet and squirming. “That should keep your clothes as perfect as possible.”
Harriet did as he suggested. He too had only removed the most essential items of clothing and was still wearing a white silk shirt and a bow tie and waistcoat in the Cavalier colours.
She frantically kissed him and stroked his soft dark hair as she rocked back and forth on him. They came almost together, and she collapsed exhausted onto his chest. He held her tightly, stroking her back as her breathing began to slow.
Afterwards, they lay there for a while. Harriet began to feel cold, but was utterly contented and had no wish to move. Tom, flushed with her blood and eternally warm, looked as though he could stay there forever, or at least until the sun came up. Eventually, he stirred himself.
“I need to get back for the champagne duelling,” he said languorously. “You should come. Unlike most of our activities, it’s fun to watch and safe for public consumption.”
Harriet thought it sounded slightly ridiculous, but couldn’t deny she was intrigued.
They walked back slowly through the woods. With summer on the way, the trees full and the river low, it already seemed less spooky than it had done when George had attacked her out there. It already felt like years ago. She thought of that night as the real beginning of her time at Oxford.
There were a surprisingly large number of people milling around on the lawns for the early hours of the morning. Some were still in pirate outfits, whilst others had managed to make time to get changed. The Cavaliers had grouped on the lawn in front of the Manor, a striking Georgian accommodation block. Several people were staring at them. Between their beauty, their elegant outfits and that other indefinable quality, they certainly stood out.
No speeches were made or formalities observed. For once, this seemed to be the Cavaliers just out to have fun. The format of the event was simple. Bottles of champagne were stored under the arches of the building. Two members would take a bottle each, shake it up and then run to their opponent, the objective being to release the cork at just the right moment to soak the other as thoroughly as possible without being soaked themselves. In between rounds, the contestants either swigged the remains of the bottles or poured them over each other.
Tom was entering into the spirit of the thing. He covered his first opponent in champagne but received a soaking from his second one.
Some of the onlookers were laughing and clapping. Others were just perving on the attractively soaked men, their white shirts clinging to their firm bodies. Plenty more, however, were mumbling about how it was pointless, excessive, and gave exactly the wrong impression of Oxford.
Harriet was enjoying the spectacle. She’d never seen the usually pristine vampires look so bedraggled.
The event ended, perhaps inevitably, with a showdown between George and Rupert. They fired at the same time, the two streams of champagne merging into one in mid air, soaking them both. It occurred to Harriet that with their perfect reflexes, they should both have been able to jump away in time, but perhaps that was against the rules.
Everyone was laughing as they all sat down on the grass, other than George and Rupert who were glaring at each other.
Harriet ran over to Tom. Embracing him in front of them all probably wasn’t sensible, but he looked so cute with his wet hair that she just couldn’t resist.
“How about a real duel?” George said suddenly.
“Don’t be ridiculous George. It’s getting on for sunrise, and there’s no need to spoil the fun,” Rupert drawled.
“Not with you, idiot,” George snapped. “With Tom. We still haven’t resolved this whole betrayal thing.”
Everyone fell silent and looked at her, stood with one arm around Tom. She felt a sudden sense of panic.
“Is that a formal challenge?” Tom asked in a strained tone.
“Oh absolutely,” George said, grinning now. “Are you going to come and watch Harriet? Who will you cheer for? I suppose I could always make sure it’s me since you lost your little trinket.”
“What does this involve?” she whispered to Tom.
“Well, we’d fight with swords most likely. Try and stab each other through the heart. The point is that we can take what ought to be mortal injuries and be fine in a few days time, as long as fire or wood aren’t involved.”
“Don’t do it,” she begged. “That sounds horrific.”
“If it’s a formal challenge, I don’t have much choice. I’ve already pushed our laws and customs to the limit by being with you.”
He turned to stare at George. “I accept then,” he said calmly. “But I want Harriet left out of this. No mind control.”
“Well, I think she should watch, and if she’s doing that, I don’t want her getting involved. I’m told stab wounds are unhealthy for humans.”
“If this is going ahead, perhaps I can exert just enough control to stop her from moving,” Rupert mused. “Would you accept that?”
“I think you all seem to forget that I’m not a vampire. I don’t have to play by your stupid rules,” she said.
“Of course not. You can walk away now if you’d prefer, and sit there wondering what is happening,” Rupert said. “But I think you’d prefer to see for yourself, and that means doing as we say.”
“Oh fine,” Harriet said. “Is this happening on the Manor’s lawn too? I’m sure everyone would love to see a stabbing. Now that really will give exactly the wrong impression of Oxford.”
“We’ll go to Oak Meadow,” Rupert said authoritatively. “They shouldn’t be disturbed there.”
Oak Meadow was by the river at a point that could only be reached via the Steele Walk. It was about fifteen minutes away from the college and with trees on three sides and water on the other, completely excluded.
“Doesn’t that involve crossing the river?” George asked dubiously.
“Absolutely,” Rupert replied, smirking. “But if you’re going to insist on this sort of childish behaviour I think you should put ridiculous superstitions aside.”
As a group, they headed for the large iron gates leading out onto Steele Walk.
“Someone needs to fetch swords,” George said. If he had any nerves about the upcoming fight, he certainly wasn’t showing them.
“I’ll go,” said Archie, who had spent most of the evening sitting around sulking.
Everyone looked at him in surprise.
“My goodness,” said George. “You’re actually willing to get involved in a Cavalier event? Does that mean you’ve got over your lost love?”
“No, and I probably never will,” he replied. “But I’ve always tried to do everything well. Maybe it will even work with this whole vampire business. Maybe if I prove myself you’ll give me the sort of boost you gave Edward.”
“Well, that’s the spirit,” said Rupert. “Still, I hope you’ll forgive me for not trusting you 100% after the way you’ve been acting all year. We’ll all be very grateful if you’ll go and collect the swords, but I want Crispin to go with you, just to be sure everything goes smoothly.”
“That won’t be a problem,” Archie replied.
With that, Archie and Crispin strode away towards Tom’s room, whilst the rest of them stepped out onto the Steele Walk. They mainly walked in silence, focussed on the serious task ahead. Harriet could barely believe that only an hour before she’d been wandering the same path with Tom, laughing and holding hands.
After a few minutes, their group reached the bridge that lead to the meadow. The younger vampires stepped over it nonchalantly, but the older ones had to be coaxed or even dragged across.
“Are the older ones just more superstitious or actually more affected by running water?” Harriet asked Tom, hoping the others couldn’t hear. He’d hesitated for a second or two then walked across the bridge without any real trouble. George, on the other hand, was acting like a startled horse. Harriet remembered his refusal to go on the bridge the night he’d attacked her.
“A bit of both really,” he replied. “It’s the same for most of our problems. The older and more powerful vampires are definitely more susceptible to sunlight. But they are also more nervous around crucifixes and things, just because they were brought up in a more religious time.”
“George is stronger than you, isn’t he? I mean, that’s just a fact.”
“That’s fair. This is your mother’s point after all. He’s a lot older, and he’s really worked on his powers. Plus, on a practical level, having been born into a seventeenth century aristocratic family, he’s probably just generally better at sword fighting than I am.”
“Do you know how to do it at all?” Harriet asked. Her heart was pounding. She didn’t think she could stand to see him hurt.
“Oh yes, I’m reasonably good as it happens. I actually fenced for Eton and then for the college, back in the twenties. But that’s rather different to training daily to fight in a war.”
Harriet didn’t ask any more questions. She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the answers.
The group sat down in the meadow, waiting for Crispin and Archie to return with swords. Apparently, all the Cavaliers were given one at the time they were turned as it was a symbol of the organisation.
“Would it help if I gave you more of my blood?” Harriet whispered to Tom.
“Well, I suppose it would, but I’ve already drank from you once tonight. I’m not sure it’d be a good idea to do it again.”
“Don’t be stupid. If it’ll help you at all, then of course I want to do it. Take as much as you need. I’ll recover fast enough, and there’s not that much on next week.”
Tom was clearly unsure, but she took his head and guided it to her neck. She would have preferred to do this somewhere private, but there wasn’t time for niceties. He bit down. At first, he drank slowly, cautious about taking too much, but within moments, his instincts kicked in and he began to drink deeply.
Harriet was nervous about the duel and despite her brave words, about allowing Tom to take too much blood, but she tried to stay calm. She stroked Tom’s soft hair as he drank and let herself drift into the euphoric trancelike state that a drinking vampire could induce.
“Here we are,” Archie shouted, reappearing with two swords. Tom broke off suddenly, keeping one arm around Harriet so that she didn’t fall to the ground. Archie threw one to George and the other to Tom. Both of them used their perfect reflexes to catch them easily.
“Where is Crispin?” Rupert asked suspiciously.
“He wouldn’t cross the bridge. Seems dreadfully old fashioned to me,” Archie replied.
“Oh well, we’d better get started. We’re running out of non daylight hours.”
Tom and George stood, and walked to the centre of the meadow. As soon as he let go of her, Harriet slumped down. She was sure that she’d never had as much blood taken before. It was all she could do to stay conscious, but if it helped Tom to win then she didn’t care.
Rupert counted down, and when he finished, the two vampires strode over to each other and began to fight. Harriet watched their battle in a daze. Both Tom and George moved incredibly fast, faster than any human could. They swung their heavy swords as though they weighed nothing, and dodged attacks that seemed impossible to avoid.
Harriet found it difficult to tell who had the upper hand, but she was relieved to see that Tom wasn’t struggling anywhere near as much as she’d feared he might. The fight went on and on. Harriet wondered how they were finding the energy to keep going.
“You’re better than I thought,” George shouted, laughing. “You ought to all but drain people more often. I always find it helps.”
Tom didn’t reply, just concentrated on fending off George’s attacks.
He’s starting to weaken, Harriet realised. Tom was still managing to neatly protect himself, but all of his energy was going into defence rather than attack.
“When does this end?” she shouted to Rupert, who was watching intently.
“It’s a fight to the apparent death. Basically, at some point one of them will take a wound that would kill a human. They’ll pass out but be fine after a while.”
As he was answering, George gasped. Tom had managed to catch his arm, cutting the skin. As she watched, the wound closed and healed. George fought back with renewed intensity. Both combatants were losing their cool, and before long, George had inflicted a similar cut on Tom. From then on, the fighting was frantic. They abandoned the careful defences in favour of risking all on stabbing at each other. Every few seconds one would make contact with the other’s body, cutting them terribly. Logically, Harriet knew that they would heal fast and that no real harm could occur, but she still felt sick watching it. The others had no such qualms, cheering either the one they supported, or any impressive move.
Suddenly, Tom had his sword to George’s neck, and everyone fell silent. Whilst she would rather it was George than Tom, Harriet could still hardly bear to see his throat slit. She closed her eyes involuntarily. It took all her strength to open them again, and when she did, she was horrified to see Tom on the floor. Somehow, George had dodged the sword and knocked Tom off balance.
Get up, she willed silently. She wanted to shout encouragement, but couldn’t find the strength. Before she knew what was happening, George had thrown Tom’s sword across the meadow. He leaned over him and thrust his sword down hard. She screamed as it pierced her boyfriend’s heart. Blood went everywhere. My blood mainly, she thought, before passing out.