The May Queen

I liked being in the top class at primary school. We were important. We were the big ones. There were all sorts of little responsibilities. I liked being picked to ring the big handbell for playtime. It was kept in a cupboard near the teacher’s desk. I longed to be chosen. I would carry the heavy bell, left hand muffling its clanger, out onto the balcony that overlooked the main hall of this former home of a Bishop. There I would watch the big hall clock urgently, so that exactly as the second hand reached the 12 I would ring the bell energetically. And in obedience to my will, doors would open along the balcony and downstairs around the hall, and children would stream out to their playtime.

We were dinner prefects as well. We would be despatched in twos to the infant classes, to lead the little ones through the playground to the converted stable block which housed the dining room. If I was especially lucky, we would be having pink custard. Why did pink custard taste so much better than yellow?

The crowning achievement of the final year came in our last term — the May Procession. I and every other girl in the class wanted to be the May Queen, who led the procession from the school down the road to the church.

The May Queen wore a special long white dress with a veil and a long blue train, and it was she who crowned the head of the statue of Our Blessed Lady with a circlet of flowers. Next best were the flower girls, six of them, four to carry the train of the May Queen and two to scatter flowers in her path. They just wore best dresses with a ring of flowers on their heads.

The May Queen herself was selected by ballot but we all knew that it was on merit that the flower girls were chosen. We tried hard to be saintly in the days before the ballot took place, vying with one another to say the school prayers most loudly and clearly.

Joanna had reigned as May Queen the previous year. I spent sleepless hours in bed anguishing whether that meant my chances were better or worse. Both she and my mum assured me that I was a hard worker and had a good chance of being a flower girl. But I didn't want to be a flower girl. I wanted to be the May Queen.

Joanna said her guess would be Linda or Sinead or Margaret for May Queen. "Why not me?" I said in a huff.

Secretly, I practised reaching up to the top of the wardrobe to crown my old doll's head with a pink plastic toy plate. If only I could think of some way to rig the ballot, to make my name appear infallibly at the top of the pile.

The big day came. I had a terrible stomach ache when I got up, but I didn't say anything to Mum in case she made me stay at home. After first playtime we all wrote our names on slips of pink paper, and our teacher placed them in an old trilby hat kept just for this occasion. The head teacher Sister Mary Carmel said a prayer. We fidgeted, impatient. At last she put in her hand. Now seventeen girls prayed. Sister pulled out a name.

Margaret Kelly.

I remembered to breathe. Margaret Kelly, my best friend. I tried to be happy for her.

Plump Margaret Kelly with her brassy curls and already impressive breasts became my object of envy. Or did I hate her? I was only slightly mollified when the names of the six attendants were read out and I was one of them.

I stood beside Margaret in the playground where she became the centre of an admiring crowd. Lucky Margaret Kelly.

On the Friday before the procession, Margaret and we attendants felt very important when the head teacher took us out of our maths lesson (fractions) and walked us all down to the church to practise our processing. But as most of the time was spent coaching Margaret in the crowning procedure, I felt bored and frustrated.

On Sunday at 2 pm we assembled in the school hall. Mothers rushed around preparing us. All the girls who still fitted into their First Communion dresses wore them. Those who had taken their First Communion only a fortnight ago were trying to look saintly. Blue velvet headbands were handed out to hold their veils. The best veils had a cross embroidered in the middle of the back and draped elegantly to the girls' shoulders. The boys needed little preparation. They wore school uniform, which was boring, with only a red sash. We felt sorry for them, not dressing up.

We attendants had our flower head-dresses with ribbons trailing down the back. My mother took a photograph, but all I could see was Margaret standing on the top step of the stairs. EVERYONE was taking HER photograph!

The procession started with a hymn and we filed out on to the road, vergers holding up the traffic. I looked at Margaret's back and   it occurred to me that it must be scary as the May Queen, leading the procession, with everyone looking at her. It must be awful being the centre of attention. Or wonderful... I filled my head with martyred thoughts, and gripped more strongly the fabric handle on my side of the Queen’s train.

Inside the church it was suddenly dim after the bright sun outside. A new hymn started up. The flower girls strewed blossoms until the aisle was carpeted in petals, and the May Queen walked regally down it without a heed to her attendants.

At the altar, the statue of Our Lady had been moved from its usual place in the side Lady Chapel. She stood at the front of the altar, Her colours faded after Her years standing in front of an east-facing stained glass window, a quizzical smile on Her fine-boned face. I thought She must enjoy being part of a celebration for a change. After all, She, not the May Queen, was the most important female in the church. Not the May Queen.

Margaret Kelly reached the altar and paused for a moment while we arranged her train. She smiled at me before she turned to her holy task. I turned away and caught Susannah Faulkes, on the other side of the train, mouthing "stuck up!". I grinned.

After the ceremony, when we were all eating cakes on the lawn outside the presbytery, Joanna whispered to me: "I told you it would be Margaret."

"How could you know?" I said, and went across to slip my arm through Susannah's.

curlicue horizontal rule

Helen Whitehead

Part of this work was submitted as the Dissertation for the MA in Writing

Nottingham Trent University

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Last amended on 8th September 1998 / copyright H. M. Whitehead