May Queen, Or Maybe Not? 


As a little girl I had many ambitions. To be one of Charlie's Angels. To be the girl who owned Black Beauty. To travel through time & space with Doctor Who, or serve aboard the USS Enterprise. I knew I had no chance of really doing these things, but one long-held ambition remained tantalising almost within reach. Because I also wanted to be a May Queen. 

You see, each spring my local church, and its Sunday School produced a May Festival. And each year, one girl would be chosen to be crowned May Queen. Now this wasn't all that random. To stand a chance of becoming May Queen, you had to spend years working your way up through the roles. Eventually, if you stayed around long enough, your time would come and I just longed for that one moment of glory when the previous year's queen would place that tiara on my head. 

It was my first May Festival experience that started it. Although it wasn't part of the main story, our Sunday School kindergarten class took to the stage for the second half to sing 'There Once Was An Ugly Duckling. Yes, I know, how cute were we? 


And when we got lots of oohs and aahs an rapturous applause from the gathered parents and grandparents I couldn't imagine there could be anything more exciting in life. I was hooked and so the next year I attended the auditions for the first time.In truth these auditions were really just a handing out of roles.The story was pretty much the same each year. Girl would wander through countryside encountering various woodland creatures/pixies/enchanted beings. She would be pretty and clever and kind and eventually, after we'd met more characters, including representations of the four seasons, and lots of children had sung and danced, she would be chosen as the May Queen. There would be a coronation with more singing, lots of cutseying and finally a procession around the church hall. 

So long as you could speak loudly and clearly, were old enough to remember the amount of lines you would be given, could learn several songs and a few dances and were prepared to attend rehearsals you were almost guaranteed a part. But some parts were more desirable than others and it wasn't just relative 'talent' that proved decisive in which role you won. It was quite hierarchical. 

Me in the middle alongside Elizabeths Cook and  Taylor no less! Okay, not that Elizabeth Taylor, but still … 

The very youngest usually served as 'attendants', either to the May Queen herself, or to one of the 'Seasons' – snowflakes for Winter, Leaves for Autumn and so on. I never landed one of these roles. I was too tall by far and, if I'm honest, not nearly cute enough. No, my first foray into May Festival proper involved me dressing up as a pixie in a brown leotard, bright green fringed tunic and a pointed, and bright green pixie hat, complete with bell, on my head. I have to admit, it wasn't quite what I'd imagined but I was still excited. Okay, I was disappointed not to be 'prettied up' like the others,  but I enjoyed performing so much. Especially when the actual performance night came and we all had to report downstairs to 'makeup'. I utterly loved that. I was about 6 yeas old and apart from the occasion I'd smeared myself in my Mum's lipstick in front of her dressing table mirror, I'd never been anywhere near makeup. We would emerge, ten minutes later caked in pan stick and bright blusher (to make sure my signature pallor could be seen from more than two rows back), a red tint on our lips, blue eyeshadow and a red dot 'printed' on the inside corners of our eyes with the wrong end of a match stick so that our features stood out. I can still feel the poke of that matchstick now and am pretty sure than modern health and safety rules will have put paid to that particular practice. 

The de rigeur procession around the church hall after the May Queen's coronation me and my friend Claire were 'woodland sprites' that year.

The following year I felt sure that this time I'd get a more pretty, girly role. But I hadn't reckoned on the reluctance of the boys in our Sunday School to take part in this theatrical extravaganza. And it was then that I learned a very valuable lesson. You see, when you're a tall girl, with short hair and there aren't enough boys to go round, you tend to get cast against type. That is, if there's a boy's role that needs filling, you're going to get cast in it. Now, I could never really understand why it was necessary to have boy pixies, or boy animals or so on. But there were rules and rules were rules and, it seemed, strict symmetry was important – for every girl character, there had to be a matching boy one (even if there weren't enough boys to fill the roles).

Now I've always had what you might call an over-zealous idea of justice and I thought this most unfair.After all my friend Claire, who was every bit as tall as me (sometimes taller as it happened), had cut her hair into a short bob.And another friend Jill was a self-confessed tomboy and yet year after year both of them landed girl's roles while I ended up cast as a boy. 

You see, the next year I found myself cast as a field mouse. The same brown leotard, this time with a long, thin and rather inanimate tail attached and instead of a pixie hat, I was required to wear a little brown cap with attached mouse ears. My friends, of course got to be bunny rabbits, with fluffy powder-puff tails, or squirrels with splendid upright tufts.  The next year came I was cast as a 'woodland sprite'. New costumes were required and my heart soared when I saw the white satin and multi-coloured ribbons my friend Claire's mum was going to use. I was beyond excited, but all this anticipation faded when I discovered that, despite their being no mention of boy and girl sprites in the script, two of us were going to wear shorts, while the other two wore skirts. I didn't need to ask which option I'd be wearing. Everyone kept telling me the costume looked lovely, but the shorts were far shorter than the skirts and I was beginning to despair of ever looking pretty in public. 

I dreamed of not growing any taller, of my mum allowing me to grow my hair, or suddenly transforming into the 'pretty one', but I knew none of this would happen.  I even hoped that by next year I would start 'developing' – the wonderful euphemism we used back then for the moment our little girl bodies began to transform into curvy, womanly ones. After all, you couldn't really have a boy anything with visible boobs, now could you? But, although I was one of the first to need a 'training bra', it didn't happen soon enough to avoid the following year's absolute humiliation.

We, that is myself and my best friends, were cast as toys that came to life. And I was utterly appalled to learn that not only was I going to have to dress up as a toy soldier, I was also going to have to be the 'groom' in an on-stage 'marriage' to a rag doll! I really didn't want to do it. I was mortified at the very idea. But I did it because, eyes-on-the-prize, I was determined to reach my goal of being crowned May Queen. If I bowed out now, all my efforts would have been in vain. And, in truth, ritual humiliation or not, I enjoyed all the rehearsals. I liked learning my lines. I relished the singing. And I worked hard at the dancing. And, if I'm absolutely honest, the last two years I attended Sunday School, as much as I enjoyed it, I did so really so that I could continue being in the May Festival.

Fortunately, the year after the toy soldier debacle, things picked up. Each year four girls were chosen to represent the four seasons. Those who were chosen would usually be chosen to be the May Queens over the following few years. The four of us, who had been pixies, forest creatures, sprites and toys together were the oldest girls still participating. Four girls for four parts. At last I knew I would get an undeniably feminine part! And, oh, the costumes for the seasons were just wonderful. Winter was crisp blue with icey white details and plenty of sparkle. Spring was in beautful flowing pink and Summer was a soft, frilly blue concoction. But I was to play Autumn, and Autumn? Well let's just say it didn't have quite the beauty of the other costumes. I had hoped that recent redesigning and alterations of the costume might have meant it was now a deep green velvet gown, with russet and ruby-toned leaves cascading down it's skirt. But no, Autumn's costume was, instead, a long brown and orange, leafy, photo-printed nylon gown with a bodice that death-gripped my at-last developing curves and a skirt that stopped just above my ankles. It was hideous and I hated it. I knew that everyone always felt sorry for the poor girl that played Autumn and now I feared that the pity would be accompanied by ridicule. 

But I knew that no-one played the same role two years running. And so, even if I wasn't May Queen next year, and it seemed unlikely that I would, I'd at least get cast as another season, and so, have a prettier costume to wear. So I carefully learned my lines, rehearsed the dance I had to do with my little leaf attendants and practised my curtseying. But on-stage I felt dowdy in that dress and while my friends, in their beautiful gowns, glowed with pride as they were lauded for their prettiness I stood back. And reflected. Everyone knew that the prettiest girls were chosen first. That the scarcity of the blonde girls meant they would follow soon after. That the cute one would be next and that the plain one would only be chosen, should there be no girls of a suitable age to follow on. I didn't think I was hideous, but I'd never heard anyone not required by family loyalty to call me pretty.  I hadn't had fair hair since I was about four years old. And I'd left my cute days behind not long after. Most of all I didn't want to be the girl who became May Queen because there was no-one else left. I'd seen other girls that had happened to and I'd heard the quiet sniggers as the wardrobe and makeup people 'tried to make her pretty'. And I determined then, as I stood watching the other seasons taking their compliments that this wasn't going to happen to me. 

And that was the moment, I think, I grew up. When I decided that this May Festival would be my last and accepted that I'd never be the 'pretty one'. I'd spent years bemoaning my fate and wishing to be something I could never be: pretty, blonde, delicate and now I didn't really mind one way or another.  Besides, I'd learned three valuable lessons. Understand your limitations. Don't outstay your welcome. And that sometimes, in order to maintain your dignity, it's necessary to let things go.

Now, who could complain at that?