Fire Burn…

We were few in number but there was enough of us to do that which we’d been terrified of doing for such a long time, to allow our collective courage and curiosity a hint of freedom to adventure into a lane that would lead us to the most wicked, most evil and most terrifyingly inhabited hovel outside of the village…

Late Autumn and we were pushing the limits of our curfews as with each day after school, the sunlight that allowed us the freedom of playing out safely, lost its grip on the struggle against a season of winter that was sat poised, to lay cold and dank fingers across the remnants of an Indian Summer… Those fingers would soon pick every leaf from every tree, they would stifle the growth of weeds and suppress the speedy eagerness of growing blades of grass. Between the defined names of Autumn and Winter seemed to lay another, as yet unnamed season, that was neither tepid with late sun, nor crisp and cold with frosts and snow. To me there was a definite interim between those two seasons, which consisted of miserable, despairing dampness. Grey days that seemed to take pleasure in being a master of ceremonies, seeing out the Summer, ushering out the Autumn close behind, then holding open the door for an approaching, determined winter.

Off the main road and set back among a tree-lined lane sat four old, decrepit houses, all empty, crumbling, boarded and lifeless, except for one… Right at the end of the small row lived an old lady. Rarely seen but often thought and spoke about. She was somewhat the recluse, however, occasionally, she would venture into the village to collect what could only be essentials; groceries and such like. I’m certain among the adult population she was a dear old lady, living out her twilight years quietly and privately… She did have a certain reputation though among the young. Along that lane, in summer months, very little light shone through the canopy that overhung, so come the un-named season, the most common ground-dweller would be toad-stools and mosses and small creatures that rebelled in dampness and decay. The lane was walled to shoulder height (to an eight year old) and moss painted subtle shades of browns and greens, their colours not bright but dull for want of light. The canopy above, naked of vegetation, waved its mass of sprawling fingers, and with strong breaths of wind, seemed to act as a natural but tuneless instrument, playing only to torment the weary with the eerie, adding to the already uncomfortable atmosphere of dull, damp and chilly surroundings… The melancholy that seeped out from that lane meant that I for one, would always pass near, though never daring to venture in, not even in the brightest of summer days. The only thing that led us that way was mischief and a want for daring, neck-tingling, heroics, spitting, “Doesn’t bother me, huh! Watch this!” We only ever made it a few yards along before we’d scurry back at the slightest noise – an imagined noise usually would do the trick…

So rarely I’d spy the old lady among the very few shops that existed in the village, and always, no matter what the weather, she would be wrapped in a grubby looking old headscarf and a rain mac that lost their right to qualify as clean or neat a long time since. Only once did I ever stand next to her, reluctantly in the grocers, and when she turned, I dared not look at her for more than a blink! Her eyes, narrow – her eyes may well have been affected by age and decline, they were dark and dead, sad, and as though they were frozen in desperate moments of grief. An old crone, a witch, a hag who should long ago have succumbed to the ducking-stool or stake. A crooked but determined gait, back arched, as if carrying something malevolent under the shoulder of her raincoat… Bedraggled.. Pale, pointed fingers, pointed, cruel-looking nails…most of which were the product of my imagination I’m sure. I imagined her not shopping as normal folk would but foraging somewhere where the mist would hang, picking up roots and wild vegetation, no doubt for her potions! Trapping insects and other small creatures for her cauldron… Here I was, within two feet of an evil that some parents would threaten naughty children with – well those that wanted to set their child’s psyche off on some roller-coaster at the earliest of ages to ensure their behaviour; short-term peace and quiet for the oldies might just ensure long-term, deeply embedded beliefs and fears for a child. A mischievous, naughty little boy, who is told, “you’ll go to the witch!”, is certain to believe that, that’s where he’ll end up! In agony, flailing around in a boiling cauldron alongside toads, bones, rotting vegetation and dead limbs pulling him under the putrid, simmering surface of a foul-tasting, evil-smelling, lung-burning liquid! Or simply, “you’ll be nailed out for the witch…if you’re not careful!” Beats being “skinned alive” I suppose?

As ever, my curiosity always had the better of me. If I was uncertain of something I simply had to find out more. Exciting for some, boring for others, we were few but we headed into the lane… We didn’t expect to find a colourful, cosy cottage made with the sweetest of confectionery, we expected something horrible – we wanted something horrible. Our goal was to get to a window and take a peek just to see what the witch was up to. Perhaps we’d find her crouching over her cauldron in all her witching refinery, cape, pointed hat, everything! More wishful thinking, really. Of course we knew there was no green skin and huge hooked nose. In reality she was just a misunderstood, reclusive old lady. Nevertheless, she was our witch.

Some centuries ago, I’d have made a few pence pocket-money, after all, Witchfinders were paid handsomely for discovering witches. It’s little wonder that over half a million people were accused of witchery and put to death as a result..

‘And the Devil will fetch me now in fire, my witchcraft to atone; And I who have troubled the dead man’s grave, shall never rest in my own.’

They blessed the old woman’s winding sheet, with rites and prayers that were due. With holy water they sprinkled her shroud, and they sprinkled her coffin too.

Robert Southey, 1774-1843 – Extract from the Devil’s Due.

We decided that we’d approach the house from the back, moving slowly through the overgrowth. Careful to pay attention as it was common we believed for some witches to bury the eyeballs of the dead around their homes so that they may see what was happening around them? I toed at something hesitantly in the ground! Convinced I’d found an eye – it turned out to be an old soggy bulb…

We made noise. We trampled about louder as our confidence grew – we saw nothing through the window because of a grubby old net curtain making everything inside impossible to see – a glow from a fire was all that could be made out… Someone fisted the door and we scattered like beetles from under a stone, hearts in mouths! Adrenaline fueled and dashing through obstacles, the results of which we wouldn’t realise until we calmed ourselves, somewhere safe – torn trouser-legs, scuffed and scraped skin. I’m guessing now that the old lady was used to visits from curious children so perhaps she was ignoring us – more likely that her hearing was going as well as her eyes and she just failed to hear us. Very likely though, she’d be in her cellar, boiling pilots thumbs and killing swine!

The witch down the lane was always our bogey and perhaps it’s just as well we didn’t encounter anything, that way, we got to use our imagination and enjoy the thoughts of what evil crept around that hovel. We all love a scary story and had we encountered a sweet old lady, proffering lemonade and sweets, we’d have been sorely disappointed. She remained, for the moment, our witch. This wasn’t the centre of our Universe though and other equally mischievous pursuits would catch our attention.

Mum would have her hair done on Saturdays, always a Saturday. More often than not I’d go with her and it wasn’t long before it was expected by staff and regular customers that Robert would be in with his mum. Robert was always happy to sweep up hair, tidy towels or gather them up for the dirty basket, pop to the shop for the regulars should they need anything as they sat under hair dryers, bellyaching to one another… Most of the time they found my company, my cheeky chattering and my interest in them entertaining. I almost knew the village tittle-tattle as well as the ladies in that salon. Mum would always be there early, to chat. She’d always leave long after her hair was finished too, to chat. However, one disjointed week, where everything firmly rooted in routine came a day early, as we prepared for a summer holiday, and all thoughts of winter and witches were far from my mind, mum had her hair appointment switched to a Friday. This was a new salon full of old dears, a new catalogue of stories and gossip to record. Same staff, same routine with towels and token gestured, hair-sweeping, however, new faces, new interests.

All the old dears would say I was sweet. And sometimes because of my thick, black, collar-length curly hair and fair complexion, not-so-regular strangers would often mistake me and comment, “ooh, isn’t her hair lovely?” Excuse me!

One of the old ladies, sat contentedly in her dryer-chair would smile at me every now and then and what a sweet smile it was… Soft white hair peeked out from the net over her hair under the dryer, rouge complimented her cheeks, giving them a subtle rosie hue on top of carefully applied foundation powder. She sat in navy crimpoline trousers and a thin cream cardigan. I carried a cup of tea to her which she took giving me a bright, and albeit plastic, wide, white smile. She smelled mildly as I would’ve described as soapy, quite pleasant, and what I’d describe these days as something resembling lavender…

I sat talking with her for just about the whole appointment, even helped to remove her curlers, she commented on my gentleness (truth be known, I was always tempted to give a little seemingly accidental tug to see if I could get an “ouch!” in return). She told me about her husband who had died a long time ago. How he’d come back from the War, took work in the coal mines, how he enjoyed reading (we’d already discussed the book she had with her and my love of reading too). Of course her husband was long dead before I was even born, however, the old lady painted quite a vivid picture and often I think of her and her hubby…

The old lady was done, hair cooked (as I called it, likening the old-fashioned driers to portable ovens, and, from time to time wondering what would happen should someone’s head get stuck and their hair frazzled to a crisp) and set. When she stood it was plain to see that she had back problems and the first thing she grabbed was her stick that had been resting itself against the shelf that she was facing when in her chair. Mum gestured that I should get her coat and that because it was windy, perhaps I’d like to walk her so far through the village? She didn’t live far. I happily agreed. And besides, I could talk to her some more. I picked up her coat from the stand, a grubby old mac that I gave no thought to at first and handed it to her… I took the towels from a chair next to where she’d sat to put into the dirty basket, and when I turned, the old lady was clad in foisty, grubby old rain mac, and ragged, instantly recognisable head scarf, there stood the witch! Inside the weathered and worn cover of that particular volume which was the witch, were page upon page of a fascinating life…much of which I’d quite like to keep between me and her…

I walked my witch all the way home, feeling nothing for the lane, just feeling humbled and a little sorry, however, I was careful to decline politely an offer of a glass of pop inside…


About Robert

A fifty-something, retired Celestial Travel Agent. Walked many paths; some good, lots bad. Meandering through the past, plodding in the present, crawling toward the future.
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