W is for… Witch

The witch that lived near where I grew up had long grey hair and wore rags. She lived in a car two streets from mine, its windows obstructed with plastic bags, a spray painted dog on one of the doors. A friend of mine lived nearby, and when we had sleepovers we told each other terrifying stories of how she snatched little children off the street and how her car was littered with their bones.

We saw her most days, shuffling her plastic bag wrapped feet, her long grey hair pulled up into a bun on top of her head, her face reddened from the cold, and we always crossed to the other side of the road, shooting her weary glances. Most of the time we were on foot, but on one fateful day, my friend and I were on our bikes.

As soon as the witch caught sight of us, she screamed and waved her bag. The bag caught my shoulder and destabilised me: I crashed my bike into a nearby tree. I wasn’t hurt, just shaken as I scrambled to pick up my bike and pedal off. It was all I could do not to cry.

We had to do something, said my friend. We had to take matters into our own hands, we couldn’t let a witch attack us like that. So we armed ourself with a ouija board which was just a sheet of paper with the letters of the alphabet in marker, and an upturned glass. We said a prayer for the spirits to connect with them, and then we asked that they defeat the witch. The spirits replied, as they always did. I never pushed the glass by the way, I was far too gullible and actually believed in the power of the ouija board. Clearly, my friend did the pushing. Anyway, the spirits answered: the witch would be taken care of.

Months passed and winter fell. The witch wrapped her hair in a scarf against the cold. She seemed less fearsome that way, just old, and a bit sad. We were still weary when we saw her in the street, but we no longer made up stories about the children she ate in her car. In fact, we started to forget about her.

And then her car disappeared. There was no fuss, no great thunderstorm to mark the removal of the witch’s lair. Just that it was there one day, and then the next wasn’t. The spirits had done as we had asked them.

The next time I saw the witch, I felt horridly guilty that we’d taken her home from her. She just looked like an old woman now, and she pulled a trolley of plastic bags behind her. I knew there were no bones under the bags, probably just more plastic bags — plastic bags that no longer had anywhere to live.

***

I heard of the witch again recently. There was a very sad article in the Guardian (a UK newspaper) about her passing. She had in fact been a gifted concert pianist, and a piano teacher. In the 70s she fell on hard times and was asked to leave her lodgings. Believing she had been wronged, she slept in her car, demanding to return to her rooms.

She never did.

Her car was removed because it was a bit of an eye sore and local residents felt that it devalued property prices on that street. Attempts were made to move her into affordable housing instead but she refused, choosing to remain on the streets. She was apparently very clean, washing at the local doctor’s surgery every day, and resourceful too: she used pigeon feathers to insulate her makeshift shoes in the winter.

She was killed by a lorry at 77, having spent most of her life on the streets. By all accounts she was a rather extraordinary woman, but one who sadly was a bit different, and who as a result slipped through the cracks.

For anyone interested, the whole article is here

F is for… Funfair

*My theme for this A to Z is Childhood stories. Some are real, some are embellished, some are entirely fictional but are based on the kind of things I imagined when I was younger*

A funfair set up on the green near our house one day, all gawdy lights and madly spinning rides. Of course, we went. I had never been to a funfair before.

The air was sweet, smelling of popcorn and candied almonds and cut grass from the green — although nothing smelled as sweet as the candyfloss I held, the first I’d ever had. It was pink, bigger than my head, and I decided there and then that candyfloss was the finest invention of all mankind (except, of course, for Petit Déjeuner.)

I left my parents and wandered around, happily sinking as much of my face as I could into that pink cloud of sugar. Around me people fired rifles at tin cans, threw balls at plastic bottles, aimed horseshoes at cones. A man juggled flaming batons to the delight of the crowd assembled around him.

Behind the dodgems, I spotted a pretty wooden caravan painted with a pattern of flowers. As I got closer I could see that the paint was chipped and faded by the sun (I know what you’re thinking but it’s true. Even the UK sun can bleach colours if given years and years to work with.)

Above the bead curtain that served as a door was a sign that read ‘Special deal today only: £3.99’. In my pocket I had a crisp £5 note, so whatever it was, I could afford it. Intrigued, I climbed up the three steps to the caravan door, pushed the beads aside, and went in.

It was gloomy and looked how I imagined a mouse’s nest would look if that mouse had turned human. A mess of clothes, scarves, bits of fabric, and strings of coloured beads sprouted from open trunks, cascading onto the floor. More beads and fabric hung from the ceiling and the walls, sharing the space with drying herbs.

The caravan smelled of old cigarettes and patchouli.

“Ah, a customer!”

The woman who had spoken was sat in one of two chairs in the only space that wasn’t overrun with beads and fabric. Her hair was long and grey, her face was heavily lined, and a cigarette with a long trail of ash drooped from her lips. She took a drag and pinched the cigarette between thumb and index finger. The ash broke off and scattered over her ankle-length skirt.

“I saw you had a special deal,” I said, trying not to stare at the ring through her right nostril. “What’s it for?”

“Sit, sit,” she said, breathing out a cloud of smoke. She gestured to the chair opposite her. A vague pattern was visible beneath the patina of grime and ash, but whatever colour it had once been was lost to the years, and the chair was now the colour of dust.

I sat and she leaned towards me with a conspirational air.

“I can cure you,” she said.

“Of what?”

“Whatever you want. And not just a temporary cure, no. I do good business. I’d cure you for life. You want to be cured of disease, of ageing? I can do that.” She sat back in her chair, looking pleased with herself. “And for £3.99, it doesn’t get better than that. Today only mind you, so no thinking about it and coming back tomorrow.”

I considered her offer. £3.99 was a lot of money after all, and if I spent it on a cure, that would only leave me a pound and a penny to buy lemon sherbets and sour worms.

“Well I’m not old and I’m not sick,” I said aloud. I’d had a cold, but that was a couple of months ago and I’d already cured myself.

“Fine. I can cure you of failure. I can cure you of bad luck.”

I shook my head. I had candyfloss in my hand and £5 in my pocket: clearly I was both lucky and successful.

“You’re a tricky one,” said the woman. “What about jealousy or heartache? I can cure you of bad grades or stupidity. I can cure you of arguments and problems with your family. I can cure you of bad friends and bad relationships. I can cure your looks, I can make you a future model.”

“I’m not sure my looks need curing,” I said, a little hesitantly.

“Well, you’re no Cindy Crawford,” she replied, squinting at me through the smoke.

I wasn’t sure who Cindy Crawford was — someone prettier than me, I guessed — but I didn’t like the idea of a new face. “No, I think I’m good.”

The woman threw herself back against the chair. “Fine. Fine. You drive a hard bargain. Ok then, I’ll cure you of whatever you want, just tell me what it is.”

I considered this, but all I could think about was the candyfloss in my hand and the sunshine outside.

“Nothing, I guess,” I said.

“You must want something cured. Everybody wants something. And for such a good price too.” She considered me with calculating eyes, scratching the hollow of one cheek with a dirty fingernail. “Money,” she said. “I can cure you of lack of money. I can cure you of poverty and make you rich.”

“I’m not poor,” I replied, thinking of my crisp five pound note. I took a mouthful of candyfloss and it dissolved on my tongue.

“I can cure you of greed,” she said, brightening. “I can cure you of your sweet tooth.”

“What?”

“Yes, I can cure you of your sweet tooth,” she said, eyes gleaming. “I can make it so you never crave candyfloss again. Or sugar or cake. No fillings for you, no problems with your teeth. No diabetes, no liver troubles, no cholesterol, no obesity. A lifetime of health troubles avoided just like that.” She snapped her fingers. “And all for the bargain price of £3.99. What do you say?”

I stood up.

“You are not taking my candyfloss away,” I said stiffly. “Thank you very much.”

“You should think of the future. I can make such a difference to your life.”

“I am thinking of the future, and it will be far, far better if there is candyfloss in it. Good day.” I turned to leave.

“Ok come back little girl, I’ll figure out what to cure you off.”

I ignored her and headed out the caravan, blinking as I stepped into the sunshine. The woman shouted something else after me, but I didn’t catch what it was. I didn’t care anyway, not if she wanted to take my candyfloss away and charge me a whole £3.99 for the privilege.

I slipped into the crowd, my anger quickly replaced with happiness as I sank my face once more into my pink sugar cloud.

***

Disclaimer: I should say that this story is entirely fictional. I’ve never wandered a funfair alone as a child, or met a woman like that, and happily I have no fillings, I’m not obese, and I have none of the health problems the women listed, although I do still love candyfloss.