The sixteenth instalment of our Story | Retold series sees Gary Raymond take inspiration from ‘Mrs Armitage’ by Emyr Humphreys.
It always starts with an answer.
I know what it is I am suspicious of. We are in a game, but it is a serious game, and we know what it is we are suspicious of.
When the boys take Norman to the lane, and they point down it to the house where the witch lives, and they say they have seen her doing things down there in and around that house, he says after a little thought that this is serious and he will need their help as he is versed in these things as he’s read books about witches and he’s seen some video nasties – although his tastes are quite refined and classical for a boy of his age, he will have you know.
He tells them in no round-a-bout way that they will be valuable assistants in this battle against evil. The other boys look at him – Norman is still in thought. We will need paper, Norman says. And you, Patrick, you get me some old scrap from your dad’s shed in case we need to melt it down.
The boys continue look at him.
Norman, says Jamie, we brought you here to join us, not to lead us.
Norman blushes. He had thought this was the moment he had lived all his long eleven years for. Norman believes a gang does not elect a leader, but that a leader steps forth. But leaders are not always wanted, they are not always needed. Fiction lies to us about this. And besides, Norman has some questions, and it always starts with an answer.
You have to give it to witches, of course. Have you seen them in their circles in the woods, naked hags with hanging skin like fleshy robes, dancing round bonfires and singing their witchy songs? Solidarity. Sisterhood. We cast them out, us over here, but they have all that over there. They have all that and we have all this, buttoned up and singing from the pews, mouths open and shut, open and shut, face front, don’t slouch. Sunday Best. The witches dance in their saggy fleshy robes, knees up, elbows out, hairy and toothless, grinning, warmed by the bonfires. You know what they make those bonfires out of? Bibles, that’s what.
They say the old lady was from the Rhineland, whatever that is, came over after the war, escaping recriminations. It’s in Germany. It’s deepest darkest Germany. Where they still draw water from wells.
Where did you get that from, says Norman; I thought nobody knew anything about her. And I thought we were keeping this amongst ourselves, y’know, until we have some proof.
That we know she is a witch is enough. Ellis spoke like this. That we know she is a witch is enough. Nobody knew where he got it from, this rhythm. He spent much of the summer away every year, with family, visiting family, and nobody asked but everybody assumed they were weird and that’s why he talked like he did. That we know she is a witch is enough. Ellis came back every September with a tan and yellowed teeth and wearing odd clothes, like grey felt shorts and a plain red t-shirt and his black PE dappers worn with socks. For a few days he didn’t care, like he’d forgotten what it was to be who he was and where he was. Ellis became unrecognisable, his distance made him blurry by the time of his return, and the way he spoke was much worse than it was before he left. Much worse than, That we know she is a witch is enough. All the boys took a moment to rearrange the words into an order they could unpick. Of course, Ellis. The boys gave him time; they gave room to his unction. You see Ellis believed in the answers coming first.
When did witchcraft become legal anyway? Who repealed those laws? William the Conqueror, the man who dragged Britain into Europe, forgave much inherent paganism but he had no time for witches. It seems there were four social ills that were feared in connection with witches in his day:
- Death by poisoning. Very bad.
- Death of men and animals by sorcery and magic. This meant death by curse or even disease, or simply anything by which the death could not be medically explained.
- Seeing into the future.
- The employment of devils or demons or spirits.
They seem pretty spot on to me, says Patrick; Particularly the devils and demons working for you. It’s those things that will fuuuuuuck youuuuu uuuuuuup. Why would you get rid of those laws?
They huddle around the book. Norman holds it, one hand on each edge, the steering wheel position. Childhood used to be the only time you’d sit cross-legged your whole life, until Yoga came in from California. In the 1980s the world was still the length of a street to a kid. The witch lived four streets away from the terraced quadrangle where the boys grew up. They had to cross a main road to reach the lane. They had to walk over to the semi-detached houses on the street with the Welsh language name none of them had ever been taught to pronounce. Across the Stygian fortifications of the unHoly Trinity of tarmac, houses with driveways, and language. In the 1980s, the boys learned about witches from videotapes from the video rental shop – a shop named Centurion, for no discernible reason. And they learned about witches from books in the library where they would huddle and Norman would hold in the steering wheel position. And, of course, in the 1980s kids would learn about witches from their parents.
There she was. There. They huddled at the end of the lane, peeking round the corner down the vortex of grey cobbles and mossy redbrick, as the old woman shuffled out in her browns and greys and lifted the black lid and put in the black bag with a plonk. And then she shuffled back off.
A few breaths. The gate closed.
Did you see the huuuuuuuuuump on that!?! Patrick says excitedly, as Jamie and Ellis try to wrestle him into keeping his voice down.
Right, says Norman. We need to know what’s in that bag.
It’s her bins, says Jamie.
Or….. says Norman.
Or what? says Patrick.
We need to go through the bins, says Norman.
They all look at Patrick, seeing as he’s the one who owes them for nearly screeching the game away just then.
A moment of silence and then, fuuuuuccckk oooffffffff. I’m not going through some old bag’s bin bags.
I thought we were a team, says Norman.
I thought you were our leader, says Patrick.
Ellis’ mother knew the witch from the post office. There had been conversations had in queues. Leave her alone, my mother said, it is not for children to meddle in years twi-lit. But Ellis knew Hansel and Gretel, and not the children’s story; he had seen a Centurion videotape, and the witch spits in a foreign accent as she pushes the siblings into the oven.
And everybody knows the Germans did bad things in the war. They did bad and they were bad.
What did they do? says Patrick. Specifically.
They crucified children. They experimented on twins. They were planning to build an army of the undead.
You think that’s what she’s doing? The witch?
It gets in everywhere, storytelling. After the war the evil Nazis had scattered like soothsayer’s chicken bones, scattered to the winds. They took with them their experiments, their ideologies, their plotting, their snapping heels, their canes, their pristine Hugo Boss wardrobes, their smile-less faces, their sweet weightless foods, their marching and their straight-armed saluting. All the boys agreed though: the German infantryman of the Second World War had the best helmets. They could all agree on that.
Ellis’ mother said the old woman used to be a nurse.
That’s it! They creep and crawl into positions of authority. They look like you and me, only they don’t do they, because they all have little round wire-framed glasses, thick Slavonic lips, and, as noted, they always clip their heels when they introduce themselves. And leather gloves, Patrick says excitedly; they wear leather gloves!
So we know what we’re looking for, says Norman.
Ever seen a witch that looks like that? says Patrick.
The boys sit in silence for a few moments. Thinking. Contemplating. Eyes raise to Patrick. He feels them on him. I am NOT going through her fucking bins, he says.
And it is exactly this squeamishness in the face of evil that allows evil to prevail. It is the most determined who win. And evil is very determined. It has all the answers.
You’re not supposed to go further than the main road, Norman’s mother says. Wait, just wait, until your father gets home.