Witchcraft for Today

 I had always liked Sarah's kitchen.  It wasn't fitted; every woman' s dream of beautiful bleached oak fitments, hob and eye-level, spit-in-your-eye grill, Provencal crockery, Le Creuset casseroles did not feature at all.  Instead it was a room, just like any other , a living, eating room, in which she happened to cook.  The antique Welsh dresser and waxed oak table were kitchen equipment I suppose - although both were habitually lost under a drift of books and papers and magazines.  And cats.  There were cats everywhere.  A litter of kittens which had somehow never been given away , had stayed around, much to their mother's disgust, until they grew into fat, sleek, contented moggies who only now and then  remembered their kitten hood  and rioted as  a pack around the dresser shelves, scattering willow pattern, two year old invitations and even older bills which were then retrieved and carefully returned to their previous positions in the dust.

Sarah was my best friend.  We had known one another since school and the relationship, sometimes close, sometimes distanced by the exigencies of husbands and jobs, had remained easy and relaxed.  It was, I thought, a real pleasure for us both when destiny brought us to within fifteen miles of one another. Our house was a pretty terraced cottage in a street of eighteenth century symmetry in a small East Anglian town. Hers was a rambling farmhouse in a scattered village, once pretty, now blighted with the dreadful post-war housing for which Britain will be drummed out of the Pantheon of the Arts forever when the final  great judge hands out prizes for architecture.

My first visit was a revelation.

'Sarah!' I kissed her on the cheek and gave her a hug.

'Belinda!' She kissed me back , her lips not quite touching my face and, drawing me into the kitchen, she ensconced me in an old arm chair which was covered in an embroidered shawl.  Judging by the state of my skirt later the entire family of cats had been sleeping there only minutes  before!

She made coffee - thick, real, stomach-churningly delicious - in a heavy earthenware jug and produced some home-made biscuits.  Then she pulled up her own chair near me.  There was only one cat in the room at the time.  A beautifully marked silver tabby, it sat on the hob staring at us with disconcerting intensity.

'Donald has left me.'

The baldness of her statement took me aback.  She said it without any visible emotion, without a tremor in her voice, though now I noticed for the first time the dark circles under her eyes, the transparent unhappiness.

'When?  Why?'

My response shocked even me by its crass inappropriateness, but my surprise was absolute.  Their marriage had always struck me as being absolutely sound - one of the great love affairs of the kind which would endure until they were both in their nineties.

'When?  On the 7th of May.'  She smiled.  'About six in the evening to be exact.  And why?  Why do they ever go?  They dress it up and justify it in every way possible, but when it comes down to it I suppose it is fear. Fear of growing old.  Fear of responsibility.  Fear of death.  He is desperately trying to retrieve his youth.'

'There's someone else?' I asked it in a whisper.

She smiled.  'The younger model.  Of course.  And apparently she looks like me.  Even sounds like me on the phone.  I suppose I should be flattered that he wants a repeat prescription.  He can't have hated our lives together so much if he wants to travel the same road again.  It's her energy he wants, of course.  He needs it to restore his own.'  She crumbled a biscuit on her plate and stirred the crumbs into the shape of a star with a finger tip.

I didn't know what to say.  If Keith ever left me, I would die and we are far less  close in some ways, I had always thought, than Sarah and Don.

'Are you going to get divorced?' I knew as soon as I said it that it was probably the wrong thing to ask, but what do you say?

She shook her head thoughtfully. Standing up she went to look out of the  window.  Behind her the kitchen felt safe, warm, comfortable.  I could smell our lunch cooking in the Aga.  There was a bottle of Harvey's Amontillado on the dresser with two crystal sherry glasses, next to an old stuffed teddy bear.  A vase of pinks and lavender vied with garlic and oregano to scent the air.

I jumped as a soft, delicate pawed cat plumped into my lap and sat facing me, huge green eyes fixed on mine.

'I'm going to get him back.'  She turned, and leaning against a fridge  almost invisible beneath a cluster of magnetized posters and postcards, scrutinised my face.  Her gaze was for a moment uncomfortable, too intense , like the cat's.  It invaded my space and filled it and I was shocked by the emotions which reeled around me.  Pain, fear, longing, jealousy.  They spun like living things in the room, circling, prowling, sucking energy from the air.

'Sarah - ' My protest  sounded strangled in my own ears and I actually put a hand up to my face as if to ward off something physical.  The cat leapt off my knee and vanished through the cat flap.

She smiled suddenly and the atmosphere changed abruptly.


For a moment I thought she was going to say something else, but she changed her mind and reached instead for the sherry.  Pouring two glasses she handed me one.  I hadn't finished my coffee, but I put down my cup without comment and took the glass instead.

'Do you believe in magic?'  She asked the question with such elaborate casualness that I felt myself stiffen.  A shiver of goose pimples spread across my back.  Somehow I knew we weren't talking Paul Daniels here.

'Do you?' I replied in a whisper.

She appeared to consider for a long moment then she nodded.

I should perhaps say, here, that Sarah  has  somewhat unruly grey hair, gardeners hands and the kind of gentle attractiveness you might expect from a grandmother of three.  In spite of the bunches of herbs hanging in fragrant profusion from the ceiling beams - herbs at which I now glanced slightly apprehensively, she has never for an instant reminded me of a witch.

'What are you going to do?' I asked at last.  My mouth had gone dry.  I drank my sherry with unladylike haste and held my glass out towards her.  She topped it up without seeming to pay any attention to what she was doing.  All her concentration was elsewhere.

'Oh, I've already done it,' she replied.

I could feel my eyes rounding like marbles in their sockets and I found myself staring at the teddy bear on the dresser.  The central seam up its stomach and chest had come unravelled and some of its stuffing was showing.

My hysterical train of thought was interrupted  by a shout of laughter from Sarah who had evidently followed my gaze and my train of thought.  'Oh, Belinda!  Not that.  Not Pooh!' She swooped on the bear and hugged it to her.  'He's here for running repairs, not as a moppet!'   Do you think I would stick pins in him?'

There was something about her intonation which I did not like.  It implied volumes.  'So what do you stick pins in?'  I asked dryly.

'No pins.' She turned to the Aga.  The casserole inside was Le Creuset after all.  Withdrawing it she lifted the lid and stirred  the contents.  Then , the casserole back in the slow oven she put a heavy pan of water on a hot plate.

'It's not difficult, you know.  Magic.  Once you've got over the initial distaste.  One thinks of it as bad.  Evil.  I kept reminding myself that I was a member of the PCC.'  She gave a small giggle.  'But all it is really is the controlled manipulation of events.  You need little more than focused attention to achieve your goal.'

'You must need more than that, ' I protested.  'Otherwise everyone's dreams and curses and hopes and fears would manifest all over the place all the time.'

She sat down, leaning back in her chair and reached for her own sherry glass, savouring it sip by sip.

'Who is to say they don't,' she replied quietly.

My mouth dropped open.  'Well. clearly they don't , ' I said.  I sounded, I suspect, a little bit cheated and that was how I felt.  Surely it couldn't be that easy.  If it was she would look happier, younger, triumphant!  And I - well, my dreams and regrets are not part of this particular story.

'Have you any idea, Belinda, just how little of our brain we use?'  She squinted at me sideways over the sherry.

I had heard that one often before.  Nodding sagely I reached for the bottle.  She didn't seem to notice.

'A fraction of its  power.  Not intellect.  Sheer power.' She gave me that look again.  'Focused, it is capable of becoming a laser.'

I didn't altogether like the implications of all this.  'Are you saying,' I put in doubtfully, 'that magic is a way of focusing the brain?'

'Exactly!' She was triumphant.  'And if you can do it properly, you can do anything!'

'I suppose it's a bit like prayer,' I went on, hopefully trying for normality as I gazed into the depths of my glass.

'No.' She shook her head vehemently.  'No.  No.  No!  Prayer is a plea.  It is part of a one sided bargain.  Our side.  It is a submissive thing, a begging thing.  We grovel before our god and ask him to work everything out and then give us what we want.  Magic is a command. We demand that the forces out there comply with our wishes.  We are in control.'

There was a long silence.  I didn't dare meet her eye.  When at last I looked up she was staring at me fixedly.  The expression on her face was quizzical.

'So, what have you done?' I wasn't sure I actually wanted to know.

'She is going to be sent abroad any day now.'

I didn't have to ask who 'she' was. 'How?'

She shrugged.  'I haven't worked out all the details.  I don't have to.  All I know is that it will happen..'

'And then Donald will come back to you.'

She looked at me enigmatically.  'He'll come back anyway.  When I'm good and ready.'

That last bit was bravado.  Even I could see that.  It was obvious just how much she still loved the man.  I stared out of the window for a minute.  Would I want Keith back if he had gone off with someone else?  I didn't think so.  After all, how would I ever be able to trust him again?  But perhaps she had already thought of that.  Perhaps she had fixed that side of things as well.

As we sat down to lunch I found myself eyeing the plate she had set in front of me with some suspicion.  She spotted it, of course, and let out a hoot of laughter.   'Eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog,' she quoted mischievously.  'Belinda, you are a fool.  What do you think I'd want to turn you into?'

What indeed!'

In fact, after that the conversation took a decided turn for the normal.  We swapped family news (other than  marital) and gossip and happily tried to cap each other's stories of our respective children's brilliant achievements.  I put my suspicions aside and enjoyed her culinary expertise and the second jug of rich coffee which succeeded  it and we did not mention Donald again until I was digging in my handbag for my car keys.

'Let me know how things go,' I said meaningfully, the way one does.

She beamed at me.  'I'll ring you when there's news,' she said.

She rang me four days later.

'You know the little project I mentioned,' she said with  elaborate casualness.  'It appears Sandra has been offered the job of a life time in New York.'

I didn't really know quite what to say.  In the event, I said, 'And she's taking it, I suppose?'

'Of course.'  Sarah sounded rather modest under the circumstances.  'She had realised that he was only playing with her.  She was far too young and unsophisticated for him.  She thought he would marry her once he'd divorced me. Apparently she was under the impression the divorce was only a matter of formality.  Imagine it!'

'Imagine!' I echoed rather feebly.  'So, what happens next?'

I had to wait two weeks to find out.  Although it was really her turn to come to me I accepted Sarah's invitation to lunch with alacrity.  I had by now learned what the sign against the evil eye (the one the are always talking about in historical novels) is all about and how to do it!

I knew something had happened as soon as she opened the door.  It wasn't just that she had lost about a stone and gone blonde instead of grey.  It was something else.  She was sparkling - even glowing - with happiness.

We didn't waste time with coffee or sherry.  There was a bottle of Moet in the fridge.

'I suppose I needn't ask,' I said as I caught the froth in one of her cut glass flutes.  'Donald has come home.'

She poured the two glasses carefully and handed me one.  Only then did she shake her head.  'I'm arranging for Donald to go to New York,' she said.

I stared at her.  I didn't even bother to ask her what she meant by 'arranging'.

'But?' Was all I managed to say.  A large black cat was eyeing me from the dresser.

She giggled.  'I wasn't entirely frank with you last time, Belinda, because I wasn't completely sure it would work.'  She sipped airily.

I waited in silence.  I know a pause for effect when I see one.

Sure enough when she felt she had whetted my appetite sufficiently she put down her glass.  She had, I noticed suddenly, taken off her wedding ring.

'I had been reading about Thought Forms,' she said.  'In another of those wonderful New Age books.'  So, that was where she had got it all from.   'And, well, I thought maybe I might try and create one.'

'A thought form?  I was completely at sea.

She nodded.  'You visualise something.  And you visualise it so hard and so often and so well that it sort of becomes real.  It really happens.'  Suddenly she was blushing.

'Sarah - ?'  It took a minute, but at last I had caught on.  'You don't mean  -?'

She nodded.  'I couldn't be sure Donald would come back,' she said, being, I thought,  deliberately  disingenuous. So, I thought I would toy with a few ideas.'

With the emphasis on the toy,' I thought.  I continued staring at her, waiting to see what would happen. I had  by now noticed that the kitchen table was set for three.

She picked up her glass and took another sip.  'Not too young,' she said dreamily.  OK., so not a toy boy, I revised hastily.  'But younger than Donald.'  Poor old Donald. 'Tall. Handsome.  Well off.  A widower, I thought, but well over his bereavement.'

My God! Every woman's fantasy man.  I waited, breathless.

'I used to visualise him and all the things we could do together.' For the first time she looked evasive. Even down right shifty.  'Things Donald and I haven't done for years.'  She gave an embarrassed little laugh.  'It helped me so much, the day dreaming, the planning. It was like concocting the perfect recipe.  Altering a detail here, giving a little tweak to the design there - ' A little tweak?  All right. So my mind was boggling.  Isn't yours?

She put her head on one side.  'I suppose, with my conscious mind, I didn't really believe that it would work  but obviously I was doing all the right things.'


'But what about Donald?' I said at last.

She shrugged.  I thought I would love Donald for the rest of my life.  He thought so too.  He thought he could come back any time he wanted and I would be here waiting for him with open arms.  He was the one who spoiled it all.  It's always the men who spoil things.'  She looked sad for a moment.  'Never mind.  Even if Sandra doesn't want him there are loads of hungry women in New York who will.'

'And you?' I said

'I am going to live in Tuscany,' she said.  'With Antonio.' She stood up.  'Belinda, I want you to meet my thought form.'

He must have been waiting in the hall for his cue.  The door opened and in he came.  Everything that the recipe had specified.  Tall.  Handsome.  Rich (well, he certainly looked it).  Charming.  40 something at a guess.  As he took my hand  and kissed it my first thought was, poor, poor Donald.  But it was, after all, his own fault. My second was:  Can I learn how to conjure  the spell?


Adapted from  Distant Voices

All short stories »