THE HALLOWEEN WITCHES
“These are cute, who made these?” said Amalie, peering inside the box of chocolate cup-cakes on the counter.
“The bakery round the corner sent them”, said Claire “Spooky cup-cakes”.
“That was good of them”, said Amalie.
The two women bustled about, setting out rows of matching cups and saucers. It was the October meeting the Village Hall teas, held every month to raise money for charity. This month’s meeting neatly coincided with Halloween.
“Do you remember the July teas?” said Amalie, glancing wistfully through the open hatchway to the main room of the Hall “It was so hot we opened up the back doors to the allotments”.
“A bit different to now”, said Claire, glancing at the rain spattered almost horizontally across the kitchen window.
“Don’t remind me”, Amalie sighed.
There was a brisk, no-nonsense knocking on the back door.
“That’ll be Sadie I expect”, said Claire, bustling over to let her in.
Sadie came into the room, weighed down by cake-boxes.
“You’ve been busy”, said Claire, relieving her of a couple of the boxes.
“You can’t beat proper home baking I say”, said Sadie, pushing back the rain-spattered hood of her wax jacket “People eat so much junk these days”.
Amalie and Claire knew better than to respond to this. Sadie didn’t need any encouragement when she started on one of her Virtues Of Home-Grown Food rants. Sadie had almost completely turned her garden over to growing her own produce. She also had one of the allotments behind the Village Hall. It was fair to say that Sadie regarded all supermarkets as the institutions of the Devil.
“Have you heard about this storm that’s coming in tonight?” said Claire.
“Storm?” Sadie barked, almost taking this news as a personal affront “What storm?”
“We heard it on the radio earlier”, said Amalie “There’s a nasty storm coming in during the early hours of tomorrow morning”.
“Going to hit most of England and Wales apparently”, said Claire “Everywhere except Scotland and the far North”.
“I see”, said Sadie, icily “So the Media will go completely stupid as usual. Always does when bad weather hits the South. Total hysteria”.
“Well”, said Amalie, trying not to rise to the bait, but as usual failing “What do you expect of us effete Southerners?”
Sadie stood and glared at her, like a psychopath fixing a victim in its steely gaze.
“I was getting at the Media”, she said “They carry on like something out of America. They exaggerate anything that happens in the South. I bet if a storm was to hit up North it wouldn’t get mentioned at all”.
“But that’s daft, Sadie”, said Claire, in her innocent way “I often see bad weather up North on the news”.
Sadie ignored this reckless intervention.
“Hysteria”, she said, again “Everyone over-reacting. Whatever happened to stiff upper lip. I’m popping over to the farm to get some eggs”.
She slammed out, like a bad-tempered fairy in a pantomime.
“She gets to me every bloody time!” said Amalie, throwing a dishcloth onto the draining-board.
“I know, love”, said Claire “She’s not got a chip on her shoulder that one, so much as a bag of ruddy potatoes!”
“If I have to take anymore of that stoic Northern lass act I’ll scream”, said Amalie “I wouldn’t mind, but she’s from Lincolnshire, that’s scarcely the Arctic wastes”.
“She tries too hard”, said Claire “I wish she’d leave well alone, but she has to tell us what’s what, and that’s that”.
The main doors to the hall swung open, and their first customers apppeared, a gaggle of excited children on their way home from school. Amalie and Claire were soon busy dispensing tea and cake. The children ran around, stamping their feet on the parquet floors and making spooky “wooh! wooh!” noises, and flipping their colouring-books and pens across the tables.
“What a shame they have to grow up”, Claire was saying, when Sadie returned.
“I wouldn’t mind some of their energy”, said Amalie.
“Fizzy drinks, that’s what’s to blame”, said Sadie, but before she could start on another of her monologues they were saved by a party of pensioners, all needing refreshments.
The time sped past, and the hall was packed out. The teas were always popular, no matter what the time of year.
“Hope you’re battening down the hatches tonight, ladies”, said an elderly gent, on his way out “They’re predicting winds of 90 mile-per-hour”.
“Up North we would say you just need to put a coat on to that”, said Sadie.
The old man wisely refused to answer this.
“Make sure your wheelie-bins are secure”, was his parting-shot instead.
“Hysteria!” exclaimed Sadie, now sounding as if she was about to start chewing the furniture at any moment.
The main doors swung open again and the Witches of Eastwick sauntered in. This was the name Amalie and Claire had secretly given to a gang of old ladies. They always sat at the large table at the back of the room, under the stage, and over their little teapots and cups, they would cast withering aspersions on the rest of the room. That is when they were not having an in-depth discussion about their incontinence problems. (They had once told Claire she was too young to listen to such a conversation. Claire’s astonished response that “I’m going through the menopause!” had met with a frosty, silent response).
The only one of them Amalie liked was Rebecca, a well-groomed upright old lady of nearly 90 years of age, who seemed to barely tolerate the rest of the group. Amalie could only assume she came out with them out of loneliness, and to escape the house. The only times she spoke were to chuck an impatient “do we have to talk about this AGAIN?” into the ring. The rest of the time she thumbed through a copy of ‘Woman’s Weekly’, and lost herself in pictures of cute dogs, recipes, and harrowing tales of incurable diseases and terrible injuries.
The group was headed by an absolutely dreadful old woman called Mrs Peebles, who had a whiney voice like a squeaky door hinge. Mrs Peebles, like the rest of them, was a widow. Her husband had been a notorious groper, who had earned the nickname of Slappy John, because he loved to slap women’s legs whenever anyone was unlucky enough to hove into his range. He had made Amalie feel physically sick.
Mrs Peebles’s comment on all this was “I don’t mind, I know he meant nothing by it”. Amy had serious doubts about that. She remembered once, on looking out of her bathroom window after taking a shower one morning, seeing Slappy John gazing up at her witha revolting leer on his face. It was a great blessing to the women of the village when he had suddenly pegged out with a heart-attack one day.
“I’m afraid we haven’t any lemon sponge today”, Claire was saying, knowing it was Mrs Peebles’s favourite.
“Oh that’s alright”, said Mrs Peebles, in her voice of perpetual martyrdom “It doesn’t bother me. Not at all”.
“The children are a bit rowdy today”, Claire apologised “They’re all excited because it’s Halloween”.
“I love children”, Mrs Peebles opined, like a dreary ghost from a tomb “All I ever wanted was to be a wife and mother. I can’t understand women who don’t have children. Or who only have one [this comment was aimed, as always, at her best friend Delia, who had had one child]. I couldn’t live without my children”.
Amalie had to go and stand by the draining-board to calm down. She knew this was all for her benefit. She had once made the mistake of saying she wasn’t bothered if she had children or not. Mrs Peebles had taken this as a grevious insult, and now never lost an opportunity to ram it home about how being a wife and mother was all she had ever wanted, and how she had even given up a promising career in science to do her blessed duty, and the sacrifice had all been so completely worthwhile.
“Are you alright Amalie love?” Claire whispered, touching her arm.
“I don’t feel too good”, said Amalie “I think I’ve got this bug that’s going round. Must be the change in the weather”.
(There was always a bug going round, which was very handy as it meant that just about anything that went wrong could be blamed on it).
“You take yourself off home”, said Claire “We can manage, it’s winding down a bit now. I’ll take their teas over to them”.
“Are you sure?” said Amalie.
“Yes”, said Claire “You should just ignore her when she gets like that”.
“But she’s always like it!” said Amalie “The others are almost as bad. Centuries ago they’d have all been put on ducking-stools!”
“Oh you are a one”, Claire laughed.
Amalie fetched her coat and bag. She avoided saying goodbye to Sadie, as no doubt some kind of high-minded lecture would follow, probably along the lines of how she would never get ill at all if she cut all junk food out of her diet, and ate only organic produce. Sadie had once caught her drinking Diet Coke, and had filled her with bloodcurdling tales of young, healthy people whose insides had rotted away as a consequence, and even some who had fallen down dead on the spot immediately after drinking it.
“Bloody women”, thought Amy, stepping out into the October twilight.
She set off up the road to her home. The wind was getting up, and was rustling through the trees, scattering damp leaves everywhere. It had a wild, Halloween beauty all of its own. She was glad she had left early. Very often one of the other women would walk home with her, and would be so busy giving breathless monologues about the latest terrible developments in their lives that she never had a chance to notice anything.
Sometimes, she thought, you have to take time out to walk by yourself, to notice the magic of the world. Sometimes, you have to escape from the witches.