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The Mid Witch
One Woman’s Struggle with middle age and Magic
Lilly is trying to face the fact her husband is a philandering bastard, and she must move on with her life now that her children have flown the nest. Losing her job has not helped her dire financial straits, and her almost ex-husband wants to sell her ancient family home against her wishes. As she grapples with rude estate agents, stray dogs and hot flushes, a new problem emerges – she’s becoming a witch.
This is the first in the Mid Witch Trilogy – a funny and poignant take on middle life with a touch of magic and a pinch of spice.
Read the first two chapters here Chapter 1 A feather has blown under the kitchen door. I pick it up and admire nature’s perfection as I wait for the kettle to boil. Outside, a magpie hops about in the apple tree. ‘You’ve dropped your feather,’ I say, opening the window and throwing some raisins onto the path. The magpie glides down and cocks her head to eye me as she eats. She’s been living in my apple tree for three days now. There’s still no sign of her mate in the other trees. I know how she feels. The feather shimmers blue, black and green, and there is a buzz in my fingertips as I poke it into the soil of a red geranium on the window ledge. I am groggy. Desperately in need of tea and annoyed that on such an important day I have slept the night in an armchair. Again. I scratch my itchy scalp, and as my fingers meet the plastic bag wrapped around my head, memory returns. The hair dye! Twenty minutes later, I stand naked in front of the bathroom mirror. ‘Fuck,’ I say, examining my bright orange hair. Why today of all days? Why now? I wish I’d bought a hat. Do people wear hats at graduations? Maybe it will look better dried. Not so angry. Not so bloody vivid. I’m wrong, of course. It’s worse. Vibrant is the word that springs to mind. My son is graduating, my estranged husband will be there and my hair… my hair is brighter than a synthetic pumpkin. I tie it back, looping it over into a sort of bun, and get dressed. With no money to buy something new, I plan to wear the same frock I bought for my daughter’s graduation. However, ten years takes a toll on a woman. The dress is too tight and too hot, though it matches my hair. How ironic. The only other garment I have ironed is an old blue polka-dot sack of a dress, which is cool and loose-fitting. At least I have the new strappy sandals I bought on sale, which is something. Let’s hope people notice my feet and not my hair. The shoes came with a sweet little matching handbag. What a bargain. I grab it from the kitchen table and run. I don’t drive. Never learnt. Mike and I started dating when I was seventeen, and he used to collect me in his plumber’s van. It felt romantic and grown up. We’d have sex on a pile of old blankets in the back. At nineteen, I was married and pregnant. There was never any money for another car, and Mike was always good about chauffeuring me. The bus driver, Stan, knows me and, bless him, he is waiting at the top of the road. I run as quick as I can, boobs bouncing, orange hair escaping. By the time I climb on, I’m a woman on fire. ‘I was about to drive to your house and knock on the door,’ he laughs, and I hang on as the bus lurches along the lane. ‘Thanks. Thanks for waiting. I don’t know what I would have done,’ I pant. Sitting in the front seat, I try to calm myself. I ride the bus most days, and he never asks for my bus pass, but the train is different. My train pass is safely in the side pocket of the tiny handbag. I feel smart with this neat little thing on my lap, even if it’s entirely impractical unless all you want to bring is lipstick. Somehow, I have managed to squeeze in my phone, house key, bus and train passes and a graduation card for Jason. No lipstick. Well, I can easily borrow a bit from my daughter. ‘Thanks, Stan,’ I say when the bus pulls into the train station. ‘Have a great day, love. Doesn’t seem two minutes since they were going to school. Give him my best.’ ‘I will.’ The train is busy. I have to stand for most of the forty-five-minute journey. My feet are furious. I hate these shoes already. When I arrive, I text Bel to see if she can collect me. My phone is full of angry messages from her. Where am I? It’s about to start. These days I can’t think straight. My head is full of cotton wool. I must have the wrong time. By the skin of my teeth, I get a taxi. It’s massively expensive, but he drops me off in exactly the right place, and I am so grateful I could kiss him. Or cry. Barrington University is old and huge. The red bricks glow in the summer heat. The courtyard is empty, and there’s music playing somewhere inside. I text Bel again, and in a few moments, there she is. A big scowl on her pretty face. She waves me in and leads the way along the oak-panelled corridor into Barrington Hall. The music has stopped, and there is a general air of anticipation. The ceremony is about to start. Our seats are in the middle of the row. A horrible shuffling embarrassment ensues as we squeeze past everyone’s knees, whispering ‘Sorry’ and ‘Thank you’. Once seated, I go to hug her and am met by a stern glare. These days I mostly feel like a child in her class. She teaches primary school. I try to sit still and will my body to cool down. Sweat trickles down the backs of my legs. Even my handbag on my lap is making me hot. I put it on the floor between my feet and steal a glance past Bel. Her husband, Brian, also a primary school teacher, gives me a friendly smile. Next to him is my husband, Mike. Last time I saw him was about two months ago. He’s had his hair cut short, which suits him. He smiles, and I smile back. Good. He definitely seems pleased to see me. Later, at lunch, I will ask if he will give me a lift home, and then… and then, well, we shall see. I take a deep breath. We sit through a whirl of speeches and then the long procession as the young people file onto the stage to shake the principal’s hand and get their certificates. We all cheer when we hear the name Jason Turner. He smiles at us as he leaves the stage, and I have a pang of regret that I was not here early enough to see him put on his cap and gown. Afterwards, the sunny courtyard is full of chattering graduates in their academic robes. We look for Jason. As soon as he spots us, he comes over and gives me a hug. ‘I’m so proud of you, darling,’ I say into his shoulder. He’s taller than Mike now. Mike comes over with a big grin on his face. ‘This is Charlotte,’ he says. A well-dressed woman, much younger than me, steps forward. ‘Call me Charlie,’ she says, ‘everyone does.’ ‘Lilly,’ I say, forcing a smile. I hope I don’t look as shocked as I feel. We hang around for photos, and Jason is keen to introduce his friends. Charlotte, Call Me Charlie, chats effortlessly with everyone, including Bel. Brian is speaking to one of the tutors. I need a minute to get myself together, so I slip away to the toilet. I wet a paper towel and put it on the back of my neck. I’d like to run my head under the tap, and I wish I had Big Bag with me, which is always full of useful stuff like lipstick and a hairbrush. My hair. Oh my god, my hair. Any other day I would have laughed. I look crazy. Leaving the dye on all night has given it a new texture. It is both gleaming and incredibly dry, and where the chemicals have grabbed onto the white streaks, it is iridescent. I could easily get a job as a party clown. I splash my face with water, then take a few deep breaths and remind myself that this day is about Jason and his achievements. Nobody will be looking at me. We go to lunch. Mike has booked a fancy restaurant for us all, and I manage to sit as far away from Call Me Charlie as I can. Jason is chatty. He always is. I always thought he would go on stage, but he has taken a degree in graphic design. Two of his oldest friends have joined us with their girlfriends. They all went to different universities, but it seems only days ago that they were coming back to the cottage together after school. I sit at the edge of the table, an outsider in my own family. It’s clear they know my husband’s girlfriend. She’s not here by chance. So why didn’t somebody warn me? Everyone laughs at one of Jason’s many impressions. I am immensely proud of my son, and I try to think of only that. To watch him as he smiles and laughs and regales the many amusing moments of the day. Jason sees the funny side of everything. I try not to notice Call Me Charlie and Mike – although she calls him Mitch. The way he looks at her, how close they sit. When she laughs, she throws back her head and her perfectly highlighted bob swings like a silk curtain. She’s fun. Joins in the chat with some funny stories of her own. As I listen, I learn she is a hairdresser. The owner of the fashionable salon in Market Forrington, named, predictably enough, ‘Charlie’s Hair Design’. She’s hoping to open ‘Charlie’s Two’ very soon. This explains Mike’s smart new haircut. I wonder how much younger she is than me. Ten years? Fifteen? Another hot flush flares up my body, gathering heat as it burns my neck and then my face. Would anyone notice if I put the ice from my diet coke down my cleavage? When the lunch is over and we are standing outside in the warm summer evening saying our goodbyes, Mike seeks me out. ‘Well, that was quite a day,’ he says, sighing deeply and arranging his jacket over his arm. He hates creases. We both look at our children. So grown up. An icy shiver engulfs me. A cardigan is something else I always have in Big Bag. ‘I’ve been meaning to call in,’ he says, looking at me properly for the first time. His gaze slides over my hair and I try not to cringe. ‘Now the kids have properly flown the nest, I think it’s time to put the cottage on the market. You know, move on with our lives. Don’t you?’ As he speaks, he smiles at Call Me Charlie. She’s giving him the ‘time to go’ look. ‘Good, well then. Lovely to see you,’ he says, as if I am an acquaintance he has encountered on the pavement. Then he’s off. Waving to the kids and putting his jacket around his girlfriend’s shoulders as they walk away. Belinda and Brian rush off because they want to pick the twins up from friends. Jason is clearly itching to party with his mates. I assure him I am quite happy walking to the station on my own. Even after sitting in the restaurant for so long, my feet have not improved. Swollen flesh is pressing against the straps. My feet are being grated alive. Big Bag always has spare shoes. Flip-flops in the summer and trainers in the winter. It’s a slow walk to the train station. The carriage is empty on the way back, and I cry ugly tears then find I have no tissues. Beyond caring, I wipe snot on my dress. God knows I can’t look any worse. Chapter 2 The next day is Sunday. I’m up early, which is unusual. I am always wakeful on bright summer nights when the sky is clear and moonlight shines on the garden. In the morning, I have no trouble sleeping. Last night, though, I slept well, exhausted from the emotions of the day. I shower, put on some comfy shorts and a baggy T-shirt and make a big pot of tea and an immense pile of toast. On the kitchen table is an unopened letter, official and boring. I’d been so busy cleaning the cottage for my imagined reunion with Mike that I’d just left it. I open it now. Inside is a letter from Mike’s solicitor stating that he will no longer be paying me an allowance. I pour more tea into my mug, but it’s stewed and lukewarm. It’s time to take stock. Be honest with myself. Face up to reality. My marriage is over. I am moving house. I have no money. Whenever I feel low, I favour action over thought. Best to keep busy, my mother told me whenever things got bad. Before the cottage goes on the market, I should clear out the attic. I rinse my mug and plate, toss some raisins to the magpie and go upstairs. The best idea is to empty the attic entirely, though it seems a shame to make a mess when the cottage is so clean and tidy. Never mind. I find the old shepherd’s crook at the back of the wardrobe that pulls open the hatch and releases the steps. I can’t think when I last came in here. Stacking the loft was always Mike’s job. He’d initiate a clear out and we’d end up storing everything we no longer needed but I couldn’t part with. That’s the trouble with me. I’m sentimental. I work all morning, hauling down old suitcases and cardboard boxes. I can’t believe there is so much stuff. The sitting room and narrow hallway are crammed, and I am overwhelmed by the task I have taken on. Dust-covered and sweaty, I go into the kitchen, drink a glass of water and tip some into the red geranium plant, which I’m sure has grown since yesterday. The magpie jumps onto the window ledge and tilts her head to look at me. I put a raisin in my hand and hold it out to her. She hops closer, pecks it up and swallows it whole. Will the people who come to live here feed her? I am filled with so much sadness I go into the garden and stand in the apple tree’s shade. Apart from a few years when Mike and I were newly married and had a second-floor flat in Barrington, I have lived at North Star Cottage all my life. My mother and grandmother were born here. When my mother got cancer, it was easier to live here with the kids. She loved the kids. After she died… well, we just stayed. Jason was a toddler and Belinda was at the school in the village. It was cheaper than paying rent, and Mike needed money for his plumbing business. Whenever he got the time, he tried to bring the cottage up to date. New bathroom, obviously. An ensuite in the bigger bedroom. He painted the walls tasteful shades of grey and insisted on getting rid of anything chintzy. He was full of ideas. The kitchen with its old pine cupboards and battered table was always on his ‘sort the cottage out list’, but time and money never came together enough for him to make a start. It gives me a pain in my chest to think of new owners renovating the place even more. My skin itches from the dust. I’d like to lie in the shade in the long grass and look at the sky through the branches, but I decide to press on. The attic is almost empty. I will bring out the last few boxes and then take a shower. It’s late afternoon when I stand under the eaves in the empty space. I’m hungry and tired. I have not stopped to eat lunch, which is unlike me. Now I’m a bit wobbly. ‘Right. That’s that then,’ I say, and my voice echoes. Then I notice one more box, tucked under the slope of the roof. I hook it out with the shepherd’s crook. At first, I think it’s a large shoe box, but when I put it on top of a pile of old coats in the spare room, I see it is a small suitcase made of leather. An old belt holds the lid in place. After a shower, I pull on a comfy track suit and eat some cheese on toast. Then I walk about, looking at all the junk. Flip through old books and unwrap forgotten toys. A bag of baby clothes brings me to tears for the joy of motherhood and the passing of those unrepeatable years. I sift through photographs and pull out discarded clothes. Recollections rise to the surface with each item I find. The love my children had for favourite teddy bears. Tents we used to pitch on the lawn and child-sized deck chairs. Hats, now squashed, that I wore at weddings, and piles of their school books I could never bear to throw away. Celebrations and daily life all carefully stored. My own childhood is here, packed in boxes and neatly labelled with my mother’s writing. I leave them unopened. So many memories. My whole life represented in a stack of rubbish that needs to be thrown away. My heart aches, and I wish I could feel that this was a new beginning and not an end. I am an empty nester, and soon I must leave North Star Cottage and start a new life. It’s work tomorrow, so I go to bed. Sleep claims me instantly. But five hours later, I am awake. I don’t bother trying to get back to sleep. I put the kettle on, make a mug of cocoa and sit in the moonlit kitchen. The leather suitcase is on the table. I thought I had left it upstairs. Never mind. I pull it to me, undo the crescent buckle and lift off the lid. Inside are packets of crisp brown paper tied with string and many small leather pouches. There is also a brown and faded book, which I lift onto the table. Carved onto the thin leather cover is a spindly star. The pages inside are fine as silk and handwritten in black ink. There are drawings of plants and animals. Recipes to cure headaches and sprained ankles. Love potions and soup to mend sadness. The language is strange and the spelling peculiar. I can hardly make out the meaning. How old is this? How long has it been hiding in the attic? Maybe I should cook something from this book before I leave. The writing is very hard to read, but I open it at random, persevere and discover a recipe for curing gout. As I thumb through the delicate pages, I find cures for bunions and teething babies, bone aches and backaches, bee stings and snake bites. How fascinating. A book of herbology. I wonder if the museum in Barrington might be interested and if they could tell me more about it. There is an inscription on the last page: Whosoever use this, my book of shadows, do so in good heart and pure intent, pleasing faith and spirit. Bethany Blackwood. Wood is my maiden name, and I wonder if I am related to this woman and if our last name was shortened. I get into the big easy chair in the lounge. Old and squashy with faded flowery covers, it’s out of place alongside the smart, low-backed pair of grey sofas Mike bought. We call it the easy chair, but it is almost a bed, long enough to lie on. It is where my grandmother and mother both liked to relax. Moonlight comes through the window, and I pull an old blanket over myself and sleep. In the morning, I am so late I miss breakfast and run for the bus still buttoning my polyester work shirt. I hang on the grab rail and talk to Stan about the graduation. I don’t mention Mike, and he doesn’t ask. Then I sit and muse about my situation. Now Mike has stopped my allowance, I should ask for a pay rise. See if I can take on more responsibility at work. Or maybe I could get another job on the weekends. The bus is almost full when we drive into Market Forrington. I make a point of not looking at Charlie’s Hair Design as we go past. No point in torturing myself. The bus stops at the end of the high street, and off I get. I work in Dunwicks Department store. The staff entrance is in a side alley, and I’m glad I’m not late. All things considered, I’m doing fine, I tell myself. Orange hair is safely secured in a tight bun. Uniform of skirt and shirt in pale blue with pink piping is clean, and I’ve remembered my name badge. On the bus, I dabbed on some makeup to disguise red eyes and general blotchiness. I have Big Bag to cope with whatever else life might throw at me. My stomach rumbles, and I feel weak. I may need to see the doctor about my blood sugar or something. Recently I have worked on the ground floor in the gifts and ornaments section. This is one of the coveted positions in Dunwicks Department Store. I’m surprised they gave it to me, as I have only worked here since Christmas. To be honest, I was much happier working with my friend Tina upstairs in haberdashery. Monday is a quiet day. Brenda, the floor manager, is keen to get all the ‘jobs jobbed’, as she puts it, and sets the six of us to our tasks. I have drawn the short straw and must dust the locked cabinet that contains the expensive china and crystal. ‘Now take your time,’ says Brenda, handing me a key on a lanyard and frowning at my hair. She is half my age and speaks to me like I am a wayward teenager. This large glass display cabinet is at the back of the store, and with any luck, I can fuss about here all day in peace. I unlock the first door, slide it across and begin moving everything onto a holding trolly so I can clean the glass shelf. Each piece and its price tag must be put back exactly as I found them. This is Brenda’s method. And we ‘girls’ know if we stick to her method, nothing will go wrong. Brenda has a method for everything. The top shelf is easy. It has only three large crystal vases. They have been here as long as I can remember. Perhaps today will be the day when someone buys them. The next shelf is trickier. A plethora of bone china animals and a few figurines stand in neat rows, smaller objects at the front. As I replace them, I am struck by how boring everything looks, and a terrific idea pops into my fuzzy head. I will rearrange the entire cabinet into an eye-catching display that everyone will love. There has been a lot of staff gossip about opportunities in Dunwicks lately. Perhaps this is my chance. I will show a bit of initiative and then ask if I can train to do window dressing or something. Because they remind me of ice, I group all the crystal vases together. Locked drawers at the bottom of the display case contain more stock. I try the key. It doesn’t work, which is a shame because my idea is excellent. I really wish the key worked. In frustration, I twiddle it again, and the drawer opens. I am thrilled and carefully unpack all the polar bears and penguins from the drawer and set them about my frozen crystal world. There are some glass snowflakes in the stock drawer, and I add them to the scene. I am so enthralled, I miss my coffee break and start unwrapping all the porcelain crinoline ladies. I give each lady a horse and a dog or a cat and arrange them in a parade. Some of their faces are snobby or sad, and I wish they were cheerful. As I organise them on the newly polished shelf, the light catches their faces, and they look pleased. It is as if they always wanted a horse and a pet. I chuckle as I gather all the porcelain birds and put them on a perch I have made from upturned mugs. This is great. I have not enjoyed work so much for years. Perhaps shop display is my calling? Maybe I could work for a window dressing company. It would be nice to have a fun job. All around my feet are boxes and bubble wrap. I should sort this out, put everything neatly in the drawer and organise price tags alongside the ornaments. There is only one more shelf to arrange, though, and I’ve saved the best until last. Dragons. There are two large and three smaller ones. A dragon nest is my idea. I am distracted by a customer looking at my creation. A sale would be terrific. ‘Can I help you?’ I say. His face is contemptuous, and he ignores me and carries on perusing the ornaments, studying each shelf until he stands next to me. My trolly prevents me from moving away, and the sleeve of his expensive dark suit brushes my arm as he points at the polar bears. His scent, citrus and pine and something else I cannot place, is so alluring I have to stop myself from gulping in a deep breath. He runs his finger slowly along the glass to the shelf below. Until his head is level with mine. Tanned and freshly shaved, he has black hair greying at the temples and a few characterful wrinkles that enhance his handsome face. He turns his head. We are almost nose to nose. His eyes are dark, and they meet mine with an intense gaze. Does he fancy me? We are a similar age. A thrill runs through my core, and I smile. It’s such a long time since anyone has admired me. For a woman, middle age brings invisibility. ‘You look a mess,’ he says, standing up and tapping the glass. ‘Get this one out.’ Shocked, I fumble for the lanyard around my neck. It’s not there. Annoyingly, I have an awful bruised feeling in the centre of my chest. I can’t find the key on my trolley, so I rummage about in the packing at my feet. At last, I find the purple lanyard under his expensive polished shoe. I look up. ‘Could you please move your foot?’ He tilts his foot just enough so that I can pull the lanyard free. ‘Is this going to take much longer?’ A hot flush sears my neck as I try to unlock the cabinet. Will the key work? I drop it twice, and this man just stands there with his hands in his pockets and sighs. Finally, the key turns and I slide the door open. ‘There, now that wasn’t so difficult, was it?’ he says. This man really is a condescending prick. ‘Which one?’ I ask. ‘The one at the back.’ The hardest one to reach. ‘Certainly, sir.’ My face is hot, and I know I look like a sweaty tomato. Reaching the large polar bear from where he peeps behind an expensive crystal vase entails moving everything. I take my time and try to ignore the customer. He’s actually tapping his foot. I force a smile as I lift the polar bear out. It is almost as large as a cat. He takes it from me in his well-formed hands and examines it, and I wish I was a person who could chat with strangers. A little sales patter would be helpful right now. And I really need this sale to validate my display. This polar bear is the most expensive item in the entire department. ‘What is going on?!’ Brenda appears from behind the scarves carousel. She sees the customer and immediately goes into charming shop assistant mode. ‘Is there anything I can help you with, sir?’ she says, her voice smooth and gracious. ‘How much?’ he asks, fixing me with those dark, dark eyes. ‘Erm?’ The display is wrecked, and there are piles of plastic price tags on my trolley. I cast a beseeching look at Brenda. The man tuts, hands back the polar bear and says to Brenda, ‘Perhaps I’ll come back when you’re not in such a mess and have some competent, polite staff.’ He deliberately squashes some boxes under his big feet as he leaves. Brenda glares at me, speechless. My hands are sweaty. I clutch the polar bear tighter, and, as if in slow motion, Brenda’s mouth opens as the ornament slips from my grasp. I try to catch it as it falls, only to send it spinning onto the corner of the trolley, where it smashes into smithereens.