The pebbles crunched beneath her feet. She was walking below the dunes, close to the sea’s edge. Seaweed lay around, flung into position by the advancing waves. Over towards the horizon she could see the revolving arms of the wind farm, back towards the village of Cley were the marshes and a couple of birdwatchers, intently photographing what looked to her eyes like a very unremarkable flock of tiny brown birds.
It was cold and the sky was a steely grey, a North wind whipped past her from the ocean, lashing up fierce-looking surf. She had prepared herself for cold weather and was wearing a cable knit sweater and a navy blue quilted jacket – sturdy and practical. Now she felt a wave of warmth sweep up her body and little prickles of perspiration started under her arms. She ripped open the jacket, enjoying the cool sensation of the air on her flushed face and neck.
She looked down for a moment, always on the hunt for interesting stones or sea glass. One had a hole in it, so she picked it up: a hagstone. A stone you could look through, and perhaps see another world. Or that could protect you from curses and bad magic. She put it up to her eye and squinted; there were the marshes and village beyond, the church and the old windmill. Her world now.
Sometimes she wondered if buying the cottage had been a mistake. It had been a kind of mania in London: she’d spent hours transfixed in front of her laptop, glass of wine in hand, scouring property sites for isolated cottages, for restoration, somewhere by the sea. She had been on first name terms with rural estate agents, driving many miles around the flat countryside of Norfolk every weekend. She’d come to know the route along the motorway through Thetford Forest very well, the procession of dark pine trees that seemed to continue forever.
But now, as half the proceeds of the house sale were coming to her, was her chance. She had applied for a lecturing position at the university in Norwich when the History department advertised a vacancy and to her delight, she’d got it. She missed her beautiful kitchen in the townhouse in Walthamstow. It had had an Aga, and its old windows had let in the light in a certain way. She missed being married. But the cottage gave her something to look forward to. When she’d seen it on the website, ‘needing complete refurbishment and modernisation’, she’d felt a stab of excitement. It felt as though it was hers already, and she’d acquired it with the smoothness and swiftness of a dream.
She stuffed the stone in her jacket pocket and headed back to the car. As she slammed the car door, her phone buzzed. Tony’s name came up and her finger paused over the ‘Reject’ button before she accepted the call.
‘Hi. What do you want?’
‘I just wanted to say that you should get the Decree Absolute soon.’
‘Thanks. I can hardly wait.’
‘Margery, please don’t be like that…’
There was a sharp intake of breath and she guessed he was smoking. Presumably he’d been sent outside so that the cigarette smoke wouldn’t harm the baby. She still couldn’t quite believe that Becky, who’d started off as his PHD student, was now going to be the mother of his first child.
To cheer herself up, she pictured Tony, who had always claimed to dislike babies when they were together, shivering on a street corner as he took a drag on his forbidden cigarette. She added an oncoming lorry and a puddle on the road dangerously close to the kerb.
‘I still don’t understand why you’ve decided to bury yourself in Norfolk. I’ll have a pint.’
The street corner vanished. He was probably at the Stars, a shabby boozer favoured by the English faculty.
‘Hardly burying myself. The History Department here is extremely good.’
‘But it’s so far from your friends. It just seems very drastic.’
‘I really don’t think that’s any of your business.’
There was no way she’d admit to him that that was part of the attraction, once ‘their’ friends had become ‘his and hers.’ She hung up on him and started the car.
The drive back to the cottage took about twenty minutes. The sky was still bruised and stormy-looking and as she approached the cottage it began to rain. She loved the way you could see the skies out here but it did mean you were exposed to the wind and weather. The cottage huddled next to one of the water filled, reed-lined trenches used to drain the land, overlooking marshes and beyond that, the dunes and the sea. It was the only building for about five miles and what had sold it to her were the sea views. From the top floor, the only thing you could see was the birds and the blue line of the horizon. Unfortunately, the top floor was more or less uninhabitable at the moment. She had made the downstairs sitting room her temporary bedroom while the builders were up there and the kitchen was usable at the moment, if not what you would call comfortable. They’d be back tomorrow.
The cottage was built along the lines of a simple two up, two down in the flint and brick typical of the region but inside there were old oak beams, an inglenook fireplace with a huge hearth stone and a coffin-hatch to compensate for the very narrow stairs. She’d inherited an old Victorian armchair covered in garish florals which she was planning to reupholster and a pretty old brass bedstead from the cottage’s previous owner, along with some hideous wallpaper and bathroom fittings that she was going to rip out as soon as possible. The builders had instructions to retain all historical features and she had made a start on researching the best way to restore the house. It was seventeenth century, at least, her own knowledge would have told her that if the estate agent hadn’t. She was a tall woman and had to stoop going through the doorways, but it didn’t bother her. If she wanted space, she only had to walk outside.
It was cold now and she set about building a fire, setting up a pyramid of wood and newspaper. As she did so, something further up the chimney caught her eye – a little glint of light behind a loose bit of plaster. Picking up a stick, she gave it an experimental poke. There was a scraping noise, and something fell from inside the chimney and landed on the pile of papers. She knelt down to take a closer look. It was a little grey bottle with a design of an old man with a beard roughly worked into the clay. She shook it, and it rattled. She knew you could discover all kinds of things in these old houses, and put it carefully on the mantelpiece next to the hagstone.
She was eating a tuna sandwich in the armchair next to the fire when she heard a noise. It sounded like a baby crying, and it seemed to come from outside her door. She walked to the door, grabbing a torch and her blue raincoat. The rain was now lashing down and it was dark – no human with any sense would be out in this, but she had to look. Swinging her torch to and fro in the darkness, she jumped when she saw a pair of glowing eyes in the darkness. The torch’s beam had picked out a bedraggled young cat, more of a kitten really, standing in front of her cottage. As she was holding the door open, it looked at her for a second and then shot into the kitchen where it jumped up on a chair and sat licking itself clean.
Margery shut the door. Walking to the fridge, she put down a saucer full of milk and another with a bit of tuna. The cat looked at her warily and then walked over, eating and drinking with gusto until the plate was empty. She held out her hand to it and made kissing noises. It ignored her and remained on the chair, but later that night she woke up from confused dreams to find its warm weight across her neck, like a scarf, as it lay sleeping, its little head buried in her hair.
‘Where did you find that?’ The older builder, John, asked her the next day, as they were discussing the cottage.
‘The witch’s bottle’ he said, taking it down from the mantelpiece.
‘Hidden behind the plaster up the chimney. Is that what it is?’
‘I’ve seen one of these once before. People used to use them against witches – you know they believed in them around here.’
She’d read about the witch trials in Great Yarmouth when she’d visited the Tolhouse Gaol where the witches – ten women and one man – were held. Five of them were found guilty and hanged, including Elizabeth Bradwell who was accused by Matthew Hopkins, the Witch-finder General, of bewitching a baby boy so that he ‘suffered and languished in great peril.’ The museum took the generally accepted line that these poor women were innocent victims of gossip and malice, singled out because they had no wealth or man to protect them or because they were ‘cunning women’ who knew how to make healing remedies from herbs and plants.
‘How did they do that?’
‘I’m no expert – but what I heard was that by putting things in the bottle that belonged to you, needles and pins, fingernails and even, you know, body fluids, you’d keep witches away from you.’
She shuddered slightly.
‘I’ve never heard of that. How disgusting. They must have been quite afraid.’
‘I’ll be very safe here now’ she told the cat after John had gone home. But later that evening it jumped up onto the mantelpiece and knocked the witch bottle down, breaking it in half. She put the pieces away in her kitchen cupboard to fix later. Whatever the contents had been, any liquid had evaporated and all that was left were a few rusty bits of metal.
The electricity went out that night, which she’d been warned about – she planned to get a generator put in. She dug out a book on witchcraft trials from the many boxes of history books she’d brought with her and read it by firelight. Women could be suspected of witchcraft after
doing little more than giving someone else a hostile look. Or appearing to them in spectral form, or even in their dreams. An evil intention, it seemed, was all that was needed.
Easy enough to bewitch someone, she thought, if that was all it took. She fell asleep in front of the fire, wrapped in a blanket in the old armchair, the cat purring on her lap. In her dream she was walking through a modern hospital, it seemed to be the Royal London, through a door into a hospital ward. Next to a hospital bed she saw Tony sitting in a chair, and in the bed lay Becky, no baby in sight it but hooked up to IV drips and an ECG monitor. Tony looked tired, gaunt and worried. ‘Good’, her dream-self thought. She turned to look at the young woman, and even the sight of the girlish, pretty face, the soft curves and luxuriant golden curls, did not make her feel any pity. These were all the hooks and lures she’d used to lure Margery’s husband in. They wouldn’t do her much good, now.
It was the ringing of the cottage’s landline which woke her up at 3 am with the insistence of bad news. It never rang usually and she stood up in a hurry, dropping the cat and blanket to the floor in her rush to reach it. Tony was speaking incoherently to her.
’Slow down’ she said. ‘I can’t understand you.’
She’d gone, he said. Becky was dead. A pulmonary embolism, a blood clot traveled to her lung, very rare, very sudden. They’d tried to save her but they couldn’t.
‘The baby?’ she asked.
The baby was fine – she was being looked after in the maternity ward. ‘Oh my god, Margery, what am I going to do? What on earth am I going to do?’
She stood holding the receiver and spoke to him reassuringly. It was as if the rage, the humiliation and impotent misery had drained out of her leaving her empty and clean as the sky
she saw outside the cottage.
Later, she dug a little grave in the garden, and buried the witch bottle in it. Let it stay there for someone else to find one day. She didn’t want ever to see it again.
First published in Elixir Magazine 2018. All rights reserved