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Authors: Graham Joyce

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NI
N E

Alex
came home in buoyant mood. He picked up the kids and
swung them round and chattered
about his work. He made lip-fart noises with Sam until Maggie told him he ought
to know better. His nostrils twitched once or twice, but whether in savour of
the spicy goulash simmering on the stove, or of Maggie's newly acquired and
liberally applied oil, it was impossible to tell since he made no comment.

"Things are going haywire at the
castle; all our ideas have been scrambled by things turning up which shouldn't
really be there."

"What sort of things?" Maggie stirred the goulash.

He stood behind her, pressing his knees
into the hollows at the back of her knees. "The layer we've worked for the
last three months is supposed to be fifteenth century; today we suddenly find
our way into the twelfth century with all this stuff."

"Stuff?
Get off."

"Yes, stuff.
Stuff.
Nothing important.
Shards of
pottery.
A coin and a tin plate.
Just all from the wrong period.
We'll have to go back to the
drawing board and retrace the foundations."

"Were there any bones?"
Amy, appearing behind them, put a stop to Alex's knee-trembling activities. Amy
always wanted to know if there were any bones.

Alex had once brought a skull home
to show them, but Maggie had refused to keep it in the house. If her own
unease wasn't enough, Amy had demonstrated far too great a fascination for the
object. She'd treated it as some kind of pet, and the line had to be drawn when
Maggie had discovered her cleaning its grinning teeth with a pink toothbrush.
Out went the skull. "No Bones. No skeletons. Not even a dog bone."
His nostrils twitched again and he sniffed. He looked at Maggie. "What's
for tea?"

Maggie had prepared her perfume
using an eyedropper she had originally purchased to treat Sam's conjunctivitis.
Ash had sold her oils of gardenia, musk, jasmine, and rose geranium, and she blended
them a drop at a time until the scent seemed satisfactory. Ash had told her to
use her instincts in judging the strength of the smell.

It wasn't that she was prepared to
compromise over the issues which divided them; she was still angry about the question
of Sam and his visits to De
Sang's
private practice.
But she was exhausted by the arguments, and concerned that the tension in the
household might be harming her children. Despite her antipathies towards De
Sang, his words hadn't completely missed their mark.

So she made her scent, her oil
perfume, and hoped for the best. She applied it behind her ears, and on her
wrists; and for good measure she also anointed the pillows in the bedroom and
the cushions on the sofa in the lounge.

Alex complimented her on the
goulash, which was a good sign, and the first kind words in over a week. Then
after dinner he switched on the TV, plumped up the cushions, and stretched out
on the sofa to watch a game show. "Pollution," he said.
"Everything on TV is intellectual pollution."

"So why are you watching
it?"

He didn't answer, and by the time she had put the children to bed and
washed the dishes, he was almost asleep dozing in front of the set. She sat in
her chair, looking at him, asking
herself
if she still
loved him. She thought she did, thought she might. Once he'd been the one with
all the ideas, the motivator, the initiator of adventures. Now he dozed in
front of game shows and cartoons. The routines of work and the responsibilities
of parenthood had strapped him in. She felt a wave of compassion for him; he
was doing all he could to protect her and the children from the storm, while
she longed for nothing more than to be allowed an occasional walk in the wind
and the rain.

Alex roused himself. He got to his feet,
blinked at her and smiled weakly. Then he went up to bed. After a while she followed
him, but he was asleep before she got there. Undressed, she held her scented
wrist to her face, inhaling the perfume as she looked at him. The scent
produced a deep, sensuous ripple in her and she had to smile. It wasn't love
and it wasn't passion and it wasn't enchantment either; but it was better than
arguing.

Tomorrow she would go listening.

In the afternoon she deposited Sam with Mary the
childminder and returned home to consult the diary. It sanctioned dawn and dusk
as the best moments for the exercise, but these were times not usually
available to her: the afternoon would have to do.

She boiled spring water—from the
supermarket—on the kitchen stove. Then she shredded the bay laurel, the
mugwort
, and the cinquefoil and tipped it all into the pan.
She covered the pan with a lid and left the mixture to simmer.

Returning to it half an hour later, she lifted the lid
and sniffed the fumes. It didn't smell particularly strong, so she inhaled more
deeply, twice, before replacing the lid. She felt nothing in particular. She
was disappointed. There seemed nothing stimulating about the concoction; if
anything it made her feel slightly drowsy.

But she was committed. She took a thermos
flask and filled it with the hot brew, screwing the cap on tight. She put on
her coat, picked up the flask and her car
keys,
went
out and drove to Osier's Wood.

All was quiet but for the breeze stirring
in the trees. Maggie left the car and crossed the brook into the willow fringed
woods, finding a spot near the place where she believed she and Alex had
created Sam. Here she sat under an oak. She unscrewed the cap of the thermos
flask and inhaled the hot fumes rising from the brew. She practiced breathing
in from her diaphragm, pushing out below the rib cage as she inhaled. She did
this until the brew went cold; then she sat back to wait.

 

 

When Alex got back from work that evening,
the telephone was ringing and no one was answering. He unlocked the front door
and burst in to answer the phone before the caller hung up. It was Mary the
childminder. She didn't mind that Maggie hadn't been to collect Sam, but she
wanted Alex to know she expected to he paid for the extra hours. Alex mumbled
an apology and promised to collect Sam himself.

He replaced the receiver and looked
uselessly around the living room. The car was missing from the driveway, and
he hadn't a clue why. His only thought was that something might have happened
with Amy, and that Maggie must be with her. He was ready to trudge round to the
childminder's to collect Sam when the telephone rang again. This time it was
Anita
Suzman
on the line.

Anita had gone to school to collect her
own children, who finished half an hour later than Amy's younger class, only to
find Amy hanging around in the playground with a teacher. She'd waited a while
longer and had then decided to take Amy home with her. That had been over two
hours ago, and she'd been telephoning intermittently ever since. Was anything wrong?

"Wrong?" said Alex.
"I don't know. I've just this minute got in. And there's nobody
here."

"Well, you're there now."

Alex, his mind still on other things, was
astonished at the logic of this remark. "Yes."

"So.
Would you like to come and collect Amy?"

"Amy?"

"Yes. She's your daughter, remember?"

"I'm sorry, Anita, I'm not with it.
Thanks for picking up Amy; it's good of you. I'd come at once, but, Maggie
seems to have taken the car somewhere."

"Would it help if I brought Amy to you?"

Anita even offered to pick up Sam on the
way after Alex had explained his predicament.

The children looked none the worse when
she arrived with them. She took off her coat and sat down without being
invited. It wasn't even six o'clock, but Anita looked as though she was dressed
for a big night out. "Going somewhere this evening?" Alex gave her a
glass of wine.

"No. Why do you ask?"

"I can't think why," said Alex.
He hadn't seen Anita since they'd all dined together at her house and he was
reminded how lusciously attractive she was. She relaxed easily into his sofa
and crossed her long legs. The sheer nylon of her tights hissed as they meshed.

"I see you got your open fire," she said.

"Oh, that. Yes."

"Cosy and romantic.
An
open fire."

"Is it? Yes, I suppose it is."

She put down her wineglass. "What's going on?"

Alex took a deep breath.
"Maggie wants to go and study a course at university. I don't want her to,
so she's finding all sorts .of ways to punish me."

Anita was about to answer, but
suddenly Maggie was standing in the doorway.

"Maggie! We were just talking about you."

"I heard. How are you, Anita?"
She unbuttoned her coat, sat down and picked up a magazine.

"We were worried about you.
Everything
okay?"

"Why shouldn't it be?"

"Anita collected Amy from school," said Alex calmly.
"She also collected Sam. Mary has been phoning all afternoon to ask what's
going on."

"Are the kids all right?"

"The kids are fine," said Anita.

"That's all right then." Maggie looked at Alex.
"Isn't it."

 

 

 

TEN

 

 

 

‘This garden needs
digging.  And it needs a pond
.

"What?" Alex had followed Maggie outside after Anita left.

"I'm going to plant
a
herb garden. I want
my own herbs.
Lots of them."

"Why the hell are you talking about herb gardens? Where have you
been all afternoon?"

"And I want the money for some good garden tools."

"Did you have to be so bloody rude to Anita?"

"I don't like her."

"You made that pretty obvious."

"Didn't you see why she was waiting? So she could enjoy the
spectacle of us having a row."

"Anita is our friend!"

"Correction: she's your friend. Correction: she's the wife of your
friend."

"She was looking after Amy and Sam while you were falling down on
the job of being a mother."

"It won't happen again."

"Are you going to tell me where you were?"

She turned to look him in the eye. "I was having a conversation.
With myself.
I found out some things. I found out you don't
love me, for example."

"Here we go again. Here we go."

"You only want to own me. You can't stand the idea of me having any
life of my own. I'm not allowed my own life. I'm just a clip-on accessory to
your own world."

"That old song."

"I also found out that this garden badly needs a fucking
pond."

Alex looked up in exasperation. He saw Amy and Sam watching them from a
bedroom window. "Look at that! Look at those kids! No wonder they're so
twisted and fucked-up and miserable and unhappy when they've got you for a
mother, disappearing and reappearing without a word! Just look at them!"
Alex dived back indoors.

Maggie glanced up at the children, saw them move away from the window.
Twisted and fucked-up and miserable and unhappy.
She knew it
wasn't the children Alex was describing at all; it was
themselves
.
She turned and saw the bird perched on the washing-line pole. It was a
blackbird, stock-still, head cocked to one side as if listening. Its eye was
focused on her. She stared at it for a long time, until it flapped away.

That evening hit a new low. They failed to exchange a single word and
Alex made himself a bed on the sofa.

Maggie lay awake in the feverish dark. She felt anxious, troubled by
thoughts too abstract to pin down. Still light-headed from the episode in the
woods, she was unable to keep her mind from what had transpired there. In one
sense there was little to be said. Listening, that's all that had occurred. No
more, no less than that. Yet it was as if she had listened for the first time
in her life, and discovered that beneath the ordinary sounds of the world was
something else.

The first change was a miraculous softening. Her brittle edginess
dissolved in the peace of the woods, and so too did her visual impression of
the trees, branches, ferns, grasses, and the silky feel of the leaf mould
beneath her. Everything softened. The silence of the place distilled out, and
even when a wood pigeon broke cover, the whirr of wings and flicking of
branches was muted and distant.

At one point she thought she might have fallen asleep, but knew she
hadn't. Time had simply broken out of its tram lines. She had overstayed her
allotted period by two hours. And she had indeed heard a voice, whether in the
leaves or in her own head. It was soothing and, in turns, excitable. It was
reassuring. It knew things she had thought forgotten. It was a voice she hadn't
heard for many years, a neglected, private voice.

It was her own, inner voice,
demanding an audience. It spoke to her in a language half-formed, in fragments
of words, sometimes archaic in sound; it whispered in strange accents.
Strange, but familiar enough to be none other than her own mind, yet shredded
and reformulated, and at last fractured into a small crowd of ghostly women at
her back.

No, she hadn't fallen asleep, because as
she opened her eyes and looked around her she felt intensely awake, her
perception had sharpened. Squinting up through the branches, she saw that the
leaves formed patterns. They structured the light between the leaves, stringing
it together like beads on a necklace, or suspending the light in parabolas,
like spiders' cobwebs.

The woods took on a moist-canvas effect. She too felt
she helped to generate this moistness, and was happy to be a part of the rich
mulch of woodland decay and fertility. She found herself blowing gently on the
back of her hand, to remind herself to stay conscious; and the act chased a
sensuous ripple through her body. She felt moist, inside and out.

And then as she closed her eyes again, the
effortless whispering returned. Sometimes it was no more than a beat under the
surface of life, a rhythm,
an
existential hum. Then it
was the versifying rustle again, which she knew must be the leaves in the
trees, but which was urgent in its desire to speak, to tell, to reveal. She had
opened a faucet on something shut down for a very long time, and now it would
not be closed off. It waited for the twilight between dozing and sleeping, and
then it began again, elusive, at the periphery of consciousness, but relentless
as a river.

The following day, with Alex at work and Amy at
school, Maggie set about cleaning up in the kitchen. The pan of dirty herb
water sat on the stove. She tossed the reeking remains into the sink where they
instantly formed a pattern on the stainless steel. A face suggested itself in
the mash of leaves; but Maggie
  had
had enough of
clairvoyance for a while, and she rinsed the leaves away.

She did some washing, and when she
came to peg it out she found something dangling from the line. It was the
wooden doll on puppet strings which Ash had given Sam to play with in his shop.
Maggie couldn't think how Sam had managed to bring it home with him unnoticed,
but there it was. She took it down. It was an expensive toy, hand-carved and
brightly painted. She decided to return it, or even to offer to pay for it,
that afternoon. She also decided to show Ash the diary.

Fetching the thing from its hiding place, she began
leafing through the pages. It was a curious feature of the diary that she
continued to discover, here and there, pages of faintly pencilled entries she'd
previously dismissed as blank. As if the volume of contributions increased
every time she closed the book. Her eyes fell on an entry on the right-hand
page, dated 21st March. There was the usual list of herbs written in pen, and
underneath a pencilled entry in the same fastidious hand.

First day of spring, and so I have a one should any
ask me for help with a-courting.
And why not, for I do love the
young, let them do, I being too old, well not so old but here it is, and it is
the
handfasting
.
Gardenia for
harmony.
Musk for passion.
Jasmine
for love.
Rose geranium for protection.
Yarrow for seven years' love and to stop all fear.

Maggie read it again. It was almost
identical to the recipe given to her by Ash! Only the yarrow was different.

These being all essences, but for the yarrow, which
wants the dried herb, a pinch mixed with these essences. Then pour off into two
jars, and then each anoint the other from their own jar, by the moon, asking.
And after the seventh night, the remaining poured into one jar and both jars
be
hidden in some secret place. And there's the
handfasting
.

Maggie looked at the recipe sadly.
It would be fun to try, she thought, but the idea of coaxing Alex to agree to
join in a witch's love ritual, smearing each other with oil, depressed her. She
might as well try to persuade him to fly from the bedroom window after their
last spat. On the left-hand page of the diary, the previous day's
entry,
was another recipe:

Dwale
.
Now she is a harsh mistress. A. says she is my
lady, as she has my name. She is from the valley of shadows, and she stales
those who would use her.
Sleeping, madness and death.
The
leaves soared in wine vinegar and pressed against the temples
brings
sleep and eases intolerable headaches and agues. Two of her beautiful
berries might kill a small child. A. told me they once used her juice as
cosmetic

well she can keep it.
Deadens pain of
childbirth.
A. says now I must use her against my enemies.
Dwale
is sacred to
Hecate
and
should be picked May eve. It is one for the flying, as last night I found out.
God help me, for I may have come too far in this

The entry seemed to have broken
off. Underneath these words, and scrawled in another, barely literate hand, was
a further entry. Maggie had to turn the diary on its side and squint hard to
make it out.

Ha for there
ain't no turning back

It was curious. It had obviously been
written by some person other than Bella, the author of the diary. Maggie had always
assumed that the diary had been a very private thing; that she shared its
exclusivity and sense
of
dark secrets only with its author. Here also
were the first signs of the diarist's distress.

She closed the book and helped Sam to put on his coat.

Ash was fascinated by the diary. He ordered Maggie to
make coffee while he leafed through its pages. Sam was allowed to play on the
floor with the doll. "
Dwale
," he said,
"is an old
witchy
word for deadly nightshade.
You
know,
belladonna."

"That's why Bella says it has her name."

"Deadly is right. Don't be tempted to
try any of this. There are easier ways to cure a headache. But who is this
mysterious A.?"

"I don't know. She keeps cropping up,
doesn't she? I can't tell if she's a friend or an enemy."

"That's right. Bella seems uncertain
about it herself. I get the impression Bella is always looking over her
shoulder at A. There are some interesting recipes in here. Would you mind if I
copied them?"

Maggie did mind. She prickled. "No. Go ahead."

"Maybe you wouldn't mind lending it to me for a while."

She felt, not for the first time, the
thrill of possessiveness. "No. That's not possible."

Ash looked up from the pages and into her
eyes. "Not even for one night?"

"It's not possible."

Something told him not to push the matter.
He nodded. "I'll make some notes.
If that's all right by
you."

They chatted about the contents of the diary as Ash
scribbled down some of the formulae. Much was already familiar to him, but one
or two concoctions took him by surprise. "Bella was into listening to the
wind. Have you tried it?"

"I have," said Maggie.

He looked up again. "Tell me about it."

Sam was happily playing on the
floor with his puppet. He wasn't dextrous enough to manipulate the strings, but
he cheerfully dragged the wooden doll across the floor and gave it a
half-formed voice. The doll told him it was sleepy, so he laid it on the floor
beside him and felt sleepy himself. He could hear his mother and Ash murmuring
at the back of the shop. Their soft, lilting voices retreated slowly, grew
muffled and far-off, and the distance between him and them seemed to expand.
Their presence diminished and grew cloudy, and his eyelids became heavy.

His arm holding the doll lifted slowly into the air.
The strings were held taut, the doll's feet lightly brushing the floor. He felt
a slight tug on the strings, and then another tug, in the direction of the
door. The door stood ajar. Sam looked up at the tiny, silent bell. Then he
looked out of the door and saw her.

It was the old woman. The old lady
who had stolen the doll from him last time they came in here. She was outside
on the catwalk, squatting,
her
back to the painted
safety railings. She was looking directly at him. She held out her hand with
her index finger crooked toward him. She made a trigger movement with her
finger, and the puppet strings went taut again, and tugged in her direction.
Sam looked from the puppet to the old woman. She repeated the gesture, and the
doll seemed to want to walk toward her. Dragging the puppet, Sam left the shop
and walked over to her. The sound of shoppers' activity on the level below
echoed strangely in his ears. Sounds, shouts became frozen.

Her eyes seemed washed out, only
vestigial traces of hazel colour remaining. She waited until Sam approached
her; then she moved her outstretched finger to her nose and pressed it. Her
tongue shot out. Sam giggled. Then she grabbed the loose flesh under her chin,
tugged it, and her tongue disappeared back into her mouth.

"Can you do it again?"
said Sam.

She did it again. Sam was
enchanted. Then the old woman straightened her back, beckoned him to follow
her, cocked her leg over the safety railings, and jumped.

They were four levels up. Sam leapt
at the railings and pressed his head to them. Down at ground level he could see
dozens of tiny people walking to and fro. They were the size of his toy
soldiers. He could also see the old woman. She was suspended in midair, only a
few feet below the catwalk.

She took two steps, walking on air.
She looked back at him, beckoning him to follow. Sam giggled, and climbed up on
the railings.

Ash took a slurp of tea. "My wife and I are going
to take a walk on
Wigstone
Heath on Saturday. Why
don't you come? Bring the kids."

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