Magical Short Fiction – Elemental by Gemma Fairclough
They remind Ally of skulls: three houses with no glass in the windows, like empty eye sockets. Inside one of the houses, which is also missing a roof, an oak tree stands; branches poke out of the window cavities and crown the walls. Ally feels sorry for this tree, trapped in a ruin, until she considers another possibility. Maybe the tree had sprouted elsewhere on the hill but grew tired of the baiting wind bending its branches, became jealous of people snug in their homes, and, one day—feeling that enough was enough—upped sticks. She lingers outside the rotting door, as though waiting to be invited in.
No such invitation appears, so Ally treks downhill and back into town. Padiham is a carousel of steep peaks and muddy troughs, limestone terraces and cobbled alleys. Buildings curve up and down with the undulating land like vertebrae in this constricted spine of a place. Cars splash through puddles. Kids speed down pavements on bikes, water spraying off the wheels. Locals cluster outside the Flying Dutchman and light cigarettes. Footpaths leading to the woods are slick with fallen leaves congealing into a brown paste – Ally’s trainers are filthy with it. Auntie Rita would order her to take off her shoes at the door and leave them outside, before asking what was she waiting for, come in, she’d just baked flapjacks. Ally finds herself walking towards Auntie Rita’s; she stops, turns around and heads in the other direction. No point going home either, where her mum will be passed out on the sofa, useless. She hurries down Burnley Road, praying she doesn’t bump into anyone she knows from school, slowing her pace once she reaches the path to Gawthorpe Hall.
She jumps across wide puddles in the path flanked by woodland and stone outbuildings, until Gawthorpe Hall materialises between the trees. In History, Mr Humphreys told them that four hundred years ago, the people who lived in the Hall helped to catch the Pendle witches and watched them hang. Ally might have enjoyed History if Mr Humphreys wasn’t constantly screaming at Max and Hannah and that lot to behave. Tomorrow is Monday, which means school; Ally shudders. She crosses the neat rectangular lawn and looks up at the house, squints through its dark windows. She is almost sure she can make out the shapes of four-hundred-year-old lords and ladies as they scamper through the house in their ruffles and long skirts and peek nervously between the drapes. Ally stares right back.
Ally’s not afraid of witches because Auntie Rita is one. Ally has studied the spines of the books on her aunt’s shelves, even pilfered a couple, taking them home and labouring over the text. (She’s not much of a reader; her English teacher, Mrs Stevens, wrote in her school report that she had the reading age of a nine-year-old, but Mrs Stevens has horse teeth so what does she know.) Candle Burning Magick tells you where to place your candles and how many you need, which is very important if you want to cast the spell right. Ally also read a book about the Five Elements, which she didn’t understand much of but liked the part about water, which basically trumps all the other elements: water puts out fire, clouds air, swamps earth. Not sure about spirit.
‘Can you teach me how to do magic? Please?’ Ally would beg Auntie Rita, before taking another flapjack from the plate on the table and cramming it into her mouth.
‘For the last time, Ally, I’m not Derren Brown. Wiccans don’t teach tricks.’
Then Auntie Rita would rearrange the purple silk scarf draped around her large frame, flicking one end over her shoulder, where it floated onto her back, as though that was the end of the matter.
Ally didn’t know what to say to this, so she chewed her flapjack and sulked. What was the point of being a witch if you couldn’t do anything?
Auntie Rita must have got sick of Ally coming over after school and at the weekends and mithering her about witchcraft, because one evening, just after Ally sat down on the sofa and turned the TV on, Auntie Rita told her to put her coat back on, marched her back home, and thumped on the front door.
After several silent minutes passed, Ally’s mum opened the door a fraction.
‘Elizabeth, are you going to feed this child one of these days, or at least start paying towards my shopping?’ said Auntie Rita. Her pale blue eyes boggled out of black-ringed eyelids (Ally wondered if her aunt did her makeup with crayon instead of eyeliner).
Ally looked from her aunt to her mum, who didn’t seem to have a clue what was going on, or what day it was.
‘What’re you going on about?’ her mum slurred.
‘Your Ally raiding my kitchen cupboards every night. It’s as if she’s my daughter instead of yours.’
‘Fine, don’t bother with your niece anymore, you mad bitch,’ said Ally’s mum, who pulled Ally inside and slammed the door in Auntie Rita’s face.
Since then, Auntie Rita and Ally’s mum haven’t spoken to each other.
In the garden at the back of Gawthorpe Hall, Ally places her hands on the stone balustrade and watches the River Calder churn. They did rivers in Geography so she knows that rivers end at the ocean. If she dived into the Calder, would it carry her all the way out to sea? Would she drown or stay afloat? Mr Humphreys said they used to do that to witches: dunk them in the river on a ducking stool. Floating was a sure sign of witchcraft; the drowned were innocent after all.
Ally peers down at the white froth bubbling on the surface of the brown water and wonders if the witches’ bones are buried in the riverbed. She wants to look closer. She climbs over the balustrade and stumbles down the slope. The sound of rushing water fills her ears. Before she’d only heard a blanket white noise; now she can hear different textures. Layered whispers, murmurs. Ally glances over her shoulder and, seeing no one up in the garden, whispers back:
Can you hear me?
She’s close enough to the water to lean over and dip her hand in. The mutterers get louder. She can almost make out the words.
Rita’s possessions have a way of absconding. Her pentagram pendant is missing from her jewellery box; a pair of black candles have vanished from the mantelpiece; now, the one book she needs has gone AWOL, and Rita has wasted half an hour rooting through the piles of books that have spilled out from her bookshelves onto the carpet. Rita flops down on the sofa with a heavy sigh. Her three cats – Prue, Piper and Phoebe – jump off the sofa and dart under the coffee table, dodging attempts to be petted; marauders, all three of them, crisscrossing the house between hiding places and a bowl of Purina.
‘Sod you then,’ she mutters to Piper, who flashes her bumhole with a perfunctory flick of her black tail before slipping into the hallway.
Rita has always prided herself on being a diligent, independent sort of person. Her mother never expected much from her, preoccupied as she was with Liz’s extraordinary gifts (look how far they got her), yet still Rita got into university, finished her degree and landed a job at the town council. She’s done alright. Or she was doing alright, she corrects herself, gloomily. It frustrates her, this lack of control she has over the material world, which is slippery and wriggles out of her grasp like a fish.
At least the spiritual world is more accommodating. If only she could find that book. She even remembers the title of the chapter she needs: A Spell for Prosperity. The incantation on one page, the diagram of where to position the candles on the other. If only she could remember more. Best not to wing it; she doesn’t want to make her predicament any worse.
Well, Plan B it is then. She looks at the computer in the corner of the room. She will get up, switch it on, go on Indeed. Any minute now. She remains on the sofa and considers doing some baking. With a pang of guilt, she thinks of Ally. Poor kid, she hasn’t been round for a while. A few times, she has thought of popping over to Liz’s with an apologetic offering of flapjacks in a Tupperware box. She’s made concessions for her sister all her adult life – lent her money, helped her look after Ally, drove her to AA meetings in Burnley. When Mum died it was Rita who organised the funeral and sold the house; meanwhile Liz was having a relapse.
And did Liz ever thank her? No. She called her a Mad Bitch.
Maybe she’ll watch the telly for a while. Even finding something to watch feels like effort. Could be the waning of the moon, which always makes her lethargic. The house feels too quiet and empty. She should give Ally a ring and ask her round for tea – no, she’s got to stop doing this. She can’t afford to keep doing this. At night she wakes up in cold sweats, worrying about money.
She listens to the rain pelting the window. The sound is like a sack of marbles pouring onto glass. Rita collected marbles as a child; she kept them, they’re probably in the loft. Perhaps Ally would like them.
Rita wakes up some time later, vaguely remembering a dream about marbles dropping into an ocean. The rain is still hammering away. She hoists herself off the sofa and pulls back the curtain. Her eyes grow wide. The road outside her house has turned into a river; Adrian’s BMW, usually parked on the kerb in front of Rita’s driveway (rather than in Adrian’s ample double garage) is floating down the street.
A drop of water lands on her nose. She frowns at the closed window. Another drop splashes on her cheek. She looks up, craning her neck, and spots the wet patch on the ceiling.
She’s drowning in the Calder. Dark water envelopes her, clamps its hands, everywhere and nowhere, over her mouth.
Liz lurches awake with a splash, shivering and spluttering. She finds herself in the bath filled to the brim with ice-cold water, which is spilling over the sides, forming puddles on the tiles.
When did she get in the bath? Her head feels like someone split it with a machete. She shivers as though she’s coming down flu, plague, smallpox, all at once.
With an effort that rightly ought to be superhuman, she heaves herself out of the bath and grabs the towel off the towel rail. The towel is damp and smells of mildew, but she’s too cold to care and swaddles her aching body as though it were a tourniquet. She finds her clothes heaped beside the toilet, picks up a stained t-shirt and sniffs it: whisky, stale sweat.
While the bathwater drains away, the plughole sounds like it’s vomiting.
She drops the t-shirt on the floor, hobbles to her bedroom and eases herself under the crumpled duvet. Gradually the shivers subside. The clock on the bedside table says six; the light behind the blinds is grey. Her head is spinning. Is it morning or evening? Does Ally have school today? Has she eaten breakfast? Where’s the whisky?
No, Liz thinks, she has to get her shit together, for Ally’s sake. If she doesn’t, she’ll –
Drown? Perhaps that would be best. What’s the point of clinging on to the mess she’s made of her life? Thank God Mum can’t see her now.
Unless she can. On a couple of occasions over the past few months, Liz thought she saw her mother – just for a fraction of a second, when she happened to glance at her reflection in the bathroom window, and again in the mirror – standing beside her right shoulder. Mum’s face in profile, lips moving frantically, mouthing something into Liz’s ear.
Impossible. Liz doesn’t believe in all that – that’s Rita’s bag, not hers. Mum used to talk about all that crap, Liz’s “third eye”, repeating the same stories: like how moments before Dad had the heart attack, when Liz was five years old, she had complained that her chest was hurting. A coincidence, that’s all—probably she just had indigestion—but Mum never forgave herself for not taking Liz’s symptoms seriously, for not understanding them as a warning of what was to come. From then on, every one of Liz’s dreams was a prophecy; every sniffle and stumble and scrape on the knee an omen. Growing up, Liz found it easier just to keep things to herself, and became a quiet, anxious teenager. Then she drank.
She wants a drink now.
The doorbell rings. Liz pulls the duvet over her head. The ringing doesn’t stop. She drags herself out of bed, pulls on a sweatshirt and jogging pants, and lumbers downstairs to answer the door.
It’s Rita, black eyeliner trickling down her cheeks, clutching a pet carry case in which she’s managed to squash all three of her mewling cats.
‘It’s ruined, the whole house,’ Rita sobs. Behind Rita, down the sloping road, Liz notices a lake where the park should be.
Rita barges in, bringing wafts of sandalwood incense and damp clothes, babbling about how rain came in through the loft of her house, leaked through the ceiling. Then her house was flooded from the ground up. Fire Services had to rescue their whole street. They might have to shut down the school all week, if not for the whole month. Even Gawthorpe Hall has had to close due to flood damage. Liz nods as though the flood is not news to her. She puts the kettle on and washes two mugs sitting in stagnant water in the washing up bowl. The clatter of porcelain makes her wince – she turns her face out of Rita’s sight. After rinsing the mugs, she leaves the water running just a moment longer; the warmth eases the trembling in her hands. While Rita blows her nose noisily into a piece of kitchen roll, Liz grabs the empty bottles on the counter, slips them into a carrier bag and ties the top.
‘I don’t know what we’re going to do,’ says Rita, her bottom lip wobbling as she gestures towards the cats, let out of their carry case and now scurrying around the kitchen; watching them makes Liz dizzy. ‘I’ll have to find a hotel, I suppose. I just hope my insurance covers the damages. I don’t know how I’ll afford it otherwise.’
‘You can stay here, Rita. As long as you like.’
Rita’s and Liz’s eyes meet; Rita looks down at the thick pewter rings coiling her stubby fingers. She’s not wearing her tie-dye scarves today. She’s dressed plainly in a black shirt and black trousers, and looks much older.
‘Look, I’m sorry for what I said the other day,’ says Liz, in the firmest voice she can muster.
‘It was nasty and ungrateful. And you’ve done so much for Ally and me. I want to sort myself out. Help you while you sort out your house and that.’
Liz turns away and goes over to the steaming kettle. She opens the cupboard, looks in the tea caddy, which is empty, and sighs.
‘Haven’t even got any teabags in, Rita. Sorry. I’ve got – let’s see – Cup a Soup, orange squash. I could do you a hot orange?’
‘That sounds lovely.’
They sit together at the kitchen table in comfortable silence, sipping their hot oranges, until Rita asks:
‘Where’s our Ally? In her room?’