When I grow up

‘Fashion designers have those,’ says the little girl, looking up at me as I tromp down the stairs. She’s standing beside the mannequin I bought in a local dress shop’s closing-down sale.

‘I’d like to be a fashion designer when I grow up,’ I say, then wish I hadn’t as she looks at me with gimlet eyes. Nice eyes, but gimlets. What unintentionally morale-destroying thing is she going to say, I wonder?

‘But you are grown up.’

I heave  a sigh of relief.

‘Well – I’m not going to be a fashion designer, then, am I?’

We’ve been showing potential buyers round our house, again. The two playwrights who strung us along for four months pulled out last week. But I’ll put that to one side, for now, it gives me indigestion to think about it and dinner’s nearly ready.

One of the things I’ve managed to avoid this autumn – what with chasing up estate agents, builders, lawyers, removal companies and so on – is the vile, bilious, orange run-up to Halloween.

I hate it.

Nasty, cheap costumes, tangled on the corner of the supermarket aisle, at maximum-exposure-to-little-person-pester height.

Foil-covered chocolates masquerading as eyeballs. Plastic bats and spider’s webs and great piles of pumpkins. Don’t misunderstand me, I love pumpkins. I’d gladly cook them on a regular basis for as long as they’re fit to eat – but the instant All Saints’ Day arrives, they’ll be banished.

My childhood Halloweens were simple affairs. Making a witch’s hat from black sugar paper. Rummaging through dressing-up clothes for the cloak my sister wore to be Boadicea. Turning a stick from the garden into a magic wand – abracadabra – all it took was a tin-foil star.

If someone extravagant had a party we’d do bobbing for apples and ‘stick your finger in the dead man’s eye’ (jelly) – but mostly we’d just make hats and talk about witches.

Which (couldn’t resist that, sorry) takes me back to ‘when I grow up’.

I was born in the English county of Lancashire, my home till I was seven. Now, while everyone’s probably heard of the witches of Salem, fewer have probably heard of the Lancashire witches. Possibly because the book that made them well-known (The Lancashire Witches, by Harrison Ainsworth, 1848), is really quite hard to read.

It’s a story based on the infamous trial of witches in Lancashire in 1612 – and it didn’t, as you might imagine, end well.

Sierra Exif JPEGThe witches came from the ‘Forest’ of Bowland, not a forest as we know it but an area of magnificent hills, moors and chattering streams. Pendle Hill dominates the story and the landscape, its dramatic, brooding profile instantly recognisable to those who know this corner of England. I spent many a happy afternoon in its shadow, picking whinberries as the summer waned.

So I grew up, you might say, with witches.

Now, for a child, witching is mostly about wearing tall black hats, riding on broomsticks and casting spells. But it’s also about women who are frightening – and often the epitome of ugliness, warts and all.

So why, when people asked me the question that plagues a child’s life, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ did I always answer, ‘A witch’?

I don’t know.

The ability to fly? The power? The hat?

It wasn’t the cat, I was scratched early in life and never forgave the entire cat genus.

Was it, perhaps, the association with Bonfire Night? Halloween is just days before we, ‘Remember remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot.’

Collecting wood, seeing the bonfire grow. Buying fireworks, one or two at a time, with my pocket-money, keeping them safe in a biscuit tin. Chrysanthemum Fountains and Snow Showers, Bengal Lights and Catherine Wheels. Pretty ones that didn’t go bang.

Snug in my duffle coat, mittens and scarf, spelling my name with sparklers in the cold night air. Holding half a hot potato, gooey with butter and tongue tingling salt in its silver foil skin, baked in the base of the spitting bonfire.

Teeth clamped together by treacle toffee, shards of luscious blackness in a white paper bag, sticking together in clumps as it’s passed around hot little hands.

And the morning after, smoke hanging in the air on a gunpowder-whiffing residue, mysterious and silent after the noisy night before.

Maybe that’s it. The darkness of night and the dancing flames. Magical lights and eerie mists.

I’ve always loved this time of year.

Yes, it could have been the magic of the dark nights that fired my witchly desires.

That and the ability to fly.

And cast spells.

In fact . . .

If I could cast spells, there’d be a couple of playwrights waiting for a decision about their latest plays, being told the contracts are on the way, but never quite signing on the dotted line. ‘We’ll stage it in two weeks’ they’d hear. And every time two weeks was up, they’d be postponed.

But I know I’d give in. Remove the spell. Grudging, but soft, that’s me.

Perhaps that’s why I never became a witch.

That and the warts.

And the cat.

Or the being burnt to death. Yes, maybe that was it, after all.

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14 Responses to When I grow up

  1. Christa Mee says:

    Great! And thank you for the lovely photo of Pendle. Aaah, memories eh? And I agree about Halloween. Even 32 years ago, when our son was born on October 31st, there was nothing in the shops to mark the day, that year or the next, or the one after that (we had to make our own hats for his birthday parties). It’s only happened in the last, what, 20 years? An American import, to get the tills jangling before Christmas. Yuk!


    • Hello Christa, glad you liked the big hill! It was so much more enjoyable making stuff, don’t you think? A liberal dash of imagination and it all felt really good. And I do really hate those nasty synthetic costumes – not to mention what passes for appropriate as a ghoul or ghost or monster. Bah humbug!


  2. John Kemp says:

    Would you believe they even have it in France? Clearly American. Same things in the shops. A couple of days ago neighbours warned us to be prepared to find their two young children at our door saying “Trick or treat”! Aaargh! Never had it in my young day! Humph!
    I love the name Bowland – it fits that bold country.


  3. Jennie Saia says:

    Oh, I want your childhood Halloween memories. Could you transplant them to my skull, please? They’re just so picturesque and the right amount of mystical… wonderful writing, there.

    As for my Halloweens, the best costume I ever had was being a large bag of jelly beans (a clear trash bag with leg and arm holes cut out, stuffed with multicolored balloons and tired around my neck with ribbon).


    • Ha! What an image, Jennie – or shoudlthat be Jellie!? Laughing before breakfast – a first I think! I wish you had posted a picture – do you have one – were you really uncomfortable? Sounds hilarious – and thank you for the nice comment.


      • Jennie Saia says:

        There was a Jelly Belly sign stuck to my chest. 🙂

        Sadly, I don’t have a picture, but I can tell you the rest of the story… clear plastic trash bags aren’t the most durable things, and by the end of the night the spot between the leg holes had worn through from my thigh friction. So… picture 9-year-old me waddling down the street, clutching the bag closed, looking like she has to pee, and occasionally dribbling out a rouge balloon. Hilarious, it was! Comfortable, it was not. 😉


  4. ggPuppetLady says:

    Gorgeous post, & vivid memories of Bonfire night that I share- thankyou for the rich reminder 🙂 gabrielle


    • Thanks Gabrielle – I so loved Bonfire night – it’s not the same when the fireworks are called things like destructor and only avialablein big boxes is it? Eevery year I think Ill make my mum’s treacle toffee recipe and every year I realise if I did I would eat it all! Glad you enjoyed it, Mary


  5. Owls says:

    Just a little defensiveness here … Americans have not always celebrated Halloween in a tacky and money-oriented way … I know when I was a child my parents always tried to carry on the traditions of their own childhoods and were very bothered by the door-to-door candy collecting. And speaking of which, when did Brits and other Europeans start celebrating Halloween anyway? This is all news to me.


    • I do understand – my husband’s American and he doesn’t like what trick or treating has become – he tells tales of children putting depilatory cream on other children’s heads as their idea of trickery. We’ve only been latching on to this particular commerce-inspired fad here for the last 10 years or so I think – but our ‘celebration’ of All Hallows Eve goes back a very long way I would imagine. The night the damned were abroad before the calm of All Saints’ Day. I suspect the difference was people stayed in to avoid the fearful ghouls and ghosts rather than going out having fun! Hence the staying-in games of bobbing for apples and so on. BUt there is also another tradition – as a native of Lancashire who was transplanted to Yorkshire for many years as a child I don’t know if ‘Mischief Night’ extends to other parts of the country or not but it seems to be different dates here and over the Pennines – one is before Halloween the other before our Bonfire Night. That had no element of treat, it was simply naughty things like painting the letter box with treacle so it was sticky or ringing doorbells and running away. Maybe this was even the origin of your trick or treat?


  6. Owls says:

    Tricks came as a result of no treats, a kind of extortion, if you will. But nothing menacing. My father would take us out, and if a door wasn’t answered, he would move their jack o’ lantern, or put a tree branch on their stoop, or write “T-R-I-C-K” in my mother’s red lipstick on one of the glass panes of their sidewalk light. A treat was often a caramel apple or a cookie or a penny, but nobody was going to say no to a candy bar. Costumes came out of the dress up box or hall closet. Of course you would wake up on All Saints Day and see the occasional house covered in toilet paper, or an egg or two smashed on a sidewalk or somebody’s car, and the treats were nice, but it was the idea of running around in a costume that was the most fun (and telling ghost stories). My parents would lament the commercialism even then (1960s)…the whole point had been lost as far as they were concerned. And they were adamant about avoiding it. Their biggest beef was with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, all commercially driven in their minds, and tacky and undignified to boot. Even now I remain uncomfortable with those two days of the year. 🙂 But yes obviously our Halloween is a branching off of the traditional All Hallows Eve of our European ancestors, defined for us by the North American squash, otherwise known as a pumpkin, carved with a spooky face and placed outside of the house Halloween night to ward off evil spirits. The candy companies I guess cashed in on the idea that tempting children in an orderly fashion to go from door to door gave them a distraction from going out and tearing up the neighborhood. Naturally as I get older I spend my time complaining and talking about the good old days, and “American commercialism” is something that bothers us too, and something we try to avoid if possible. Bonfire Night is the best. Have never been to one, but went to a bonfire in Scotland once and it was magnificent and one of the best times I’ve ever had!


    • I think our parents should have met! My father adamantly refused to let us ‘celebrate’ mother’s day, regarding it as our duty to treat our mother well always! And as for father’s day – harrumph! Nonsense!
      Bonfire night is fantastic, esepcially if you have room to build a bonfire and have a few friends around and light your own fireworks as we did in our family – one place we lived had a long field behind it that was unused and all the children would build the bonfire and a responsible parent make sure it was safe and light it and the fireworks. A real treat. Firework displays are by no means the same. And sad to see the firework names become aggressive instead of pretty. Ah well… Thanks again for reading my increasingly random posts!


      • Owls says:

        And thank you for your wonderful writing! Our cousins in the country always had, and still have, bonfires Halloween time, but they live too far for us to go visit. And as my grandmother used to say, “every day is mother’s day.” 🙂


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