‘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.
The 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.