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I’m not a petrolhead, let’s make that clear. The most stupid thing I’ve seen this week is someone driving into Ikea Bristol in a Lamborghini. Whatever they purchased would have to be packaged like origami to get it into the tiny boot. Or perhaps they were going to strap a wardrobe to the roof. Either way, stupid car.

I do, however, have a soft spot for Land Rover Defenders. It isn’t just the name, reminiscent of an armoured guardian to take you hither and thither, it’s something about the styling, the practicality. I appreciate that the one I was parked next to in the supermarket yesterday was a top of the range model, it was the SAS of Defenders, sleekly grey and with all its windows in tact. It was a great, vast bus of a thing looming over our Peugeot. They are the yummy mummy sort of vehicle, I know, the kind of off road vehicle they chug round Chelsea with. In all honesty they are not really the Defenders I am talking about.

If I happened to go to a dealership it would have to be one run from a tumbledown shed, probably in Devon. The cars would be ranged in mud puddles and hiding in the hedgerows. There would be chickens roosting in the big old green one. Another would be up on blocks awaiting new tyres from the nearest scrapyard. Rust would play a part in the colour scheme. I like  a Defender that is a grand old girl, something knocked about with no heater and holes in the skylight windows. The bench seats in the back will have been shat upon by weasels. There might be an emergency pork pie rammed into the glove box. The gloves of course, gauntlets.

My love of this vehicle stems from student days. I went to Warwick University and lived in Leamington Spa at one point and in order to get to campus I had two options; catch the bus, always a lovely ride, or hitch a lift. We had a hitchhiking system in place which was to keep us safe. There were specified ‘Hitching Points’ in Leamington where students waited for other students and on occasion, lecturers or professors, to sidle by in their cars. We would all pile in and pay 20p for the fare into campus. It worked alright. I was a nicely brought up young woman, taught to fear everything from paper bags to shallow water  and so hitchhiking was quite the adventure. I didn’t do it on my own at first, my other half was keen and so we hitched in together once or twice. Another time I had missed the bus and my hand was forced. Hitching was the only option because, as a nicely brought up young woman I understood it was impolite to be late for something like a lecture. I was also brought up that it was rude to brush your hair in public or put your lipstick on on the bus. I leave psychiatrists to pick the bones of all that.

In the end hitching appealed because I liked to get into other people’s cars and smell the smells and see the rubbish or lack thereof. There is a lot of personality in a person’s car and so, as a budding writer, I found it more fascinating than earwigging on people’s conversations on the bus. I soon got into the habit of hitching.

One morning there were three of us waiting. No one I knew so we all stood there in studenty silence. I’m quite cheery in the mornings, to illustrate, just think of Snow White tra-la-laing in the dwarves garden and all the birds gathering on her fingers and shoulders to help with the chores; got that? That’s me in the morning. I know, terrible for those who are otherwise; hungover, half dead or morose. However, at that point in my life I was much shyer so I did not try and engage anyone in annoying small talk. Several cars wheeled by and no one seemed in a mood to take us. Then, a rackety old Defender pulled into the kerb and we all piled in. Through the back door. A hatch really.

This old girl was venerable and it was the first time I had travelled in such a vehicle. I was smitten from the moment the back door swung free of its crust of mud. Inside the bench seating was scuffed and torn, there was a crack in the skylight of the roof so that the drizzle and the wind dropped in. The whole chassis rumbled and thundered along.

In the front seat the driver was a student. I have no idea who he was, I never saw him or the Defender again, but I remember him vividly. At least, the side and back of him.

He was in the driving seat, obviously. Beside him on the long bench seat (torn/worn) was a paper bag and a wholemeal cottage loaf. As we chugged along his hand reached out to pick morsels from the body of the bread. There were crumbs everywhere and a scent of bread mixed with the scent of damp upholstery stuffing and diesel. Penhaligons take note, this is a fragrance opportunity. The young man was scruffy in a cord jacket that had clearly been passed down, probably through a hedge or the digestive system of a cow. His shirt was softly old and worn and his skin had a patina of dirt that any antiques expert would have swooned over. His hair was mouse brown, I mean that in a rustic and animistic way, wildly curly and also matted here and there, a stranger to a brush, as my grandmother might say. I couldn’t tell you anything about any of the other travellers that day. This student held all my attention. I had never seen anyone so at home in themselves. He was slight and wiry.

There was no sound save the engine growling, no music playing, just the whistling of the window in the roofline, broken as it was. He did not once speak or acknowledge us, his eyes on the road ahead, and at journey’s end, we dropped the coins for the ride into his outstretched, breadcrumbed hand.

Whenever I see a Defender  I always think of that ride, of the soft pinch of grubby fingers in newly baked loaf, of the cold metallic scents of the car. Always. It was one of the most perfect journeys I have ever made. I have no idea why.

 

Photo from Cornwalls.co.uk Cornwall Guide: a Defender in the wild.

 

 

The Crow Bag

 

Mr Minton brought the crow. He was wont to leave such gifts despite the fact that Lesley was not his rightful owner. She suspected that no one was rightfully his owner, rather, he bestowed his presence on his pitiful subjects. Mr Minton was a large grey jaguar of a cat who had first prowled into the garden some seven months ago. Lesley had googled him on first sighting, uncertain whether or not she ought to call the zoo. It transpired he was not a fireside lynx  but a Maine Coon cat and he had enjoyed several of her summertime lunches. The salmon en croute, where he had devoured the salmon and left the croute. The Hake which had vanished with no trace of cream and caper sauce. A roast poussin with duck fat potatoes which Lesley had left on a willow pattern serving dish on the patio.

In return for this bounty he had taken to leaving his offerings, a selection of mice and rats at first but more recent leavings had been an Abyssinian guinea pig from next door, a smaller tabby cat now looking out from a Wanted poster all over  Town, and that odd looking and rather grumpy Muscovy duck from the Park Pond.

The crow was something on a different scale, Mr Minton placing it’s elegant carcass on the doormat just at the moment that she most had need.

She had no real idea why the coven had picked her out for their especial bad intentions. She hadn’t known there was a community of witches in Grayburn, let alone a coven. If, six months ago, someone had asked her what she thought of when she thought of ‘witches’ she would have laughed and said ‘Witches? The pointy hat brigade from fairy tales?’

She knew better now. Witchcraft was a fact and, the way that the coven in Grayburn  used it, it was a creature, a cold, dark, unloved thing.

That evening, Lesley had been taking a short cut through the graveyard as she often did on her way home from yoga. The plot was old, older than the church if the historians had cared to dig. The Victorians had slapped up the stonework and remodelled the tombs with flights of angels and marbled drapery but it made no difference. It mattered not how many porcine cherubs flitted about the doorways of the three mausolea, last resting place for the old families of Grayburn, the ones with the manor houses and mills, their pockets stuffed with money; the Brights, the Wintermans and the Alstons. What the Victorians had failed to appreciate was that the boneyard was ancient and only the top layer could be fashioned anew. Even as they knocked in the railings around the family plots they had no concept of the ghosts already residing there. This place was a place of bones and skulls, of concentrated otherness. This was the reason it had not been built on with any other kind of building. The church occupied a small, cruciform footprint, one that had been pressed into the ground many thousands of moons ago.

Or so Lesley had discovered in the intervening months. It had been quite a learning curve since that night, something of a ski slope in fact, for an Olympian.

She had never been afraid of the cemetery, it was a scenic short cut, away from the blare and rumble of the road and it was a path she’d used often with her dad as a child. He had brought her up not to believe in ghosts or the supernatural or Tory politicians.

Ghosts. Dismissed in stories and films, her dad always keen to point out the ‘piss poor special effects’ employed by the filmakers and so, she was heedless that night. Her pockets empty of salt or iron, her fist not clenched around a handy hawthorn branch.

She had chanced upon them, about their bit of business, she suspected necromancy. Her sudden blundering in with a torchbeam from the flashlight app on her phone, had botched it for them. She’d broken the ritual or the spell or the mood possibly, the night time graveyard equivalent of holding hands at a séance. They had not simply brushed themselves off and started again, most likely it was not as simple a process as that. Instead, they had been after her. She recalled how they had chased her through the graveyard without actually appearing to run, moving like chesspieces to block and checkmate her. They didn’t have her name but, on making her skin of the teeth getaway through the far gates, one of them had torn off a piece of her jacket. It was enough, Lesley knew that now.

Lesley’s small, rented house was a new build and like so many others in the town it was bare and unprotected. Do not smirk, dear reader, and think ‘oh, was it built on an old Indian Burial Ground?’ Far worse, it was built on empty ground, dirt that had been starved and scraped, the trees cut down. Whilst the residents might have forgotten the powers of elder and bramble, these trees themselves, had not. It was simply the case that they were not there to do their job. In cutting out the trees the contractors had lowered the supernatural shields on the life of Grayburn.

The coven’s first line of attack was effective. Sleep. The dreams had been bad and grasping, holding Lesley inside them, unable to awake from the wild and tiring pursuits that left her wasted and weary.

Her mother suggested she move bedrooms or turn her bed to a different direction but there was only one direction in the tiny master and the miniature ‘guest’ room was big enough only for a doll to visit. One bone rattling nightmare  they had made a mistake, sending, not shadows, but themselves. One coven member had cloaked herself in a whirling black mist that was impressive but the curly haired woman had been careless and shown her face. The need to protect herself broke apart the dream and Lesley was jolted awake.

Eating muesli in the kitchen, she saw the shadow lengthen where there ought to be light. It was an effect like seeing through a crack in the door, knowing, by the hairs on your neck that someone was there but visually unable to grasp them. In the middle of the night doors slammed, doors opened. Lights flickered, like eyes blinking.

Her mother asked the priest, Father Crichton to pay a visit.

“I don’t believe.” Lesley complained.

“Doesn’t matter. He does.” was her mother’s spiritual logic. Father Crichton, keen to engage with her mother as a matriarch of the community, showed up with a well-thumbed Bible.

He could not touch whatever the coven had sent to visit. This creature was something as old and gnarled as the yew tree in the churchyard. Lesley could see where it watched him,  mouthing his holy words that fluttered, useless as dead leaves.

The shadow had long fingers of night, reaching for her heels.

They poisoned work, she had found the pigeons foot under her windscreen wiper, a preternatural tracking device, signalling her whereabouts. There was little she could do as her hands became loose cannons breaking and crashing things. The coven’s magic was out and wild in her world. Cars almost ran her over as she crossed the road. She did not dare walk beneath a ladder.

The coven in the churchyard numbered five and she knew none of them by name. She thought the dark haired woman who had been kneeling before the monument worked on the till in the linens shop in the Windmill Centre. She was stern, selling polycotton duvet covers and tiger printed fleece throws. The window was festooned with voile panels for french windows.

The tall one, standing at the far side of the circle was the woman at the Town Hall Arts Centre. She had some sort of project management role in the refurbishment. They must be struggling because, on Thursdays, the woman also manned the till in the tiny craft shop.

Another of the coven, the one crouched to the left of the monument, was an artist. Her exhibition at the Town Hall Arts Centre had been really good. Lesley had visited on her lunch hour, happy to wander in the vast and moody landscapes, all marked with a signature, small labels explaining the work and printed with the woman’s name.

Lesley had been careful of late to wear her lanyard pass tucked into her jacket, her name obscured. It was a silly precaution, because, to judge by various items going bump in the night, they most probably already had her name.

It was harder and harder to sleep. Whatever was in the house was clever, tugging her awake, remaining in the shadows, picking at the edges of her. It was nothing so flashy and rowdy as a poltergeist. It stalked her, rousing her from sleep with a cold breath on her cheek, a colder bony hand on her brow.

If she broke, if she fell down with tiredness, the shadow would step into her. It was patient and it could outrun her, it had All Time in its frayed pocket.

She had considered staying with a friend but it occurred to her that such action might draw them into the conflict. The shadow might follow her, the coven could discover a new means of attack. She would not risk it and so spent the night at the new Premier Inn by the cinema, to see what would happen.

She slept for the first time in weeks and at the Breakfast Buffet she ate scrambled eggs and sausage and as she finished a jam smudged croissant she thought about everything.

The fourth woman, the one beneath the spreading boughs of the yew had curly hair, Lesley recalled the hair from the revelatory dream where the other invader had cloaked themselves. She had not seen the woman with curly hair anywhere in town until, on her way to the gym, she passed through the Farmers Market and glimpsed the hair through the uprights and striped awnings.

Curly Hair made goats cheese from her smallholding at the edge of Bowden, a village on the eastern side of the town. Her name was not stickered over the truckles and pats of butter but it was a short drive to roll past the pretty property, the goats all staring through the slatted fencing, the proprietors names neatly painted on the rustic hoarding.

The fifth woman ran the furnishing fabric shop in Old Town which accounted for the prickling pins she felt stabbing into her left foot, the dream that scissors were cutting off her toes.

Lesley wiped the crumbs from her fingers, drank the rest of her coffee and worked out she would need a week off work. As for now, well, she could have kissed Mr Minton for his bounty and so, once she had put the crow safely into a cloth bag she used for her trainers, she headed to the fish counter at the supermarket and bought him a sizeable chunk of silver hake. Half way home she thought better of it and stopped off at ‘Furry Friends’ the pet shop, to buy a black rabbit.

After all, an offering must be made.

Home was under attack and possibly watched so Lesley rented a holiday lodge at Stokers Wood, one sitting far back in the trees, forgotten and a bit fowsty smelling. It smelt slightly more when she had skinned and boiled the crow to its bones in a broth of her own devising. She had let the garden and hedgerows guide her. It was a rich herbal brew and as the scents of it, bitter and sharp, breathed into her, she felt clear headed, stronger.

She took the broth and poured it around the monument in the churchyard at midnight. From the crow skin she made a small pouch and into this she put the bones and the feathers. Skull, beak and claws she placed last, pulling the bag shut with a length of linen thread.

She headed home so as not to arouse suspicion and Shadow greeted her with a crack in the glass in the back door.

She thought of covering the mirrors but that would give her away. Pots dropped from the dresser, some old cracked things she ought to have cleared out years before. They were not hurled across the room, they were tipped and pushed and smashed.

The power cut out, black inking out every last familiar thing as Lesley’s hand reached into her pocket for the Crow bag. She opened it, letting it drink in all the deep darkness, the shadows, the sent and the charged, everything, swallowed down into the drawstring mouth of the Crow bag until the green light on the cooker clock winked and the streetlight shed its moonlight onto the kitchen tiles. She knotted the bag shut.

This night, she found herself barefoot at the crossroads with a handful of graveyard dirt in one pocket and a fistful of seasalt in the other, her fingers tight around the looped mouth of the Crow bag.

There were other crossroads in the area, the showiest out at the Marham end of town by Towpers Farm. The most tangled the one by the new retail park, twisted and sprawling. She drove around them all.

It must be this crossroads.  Small, off the main road, on the way to Eastwood. It was, Lesley knew, at least as old as the cemetery. This crossroads had a shrine at the western corner which most drivers whizzed by without a second glance. Lesley had always liked this fourway junction and the odd little mossed over statue of a woman placed there under the hawthorn hedge.

Where some people shot past leaving the speed limit behind, there were others who left offerings, rags tied into the branches, small tealights, whisky miniatures. Dolls. Lesley was uncertain which goddess this was but, as her mother might say, the goddess knew who she was and that was the important point.

Clouds covered the moon, but they had done so at Lesley’s bidding. She did not need the great white lunar searchlight to give her away. Not just yet.

She lit her tealight in its neat pot and waited. Traffic was at a minimum, one lone car trundling homeward to the village beyond. Posh people lived in Eastwood, the kind who shopped at Prothero’s Butchers in Old Town and had children at the Holton Academy. House prices in Eastwood were huge for tiny cottages.

The red brake lights flared and turned the distant bend. Lesley breathed deep and as she did so the tealight blinked out. She stepped out into the roadway. The tarmac bit at her feet and gave her greater resolve. Three steps. Five steps. At the heart of the crossroads the moon drew back her cloak of clouds and Lesley opened the Crow bag.

It bulged. It twitched and flapped. The bones rattled together and broke free, the birds, she was uncertain how many, launching themselves into the night air. Wing on wing, beak on claw, the skulls cracking onto new necks, feathers ruffled and fanned. A vast, black blue crow cloud, rising, breathing with the power of the hexes and curses, the magic trickery that the coven had unwisely thrown her way.

Recycling. That had been key.

The crows wheeled, their cawing scratchy and raw and making her feel stronger. The wing beats thrashed at the night, mastering the  air as they flew in five directions.

Lesley held tight to the bag, felt the graveyard dirt choke in her left pocket, the salt cough in her right, but the coven could not reach her. On the birds raged, cut from the shadows. A sound of rushing wind, spinning the weathercock on St Wilfred’s Church so that it whirred like clockwork. The flag at County Hall torn to tatters, a chorus of car horns and sirens across town before the crow returned, alone. Lesley, seeing her own reflection in its jet bead eye as it alighted on the edge of the bag and with a flap and a preen, folded itself inside.

At home, the shadows were where they ought to be, finding comfort in the corners, softening the edges. Lesley put the kettle on and opened the back door.

Mr Minton arrived, just before midnight, to take up the cushion by the woodburner and await further instruction.

 

 
 

‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge

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