Feeling terror, for what has happened, and what is coming, the first moments of Hep’s birth are as blurred and confused as ever.
When drowning, they say your entire life flies before your eyes. As before, a succession of disconnected sounds and images flicker through her mind. An unending clang of metal, an unceasing clank of engines. Rustling flames, hissing water, and roaring steam. Wagging its ends alternately up and down, and up and down, a massive beam. Ploughing through the sea and sky, great steel ships. Disembodied voices in the air. Ghostly, shimmering, figures walking somewhere other than the earth.
Feeling a rushing, as if hurtling forward free of her body, Hep splutters to the surface. Hair bedraggled, streaming with water and bedecked with slimy strands of seaweed.
Parting company, at the crossroads, Oskar gives Mizzy a mock salute before taking the road leading up to the Promontory Hotel. ‘See you later, witch’s daughter!’ he jokes, with affection.
Mizzy decides not to go straight home, the storm is too good to miss. Snow swirls around her, and the freezing wind bites into her cheeks. Weird weather for October. Using the camera on her phone, she takes photographs of the white-blanketed beach and the dark, yellow-tinged clouds massed in the sky. Scanning the horizon, she spots an old lady struggling in the wild, stormy waters of the harbour.
‘Hey! Are you alright? Do you need help?’ she cries. Hearing only vague cries in response, she rushes down to where the waves are crashing on the shore.
‘Don’t worry, I’m coming!’ she exclaims, taking off her boots, and wading into the turbulent surf.
‘Don’t be stupid girl! Stay where you are!’ shrieks the old woman, trying to be heard above the noise of the swelling water. She struggles towards Mizzy, ‘I’m fine — never was very good at swimming!’
‘What?’ Mizzy shouts back, ‘You serious? You’ve gone for a dip in this weather and you can’t swim?’
The old lady, now upright and standing, splashes her way through the breakers and staggers up to Mizzy, who stares in disbelief.
‘Came up a bit further out than I’m used to, that’s all.’
Shaking her head, Mizzy says,‘ You must be mad, worst storm in ages and you think it’s a good idea to take a dip? At your age?’
‘Expected a storm, there always is when I arrive. What time is it?’
‘Dunno, about 3 o’clock, I think.’
‘Not the time of day, girl! Can tell that easily enough, by looking at the sky and feeling the air. Need to know the year? What year is it, girl?’
Surprised, Mizzy replies, ‘Are you kidding? Have you had a knock on the head or something?’
‘No, of course, not. What’s your name?’
‘Mizzy, and before you say it, yes, I know it’s weird, it’s short for…’
‘Misercordia,’ interrupts the old lady, ‘a faerie name, meaning mercy.’
Mizzy peers at her suspiciously. ‘How do you know that?’
‘Once knew someone of that name.’ replies the old lady striding off, up towards the village.
Grabbing her boots, Mizzy rushes after her, ‘Hey, wait for me, you need to get out of those wet clothes, or you’ll freeze to death! You’re soaked!’
Looking at her in puzzlement, the old lady follows Mizzy’s gaze and sees the puddles forming at her feet.
‘Oh, yes, you are right. Hadn’t noticed.’
Walking up the quayside steps, the old lady inspects the cottages on the harbour side, and mutters, ‘Not changed much, then.’
A group of children run past, wearing black robes and waving wands.
Incredulous, the old lady asks, ‘Teaching schoolchildren magic now?’
‘Uh? No, they’re costumes? Harry Potter? Halloween, you know?’ Mizzy, answers, with care, ‘You seem a bit confused? Staying in a holiday let?’
‘No.’ the old lady, replies, bluntly.
Looking at the old lady’s ragged clothing, Mizzy makes an assumption, ‘Oh, you’re, like, homeless aren’t you? The village isn’t a good place to be, in the winter, if you’re on the streets. Seriously, you should go to one of the big towns, where they have food banks and hostels to feed you and that.’
‘I need no help, I have a home. I have always lived here.’
Sceptical, Mizzy looks her up and down, ‘I’ve never seen you before, and I’ve been here all my life.’
‘Well, perhaps I am a visitor, of a kind. Always takes me a little time to get into the swing of things.’
‘You asked what year it is? Look, no offence, but how’s your memory, I mean, at your age, well…’
‘You think I have dementia?’
Thinking how to answer this, without upsetting the old lady, Mizzy says, ‘No, I’m not saying that but, well, you’re not making much sense, your clothes are a mess, and when did you last eat?’
‘When did I last eat? You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Honestly, it’s not a problem.’
‘Well, do you have any money?’
‘Yes,’ replies the old lady, pulling out a wad of paper from her pocket, ‘I have plenty, see?’
Incredulous, Mizzy looks at the strange green bits of paper, imprinted with the head of a young Queen Elizabeth, ‘What are they? Pound notes? How old are they? Is that all you’ve got?’
‘Worth nothing, now?’
‘Well, you could try selling them on eBay, I suppose. We’ll go see Mum, she might know of some charity that can help you.’
Fore Street, the main shopping area of the village, is busy with disgruntled villagers attempting to shift the snow. Shovelling it into piles outside their shops. Mizzy and the old lady strive to get around them. A distracted young man, with his eyes cast down, nearly crashes into the pair.
‘What is he staring at? That thing in his hands?’ asks the old lady.
Before Mizzy can answer, the young man shouts loudly, ‘Hi, my car’s stuck in the snow. Wondered if you can help?’
‘Certainly,’ replies the old lady ‘do you need a push?’
Looking puzzled, the man stares at her, ‘Sorry, what did y’say?’ then turns away, ‘No, not you, I was trying to explain about my car, and this strange old woman interrupted me!’
Perplexed, the aged woman peers around. ‘Where is the strange old woman?’
Mizzy hisses, ‘You, are the strange old woman! He’s not speaking to you.’
The old lady mutters, ‘Me strange? He is the one talking to himself.’
‘He’s not talking to himself,’ replies Mizzy, ‘he’s talking to someone on his phone. Have you forgotten about mobiles too?’ In exasperation, she gets her phone out of her coat pocket and passes it to the old lady, ‘Look, do you remember, now?’
Turning it over in her hands, examining it – the old lady is astounded, at first. Then, realisation seems to dawn on her, ‘Very clever! A communicator? Like in Star Trek?’
Speaking, authoritatively, into the phone, she says, ‘Beam me up!’
Standing stock still as if in anticipation, the old lady becomes annoyed when nothing happens. Peering closely at the phone, she attempts to prise the back off.
‘Hey, what are you doing? You’ll break it!’ scolds Mizzy, grabbing the ‘communicator.’
‘I need to find out how it works!’
‘Well, get your own then.’ argues Mizzy, as she drags the old lady past the specialist galleries, art and craft shops, lining the street, aimed at the tourist trade.
‘What are these shops? Selling over-priced trinkets?’ moans the old lady. ‘Where are the ironmongers? The General Store?’
‘What?’ responds Mizzy, ‘Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about?’ Coming to a stop in front of a shop, she adds, ‘Here we are, Mum should be able to sort you out.’
Jostling for space, in the window, are various items. Broomsticks, cauldrons, plastic pumpkins, glow-in-the-dark vampire fangs, and hanging bats.
Aghast, the old lady looks at the painted sign above. Written in sizeable gothic script, are the words Kemp’s Magick Emporium. ‘Your mother… has turned the cottage into a magic shop?’ she, says, incredulously.
‘When were you last here?’ Mizzy asks, in exasperation, ‘It’s been a shop for years, that’s what made Dad… look never mind that.’ With reluctance, she adds, ‘There’s something I ought to warn you about my Mum. She’s a witch.’
Shaking her head, the old lady replies, ‘Bless you child, but, really, no, she’s not.’
‘I know that!’ Mizzy, sighs, ‘I know there are no such things as witches. Only annoying people like Mum, who enjoy dressing up and dancing around fires making idiots of themselves. But, she can help you — so don’t give her a hard time about it. OK?’
‘I will do my best to be polite.’
Inside the shop, shelves full to bursting, are an assortment of items with occult themes. One shelf has scented candles in ornate candlesticks, aromatherapy bottles, crystals, and pewter goblets. Another is filled with talismans, pendants, dowsing pendulums, scrying glasses, wind chimes, and dream catchers.
Wands of every shape and size, made from carved wood, line one wall. All the esoteric supplies a person might need for magical practices, and also more touristy items. Witch broom key-rings, witch hat pencil sharpeners, and cauldron candle-holders.
Cordelia, Mizzy’s mother, dresses the part, wearing a black Victorian lace and velvet dress, and a hooded cloak fastened at the throat with a silver brooch, shaped like a bat. Stark black lipstick outlines her mouth, her thin face powdered pale with black lines accentuating her eyes. Hep ducks under a sun and moon mobile dangling above her. Mizzy’s mother stares at the strange, bedraggled, old lady shuffling in, and gives Mizzy a questioning glance.
Stepping forward, the old lady embraces her and says, ‘Hello, Cordelia, lovely to see you, again.’
Both Mizzy, and her Mum. are dumbfounded ‘Sorry… um… do I know you?’ asks Cordelia.
‘Won’t remember me, my dear, you were much younger when we last met, but, to me, it feels like only yesterday. My name is Hepzibah Kemp.’
‘Hepzibah Kemp?’ repeats a puzzled Cordelia, taken by surprise. ‘The same name as our ancestor? The one who was drowned for witchcraft?’
‘Yes, but you can call me, Hep. It’s what all my family call me.’
‘So, are we related?’ says Cordelia.
‘Yes, distantly, by time.’
Cordelia points at Hep’s face, her own and Mizzy’s, ‘Of course, I can see it now, the same red hair and the same green eyes! Fascinating. A new branch of the family tree. Bit of a hobby of mine, tracing our ancestry.’
She, gestures around the shop, proudly, ‘It was the story of Hepzibah Kemp that inspired my interest in magic and all this.’
‘Yes,’ replies Hep, coldly, ‘Mizzy told me you call yourself a witch, now.’
‘Well,’ interjects Mizzy, ‘It’s mostly about worshipping nature, and eating healthy foods these days. That’s right isn’t it, mum?’
‘Yes, being at one with nature, is an important part of a witch’s life,’ opines Cordelia, ‘and, of course, the second sight. This storm, for instance, is of supernatural origin. I knew something unnatural was coming. I am at one with the Goddess, and open to Her Wisdom. I can interpret the signs.’
‘Well, I suppose everyone can be right once,’ murmurs Hep.
‘You promised me you’d be polite,’ whispers Mizzy to her, ‘so, behave yourself.’
‘Do you believe in mystical forces, Hep?’ asks Cordelia.
‘I believe in magic, of a kind.’
‘Well, as you can see, we cater for every occult need here. All the items a witch might require. Robes, cauldrons, and even broomsticks. We have our own website too, you should check it out.’
‘Website? Some kind of Spider farm? Harvesting their webs to use in spells?’
‘No, it’s, well, you know, The Worldwide Web? The internet?’
Confused, Hep shakes her head, ‘Anyway, we are doing a fantastic trade!’ says Cordelia, in triumph.
Looking around, dubiously, Hep mutters quietly to herself, ‘That’s what worries me.’
Turning to her mum, Mizzy says, ‘Look, um, Hep needs a bit of a hand, I found her on the beach. She’d gone swimming, or fallen in, or something,’
‘My goodness,’ says Cordelia, giving a dramatic toss of her head, ‘out in the water, in a storm like this! Well, you must have some food with us, and tell us all about your branch of the family.’
‘It would be good to catch up, but I have a lot of work to do. Tell me, is your mother still alive?’
‘No, I’m afraid not, she died some years ago, when Mizzy was still at primary school.’
Staring at the young girl, Hep nods, ‘That explains much.’
‘Did you know my mother well?’ asks Cordelia.
Tears well up in Hep’s eyes, ‘No, not really. In fact, only fleetingly. That is the way of things. I should be used to it, but it still hurts every time.’
‘Moved and lost touch did you?’
‘Moved? No, but lost touch? — yes, you could say that.’
‘Well, let’s find you some dry clothes,’ says Cordelia, kindly, ‘they might be a bit witchy, I’m afraid, but they’ll do for now.’
She finds Hep a sweatshirt, with a pentagram emblazoned on the front, and a vintage style black dress, decorated with stars and moons.
‘Here change into these, and I’ve got an old fleece lined anorak, somewhere — that should keep the cold weather out.’
While Hep is in the changing rooms, at the back of the shop, Cordelia whispers to Mizzy, ‘She’s a little strange, isn’t she? We’ll give her a good meal, and then I’ll get onto social services and see if they can sort something out for her.’
When Hep returns, she says she needs to leave, ‘You have been very kind, but, as I said, I have much work to do.’
‘But where will you go?’ asks Mizzy, ‘you’ve got no money.’
‘Honestly, there’s room here,’ insists Cordelia, ‘You must stay with us until they can find a place for you.’
‘No, it’s a lovely offer, but, as I told Mizzy, I have a place to stay, and money is not a problem.’
Raising a hand in farewell, Hep leaves. Getting only a short way along Fore Street, Mizzy, who has run after her, catches her arm.
‘Wait, Hep,’ she says, ‘who are you? Are you related to us?’
Hep’s bright eyes, creased by decades of peering into the rain, wind, and sun, fix intently on Mizzy.
‘I am the past. Catching up with you. We have things to do, you and I.’
‘What? What does that even mean?’ cries Mizzy, into the air, as the figure of the old lady disappears into the swirling snow.