Samhain – Present Day
It is now the 21st century in the village of Port Gwyneth. Change has been slow but inevitable. Dwellings of wood are now buildings of whitewashed granite, huddled around paths that have become strangely-named, winding cobbled alleys. They wind their way down to the harbour, which now features a concrete wall curving out into the sea. The main road, Fore Street, runs parallel to the beach. Along its length are shops, the chapel and the village pub.
A buzz, imperceptible to the human ear, pervades. Electrical energy. Cables, made up of bundles of optical fibres, each one a glass strand no thicker than a human hair, lie buried deep beneath the land and spread out under the ocean. Pulses of light carry text, voices and images across the Atlantic in less than a thirtieth of a second.
On one side of the cove, the stones still stand, popular with sightseers and summer tourists. On the other promontory, there is a relatively new addition: a landmark Art Deco hotel. When built, only the wealthy could afford to holiday in this haven, but as the automobile became more affordable, tourists began to flock here like migrating birds. The hotel has fallen into disrepair, its four storeys of white reinforced concrete surrounded by scaffolding.
Underneath a grey and heavy sky, fishing boats bob around in the shelter of the bay. Few lights can be seen along the quay and the streets are quiet. A lone dog walker, an old man, shuffles through the labyrinth of cobbled streets. It would be easy to become lost in such a place, but he knows his way. Lost in thought, he considers the changes wrought on the village during the decades of his long life.
He no longer lives in one of the old, quaint cottages that tumble over each other down narrow streets to the waterside. They were ramshackle back when he was a child. He and other fishing families were glad to escape those small, damp dwellings. They moved up to the top of the hill. To larger, warmer, pebble-dashed council houses, with indoor toilets and all the mod cons needed for an easier, more comfortable way of life.
Rich incomers, from wealthier parts of the country, were only too happy to buy the vacated cottages and modernise them. Even moreso after the pandemic, to escape the congested cities. These homes are unaffordable to local people now. Few are lived in all year round. Those who still live in the old parts of the village mostly move out in the summer, to stay with friends or relatives. They rent their homes to strangers because they can make as much money this way, in those few months of the summer, as they can the whole of the rest of the year by working. They sell a part-time dream, the idyll of living by the sea, somewhere to escape to. But living your real life in Port Gwyneth, one not shown on the pretty postcards, is not so easy.
The villagers now depend on the money the tourists spend. In the summer, Port Gwyneth throngs with visitors and tourists wandering around the gaggle of shops, restaurants and pubs; cluttering up the narrow streets. The few remaining fishing boats in the harbour overshadowed by leisure craft – yachts, dinghies, and pleasure boats.
But as the colder weather arrives, they disappear. One moment you’re battling though the crowds, the next you’re walking alone along empty streets buffeted by the wind. The car parks are empty, the cottages locked and dark. All that’s left are memories of laughing holidaymakers.
It’s October’s end, the beginning of winter. A few leaves on the trees are red and gold; most lie brown and mouldering beneath. The dark half of the year, celebrated this day by the old pagan festival of Samhain.
High on the hill, above the village, the local secondary school becomes immersed in black, foreboding clouds. The sea pounds the cliffs and rain scours the treeless moor in the distance. A storm is coming, fierce enough to raise the dead, to unearth dark secrets. A girl is about to see her childhood abruptly end.
Mizzy Kemp, like all the Kemp girls who have lived in the village, suffers the taunts and jibes of her fellow pupils – egghead, geek, know-it-all. Usually, she avoids confrontations by seeking refuge in the lavatories. Passing the time reading or finishing some homework – but not so this morning. Sitting on the toilet, she shrugs when she sees a deep, brown, gunky-gross stain in her underwear. Blood between her thighs. Not a shock; she has been expecting it. She has a spare pair of knickers and a sanitary pad in her schoolbag. At least there won’t be any telltale signs to provoke further insults and cat-calls from her classmates. But, she sighs, did it have to be today, of all days? Her birthday, and the day Trenwith insists on doing his stupid lesson about the witch.
When they begin to bleed, some girls spent the entire day crying, not wanting to grow up. The only emotion Mizzy has is one of relief. So, I’m a woman now, she thinks. Good, it’s a start. It’s great being a child when you’re small. But the older you get the more annoying it is having everyone telling you how to live your life. To have to dress in the same uniform every day, put up with all those ridiculous rules about behaviour. Not just the ones school invents, but also the ones her classmates live by. The way you should look, the things that should interest you. Not thinking of the world around them, just their own little lives. Who’s snogging who, what clothes are in fashion, and the amount of makeup you can get away with wearing.
She’s tired of being a child. Tired of her annoying, continually arguing parents. Tired of living in a village where you can never escape the past and everyone knows your business. A place so dull and predictable she can’t wait to escape it. She has a hungry desire for adventure.
Now she is a woman, she’s determined things will be different. And they will be, for everything in her life is about to change. She just doesn’t know it yet.
A group of twelve and thirteen-year-olds shuffle into the classroom, slumping into their chairs.
A short, narrow-shouldered young man, Mr. Trenwith, the history teacher, stands before them. He wears a tweed jacket with patches at the elbow. He hopes this attire makes him seem older, of greater academic stature. Although born in the village he feels his few years away at university have changed him. Given him a more metropolitan outlook than the locals.
‘Today,’ he intones to the class, ‘is Halloween, an opportunity for some harmless fun. Behind these modern celebrations, however, exist stories of old beliefs. Superstitions leading, over three hundred years ago, to a terrible event in this village. I’d like to discuss the lessons we can learn from the behaviour of our forebears. Mizzy, perhaps you can tell us your feelings on this.’
Mizzy has been dreading this moment, being the centre of attention for the whole class. She pushes the auburn fringe out of her eyes and looks up, feigning surprise.
‘Come on, Mizzy, it’s your family history after all,’ replies Trenwith in exasperation. ‘You, of all people, must have an interesting perspective on what happened?’
Zara Rowe, the golden-tanned queen bee of the school, looks up from secretly checking her smartphone and laughs. An answering snigger goes around the class. Mizzy’s surname is enough for her to be targeted for special treatment by Zara and her friends. Either shunned, ignored or insulted.
‘I don’t really have an opinion, sir,’ replies Mizzy. ‘I mean, people had irrational fears then, didn’t they? Believed in magic and all that, and then picked on someone they thought practised it. Sad and all that, but it was a long time ago.’
‘Sir, sir!’ interrupts Zara.
‘Yes, Zara?’ Twenwith asks. ‘Do you have an opinion?’
‘Well, sir,’ replies Zara, ‘I think the witch must have done something bad. No smoke without fire, is there?’ She looks around, pointedly, at her posse of similarly bronzed followers.
Taking her cue, Kylie takes the chewing gum out of her mouth. Looking knowingly at Mizzy, she pipes up, ‘The Kemps have always been a bit weird.’
‘Yeah, Zara’s right,’ interrupts Amber, another acolyte. ‘Didn’t the old bag poison people and that?’
A voice quietly interjects.
‘I doubt it.’
The class all turns to look at Oskar Ostrowski, the new boy who started at the school in September. An incomer, he stands out from his classmates. Realising he is the focus of attention, he blushes.
‘Oskar,’ says Trenwith, interested in this contribution from the quietest child in the class. ‘You have a view?’
‘Yes, I do,’ replies Oskar, a little surprised at his own forwardness. ‘I think it was just superstition. Trying to blame other people when things went wrong. Maybe they just made her a scapegoat because she was different from them.’
‘What, like you? An emmet?’ smirks Zara.
‘Actually, Zara, Rowe is a Norman name.’ says Trenwith. ‘So, you see, even your family were once emmets!’
The class laughs, but rapidly falls silent as Zara gives them a vile look. Nobody messes with the Squire’s daughter.
Before the discussion proceeds, the headteacher, Joyce Menhenick, bursts through the door in a state of agitation. An icy draught sweeps through with her.
‘Sorry to interrupt, Mr Trenwith. I’m very concerned about the weather.’
Trenwith gazes out of the large panoramic windows. The broad sky is grey and getting ominously dark. Already, the playing fields and houses beyond the school are becoming obscured by flakes of snow.
‘Hmm, yes, take your point. Could be in for a nasty storm.’
‘Yes, nothing forecast, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t turn quite serious. I think we should all get home before it sets in.’
A wave of relief passes over Mizzy. Talk of the long distant history of her family has caused her to sink further into her seat in acute embarrassment. Who cares what happened hundreds of years ago?
As the schoolchildren emerge, the school is already surrounded by a coat of snow a few inches deep. Oskar watches Mizzy bracing herself against the sharp bite of the wind as she walks out of the school entrance ahead of him. Her red hair catches in the wind, whipping up into her face. She is the only person he has met so far that he has wanted to get to know better, but he is shy and at a loss as to how to start a conversation. Under the glowering sky, he wraps his arms around his body, trying to retain the warmth, and runs to catch up with her.
What’s an emmet?’ he blurts out, his face reddening.
Mizzy’s not sure what to make of this. Is the fact that he is blushing a good thing? She supposes it shows he likes her, but he might as well be wearing a badge saying “Look out – I’m painfully shy and socially inept”.
‘It’s a nickname villagers use for incomers,’ replies Mizzy. ‘Families on holiday, or who have moved here.’
‘Not very friendly, then.’
‘No. Considering most people make their money from them, a bit stupid, too.’
‘That Zara? Why’s she so stuck-up?’
‘Thinks she’s special, being the Squire’s daughter, leader of the pack. As shallow as piss on concrete. Bunch of airheads. If it doesn’t involve pointing their phones at themselves and pouting, they’re not interested.’
‘I feel sorry for them.’
‘Because it’s not much of a life, is it? When all that matters is looking good and fitting in.’
‘They call you a nerd you know? Seen you every morning coming to school, with your nose in a book.’
‘I like reading while I’m walking. I’ve got quite good at it now, hardly ever bump into things anymore.’
Mizzy laughs. ‘Right. What sort of books do you like then?’
‘Fantasy mostly. I like reading to escape from everything. Into another world.’
‘Not very realistic is it? Not going to help you pass your exams or get a job. You know, real life?’
‘I don’t know – if you can confront a dragon or monster then I think you could pretty much take on anything life threw at you.’
‘Yeah, but that’s just in your head isn’t it. Fought any demons recently?’
‘Exactly. Now science is different. Science books are interesting, real stuff that actually happens.’
‘Is that what you like reading?’
Oskar thinks carefully about what he wants to say next. ‘You’re different, aren’t you?’
Mizzy laughs, pointing to her face. ‘Duh!’
Mizzy has always stood out as being different in the village. Not just because her mother claims to be a witch, but because of the colour of her skin, or hair.
Oskar frowns. ‘No I meant…well…we’re both different aren’t we? We both like books, we don’t follow the crowd. It doesn’t feel like we belong. We stand out too much.’
Mizzy’s eyes flash. ‘What do you mean? You know nothing about me.’
‘You wear nice but plain clothes. So I’m guessing you don’t care about dressing up for people.’
‘Right little Sherlock, aren’t you?’
‘Also, judging from your posts on Instagram, you’re more into the world around you than taking selfies.’
‘Private detective and online stalker? Must keep you busy.’ says Mizzy, though her tone is light.
‘You keep yourself to yourself. You might’ve lived here all your life, but I reckon you’re just as much an outsider as me.’
Mizzy snorts. ‘Oh, top marks, Einstein. Of course I’m treated as a freak. My family’s lived here for generations, but the fact I look so different from everyone else only adds proof to the stories about the Kemps. That there’s something strange about us. Having a mum who cheerfully admits to being a witch doesn’t help. Tends to make a kid a sitting duck in this place.’
‘I must admit, I’ve never been to a school before with a witch’s daughter. I guess it’s not something you really want to be known for, is it?’
‘Exactly. I just want to be myself.’
‘You don’t believe in all that stuff though, do you? Witchcraft?’
‘No, of course not, but it doesn’t matter what I say. The family history and all that makes me too good a target. What about you? How did you end up here?’
‘My Dad’s restoring the Promontory Hotel.’
‘You’ll be going once he’s finished the building work?’
Oskar smiles. ‘Bit of a cliché, assuming dad’s a builder because of my surname?’
‘Sorry!’ Mizzy says hastily. ‘That was dumb of me.’
‘Don’t worry, you’re not the first. People make assumptions when you’ve a surname like Ostrowski. Makes you a target for those people who think the country is being overrun by foreigners. Doesn’t matter that my family have lived here since the War. Mind you, it’s probably worse that I’m a Londoner. I think they dislike me more for that than the Polish thing.’
Mizzy nods. ‘You’re right; we are both outsiders. Don’t know why anyone would choose to come here. This village is dead. Nothing ever happens. It’s boring and everyone knows everyone else’s business.’
‘My dad’s been obsessed with the place. Used to come here on holiday when he was a kid and loved it. Always talking about the rock-pooling, catching crabs and playing in the derelict old hotel. He’s an architect. Promised himself if he ever had the money, he’d return and restore it to its former glory. The pandemic made him decide to finally do it. So here I am.’
‘He bought it? It’s a wreck. It’ll cost your mum and dad a fortune.’
‘Don’t I know it. It’s like one of those television shows where people with more money than sense risk everything to restore a clapped out relic. Mum and Dad really stress about it. They’ve got a lot riding on it being a success.’
Mizzy shakes her head. She longs to escape the claustrophobic tedium of life in Port Gwyneth. ‘It must be strange being here, after London. You must miss it.’
‘It’s different. I don’t miss the crowds or the noise. I like all the space. But people were… well… more accepting in London. Of outsiders, I mean.’
Absorbed in conversation, without realising it, they walk straight into Zara, Kylie and Amber. Her posse. They are dancing around in the snow while she records herself, and them, for her YouTube channel.
‘OMG, look at this snow!’ she exclaims, holding her phone up in front of her. ‘It’s Halloween, but it’s like Christmas! Weird weather! Freezing! Don’t you forget to hit ‘like’ and ‘subscribe’ to follow moi, Zarella!’
She turns the phone towards Mizzy and Oskar as she and her groupies surround them, circling like sharks. Zara, eyes blank and chilling, stares at them. ‘Oh, talking of Halloween, look who’s here. It’s the Ginger Witch with her new boyfriend, the Nerd!’
Mizzy replies, coldly. ‘He’s not my boyfriend.’
‘Not done a love spell on him yet? Your witchcraft not up to it?’ laughs Zara. ‘No,’ replies Mizzy. ‘Perhaps I should use bitchcraft, like you.’
Shaken by receiving this taste of her own medicine, Zara responds angrily. ‘What are you anyway, a white witch or a black witch?’ She looks Mizzy up and down, making a pointed reference to the girl’s skin complexion. ‘Oh, something in-between I guess!’
Mizzy smiles at this insult, deciding to hit Zara where it will hurt the most. ’At least I don’t need to fake a tan!’ ‘We should give the witch a dunking and see if she floats!’ says Kylie, provocatively.
‘Yeah, what do you reckon, girls?’ encourages Zara. ‘Shall we see if the witch sinks or swims?’
‘Rather be a witch than a stuck-up cow,’ counters Mizzy. Seeing the expression on Zara’s face, she realises she has gone too far. The girl can’t back down now without losing face in front of her acolytes.
‘You’re the snotty one. I’ve got mates, unlike you losers,’ laughs Zara, jabbing Mizzy sharply in the stomach.
This display of violence is too much for Oskar. ‘Stop it. Stop trying to pick a fight with us.’
‘What you going to do about it, Nerdy? You think you saddos worry me?’
‘I’d be really worried if I were you.’ Mizzy replies.
‘Why’s that then?’
‘You said yourself. I’m a witch aren’t I?’
Raising clenched fists, Mizzy chants, ‘Salmay! Dalmay! Adonay!’
‘She’s casting a spell or something!’ screams Kylie.
With a rumble of thunder, the threatening storm finally breaks as Mizzy brings down her hands. There is a loud bang and a cloud of purple smoke surrounds Zara.
‘I don’t know what you did then, but that’s not normal,’ she shouts in fear and anger, eyes wide in shock. ‘You’re a freak. Normal people shouldn’t have to be in the same school as you.’
‘Za, best leave it, she’s not worth it!’ pleads Kylie, looking at Mizzy warily.
Zara flounces off, trying to maintain a facade of indifference, her entourage trailing after her.
Dumbfounded, Oskar says, ‘Well, that bit of magic scared them off.’
‘Not magic — science. I just said some stupid words from one of my mum’s books. The rest was a chemical reaction.’
Mizzy points to a broken glass vial on the ground. ‘See. Made it in the science lab; one half zinc and iodine, the other water. Break it, so they mix, and you get a pretty little purple explosion. Don’t try it at home.’
Oskar laughs. ‘Wow, I thought I was a bit of a nerd!’
She grins. ‘I love science. It’s my favourite subject at school. I like chemistry. Mixing two different things together to make something else. That’s what I like to do – find things out. The kids at this school aren’t interested in that sort of thing. Their idea of fun is surfing and jumping off the quayside. The boys are into football and computer games, and the girls imagine falling in love with some rich guy they find on Tinder.’
What Mizzy doesn’t admit is that her interest in science is a way of defying her mum’s obsession with magic.
As snow flutters down, Mizzy smiles back at him. ‘Come on, we better get down into the village before it gets worse.’