On Christmas Day morning, although no longer a child, Mizzy still wakes up with that feeling of anticipation, of the presents, of the excitement, of it being a special day. Unfortunately, she also has an underlying mood of trepidation. What will her Mum and Dad make of Hep?
Later, she helps her mum finish icing the Christmas cake. Not a normal Christmas cake, of course. It is a big Celtic Yule Cake decorated with an iced sun and moon, ‘You do realise that Frank will just think you have just done this to wind him up?’ queries Mizzy.
‘It’s just a cake. Symbolising rebirth and renewal,’ replies Cordelia but, before she can finish the sentence, Mizzy interrupts, ‘and everything Frank thinks is mumbo jumbo.’
‘Well, he’s a guest in this house, now, so he’ll have to put up with it’ replies Cordelia dismissively.
Mizzy rolls her eyes at this, and says ‘Let’s hope she distracts Hep distracts him enough to avoid his snarky comments. I better go and fetch her, but I better warn you, she thinks she’s Hepzibah Kemp.’
‘What the actual Hepzibah? Drowned as a witch in 1665?’
‘She thinks she is some kind of reincarnation?’
‘I suppose so. Where do you think she got the idea that she could be Hepzibah Kemp from, then?’ asked Mizzy,
‘Perhaps she read about her in one of those books about the witchcraft trials? That’s the problem with people who become engrossed with history, they become a bit obsessive – look at your father.’
Mizzy ignores this jibe at her Dad, ‘There’s something else you should know, she thinks that she lived here like the real Hepzibah.’
‘Well, if she’s related, perhaps she stayed here with mum, once?’ replies Cordelia, but before they can discuss the situation further, there is a ring at the doorbell.
Waiting on the doorstep are Frank and Hep, who have arrived together, ‘Merry Christmas Mizzy! Your friend seems to have found her own way here.’ Frank says cheerily, but, in response, Hep mutters ‘I know the way to my own home!’.
‘Merry Christmas’ says Cordelia, to them both, and continues, ‘Hello, Hep – may I call you that?’
Hep frowns, ‘It’s my name. You are all grown up, now, I see.’
‘Huh, yes, well, have we met before?’ says Cordelia, quizzically. ‘Anyway, come through to the…’
‘Parlour’ interrupts Hep.
‘Well, Living Room, I was going to say, actually.’
It is soon clear that Hep seems to know her way around the cottage, and she walks straight through to the main room, suffused in a warm glow from the pulsating lights of the Christmas tree. The décor seems very casual but, in reality, Cordelia has spent a long time finding the right fabrics for the curtains and cushions, thrown over the chintzy chairs and sofa.
‘You’ve decorated. I don’t like it. It is too fiddly and flouncy.’ Hep declares, bluntly.
‘Well, most people say it is very cosy,’ replies Cordelia, defensively.
‘Where’s the stove gone? Where do you cook?’ questions Hep staring at the fireplace and the roaring fire within. ‘Well, in the kitchen…at the back?’ answers Cordelia, pointing towards the rear of the cottage. Hep marches off to investigate; leaving the Kemp’s to stare at each other questioningly.
She returns and, with satisfaction, says ‘It is the old yard, with a roof on top! Nice to have a bit of extra space! Where do you do your business though?’
‘My business?’ queries Cordelia, ‘oh, you mean my Wiccan supplies and natural remedies? I have a shop, in Fore Street.’
Hep looks at Cordelia as if she is mad, ‘Shop? No, I don’t mean spending that sort of penny. I mean the other sort.‘ she says, miming the action by squatting.
‘Oh I see, sorry, yes, do you need the toilet?’ asks Cordelia, ’there is one upstairs and there is one here under the stairs.’
‘You have put a lavvie,’ says Hep, anxiously, ‘under the stairs?’
‘Well, yes,’ says Cordelia looking around at Frank and Mizzy and raising her eyebrows, ‘it’s more convenient.’
‘Not for me!’ snaps Hep and striding to the toilet door, opens it and disappears inside.
The sound of the lavatory, being flushed a number of times, can be heard by the ever more perplexed Kemps. Hep reappears with a concerned look on her face, that she tries to hide with a smile.
‘Must be nice not to have to sit outside on a cold day like today,’ mutters Hep, ‘used to fair freeze your bum, it did.‘
Cordelia gives an embarrassed laugh, ‘Yes, well, the miracles of modern plumbing. I’m glad you approve.’
“I didn’t say I did,’ re-joins Hep, looking around the room and pointing at the television, computer, radio and other various appliances, ‘you have a lot the new magic, in here,’ she remarks sceptically ‘Is that wise? Have you mastered it?’
Frank, who has listened to these exchanges with evident amusement, interjects ‘No, she has not, she’s always losing the remotes.’
‘She has lost remote perception? She has no clairvoyance?’ queries Hep ‘It is no surprise to me. Her skills were always weak.’
Frank laughs at this putdown, Mizzy moans to herself, and Cordelia is obviously a bit taken aback by Hep’s rudeness. She whispers to Frank, ‘It must be her mental disorder. I imagine it affects her ability for normal social interaction. A kind of Tourette’s syndrome thing? She can’t stop herself making socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks.’
‘Well I think she’s funny,’ whispers Frank back. ‘She’s certainly seen through all your mystical nonsenses.’
Cordelia goes a little red in the face, and decides to try and impress the old lady, ‘Hep, Mizzy tells me that you have an interest in the old ways of Witchcraft? Perhaps you would like to see some of the tools of my trade?’
Hep nods her head,‘The old ways, the new ways, there is always much to learn.’
Frank cannot let this remark pass, ‘I don’t mean to be rude or discourteous to a guest, but I would just like to say that there is, of course, no scientific evidence to support the idea of magic, Hep.’
Hep loosd at him disdainfully ‘In your wisdom, have you not thought that magic might just be science that you do not understand yet?
It is Frank’s turn to be taken aback, and Cordelia smiles to herself at his discomfort. She opens a cabinet and gets out a very ornate knife with a finely carved handle, proudly declaring, ‘Yes, in a way this is, as you say Hep, a unique scientific instrument. This is my ‘Athane’, a ritual knife that I use in my witchcraft practices!’
Hep holds the knife and closes her eyes, and goes into a trance like state – very similar to the one she went into when holding Mizzy’s mobile phone. She opens her eyes, sharply ‘No. ‘This is mere decoration. An ornament. It has no power…useful for cutting meat, I suppose?’
‘I assure you that it has been properly authenticated,’ splutters Cordelia, ‘I bought it from a druid who goes to Stonehenge regularly…’
‘Well, there you are then.’ interjects Frank, ‘Bound to be nonsense, all that druids at Stonehenge stuff was made up by William Stukely, Newton’s biographer, in the 18th century – just a lot of elaborate and fanciful descriptions of non-existent practices and beliefs.
‘There is truth in that, ‘says Hep, and then points around at all the mistletoe hanging from the ceiling as decoration,’ but even the Romans and the Celtic druids knew of the ritual of the mistletoe.’
Mizzy looked daggers at Hep. This frosty start to the festivities is not what she had hoped for.
‘Well, shall we all sit down for mum’s fantastic feast!’ she says enthusiastically, in an attempt to distract them all from further arguments. ‘If this is you idea of good behaviour,’ she hisses at Hep, as they all sit down, ‘then no wonder they wanted to drown you!’ Hep just looks puzzled, and whispers back ‘I was just trying to pass on some of the wisdom that my great age has given me, about things they is interested in.’
‘Just stop making them look stupid, alright?’ pleads Mizzy.
The situation appears to improve over the Christmas meal, her table manners may be a bit crude, but Hep becomes quite merry, drinking ale and relishing all the food.
‘I have many tales of the celebrations of Christmas past, if you are interested?’ she asks.
Knowing that this subject is likely to be the catalyst for an argument between her parents, Mizzy kicks Hep under the table. But there is no stopping the old witch.
‘I did not like the way Christmas changed in the reign of the Queen called Victoria,’ Hep declares ‘Too stuffy. ‘It was all order, and an end to the mayhem and magic of the old traditions of the Solstice. They dragged trees indoors. Inside is no place for trees of the forest. They die.’
‘But, Hep, you have to admit, that is when all the proper Christmas traditions began. The turkey, the cards, the crackers, the whole family gathered around the table, like us.’ argues Frank.
‘Bah, that strange bird, from the New World,’ says Hep in exasperation, ‘Whats wrong with a good side of beef, or a fat roasted goose? Who wants Mince pies with no meat in? A card? Sent once a year, to someone you ignore for the other eleven months of the year? Why, even the meanest fellow in the village would get a proper hug, at Solstice. Family, yes, it was a time for family but it was also a time to share your riches at a village feast! Modest gifts we gave each other that we had made ourselves, but after that Queen Victoria they were all shop-bought. It was all about making money for the merchants.’
Frank reels from this diatribe and Cordelia chips in with glee ‘Yes, all these silly modern ideas – look what they did to Old Father Time.’
Hep nods sagely, ‘A great magician, of course. He wore a long green hooded cloak and a wreath of holly, ivy and mistletoe. He had the ability to make people a great deal happier, during the long winter months.’
Frank laughs and quips ‘Then they turned him into Father Christmas and mixed him up with St.Nicholas and Santa Claus, and the Americans dressed him up in red and used him to sell sugary drinks that rot your teeth and make you fat.’
‘Yes, very informative, Frank.’ gripes Mizzy, ‘did you really need to tell me that when I was three? Bit of a downer when you are expecting a jolly fat man dressed in red to be coming down the chimney.’
‘It’s not even really the birthday of Jesus.’ says Cordelia, ‘No one really knows when he was born. It was the Roman Emperor, Constantine, who made this day Christmas Day. He just stole December 25th because it was the Sol Invictus, the Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. The Christians stole our pagan midwinter festival.’
‘No harm in sharing,’ shrugs Hep,‘I used to like a good sing song in the church, after a few mulled ales. Mind you, I never got on with those puritans. We had some miserable Christmas’s after Old Ironsides’ banned it, and made it a day of fasting. Of course, the Squire would always bend with the wind, and try to get in good with whoever was in charge in London. So, to show what a good puritan he was, he would send the constabulary out to patrol the streets, seizing any food they discovered that we were preparing for a Christmas feast. We knew where the food was really going, though. The old Squire was secretly having a right old nosh up.’
‘You have such a wonderful imagination,’ exclaims Cordelia ‘I love the way you tell the tale as if you were really there!’ and, not noticing the withering look that Hep gives her, continues enthusiastically, ‘But, tell me, Hep, do you still practice the arts? Will you join my coven to celebrate the Sabbat of Yule? I shall wave ‘Athane’ across the flame of the Yule log’ as I chant:
“Celebrate the birth of the Sun-child
and His promise of returning warmth,
Give thanks for Winter’s enchantment,
and the icy spell of its bewitching beauty.”
‘It sound like nonsense, to me,’ replies Hep disdainfully, tapping her head, ‘nothing like the proper old ways!’
‘Well, I wouldn’t expect a novice, with a mere smattering of knowledge of witchcraft, to understand the true import of our rituals.’ a defensive Cordelia retorts, dismissively.
Hep retaliates, ‘The raven chides blackness.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ queries Cordelia.
‘I think that she means people in glasshouses should not throw stones.’ mutters Frank.
‘You say I do not have the knowledge,’ ponders Hep, ‘yet the truth is you have inherited precious few of my skills, Cordelia, my dear.’
This strikes right at the heart of Cordelia’s self-belief and she retorts, ‘I can do magic. I am adept.’
Frank decides to goad Cordelia, ‘Prove it then. Use your magic to find my ring. The one you gave me when we were at University. I lost it when I moved out, it must be here somewhere?’
‘O.K., I will!’ snaps back Cordelia, confidently, ‘Let me hold the finger it was on, and I will divine its whereabouts.’
She grabs Franks hand, and starts to intone, in a mystical voice, ‘Guiding spirits I ask your charity, lend me your focus and your clarity. Lead me to what I need to find. So shall it be!’
Nothing happens. ‘I don’t understand, it must just be a bad day for the spirits,’ sighs Cordelia.
‘Well, this spirit is going down a treat.’ jokes Frank, as he takes a gulp of Sherry.
Hep snorts “See I told you, back when you were at school, that you did not have the power!’
Cordelia fall silent, a puzzled look on her face as if she is trying to remember something from a long time ago. Mizzy tries to change the subject, to distract from the embarrassing situation that has just occurred.
‘How’s your historical research on smuggling in the village going, Frank?’ she asks.
‘Well,’ replies Frank ‘It would seem the smugglers were mostly the fisherman of the village who had a sense of adventure, and an eye for a quick profit.’
‘Balderdash!’ interjects Hep. ‘All the villagers did a bit of smuggling; it was the only way most of them could make a bit of extra money. There were precious little left after they had paid the old Squire his rents. And he ran all the trade from the village. They got a pittance for their wares and crops, from that skinflint. If you knew anything about it, you would know that it were him who ran the whole shenanigans, him who really made the money from smuggling!’
Now it is Frank’s pride that has been hurt, ‘I assure you, I have looked carefully into the matter and I have found no written evidence that would support your claim that the Squire was involved, in anyway, with smuggling.’
‘Don’t be a fool,’ counters Hep ‘Do you think it was the sort of thing that was ever be written down? Do you think it likely that the Squire would leave any evidence? Believe me, I saw it with my own eyes. ‘It was him who paid for the crimes, and you had to involved or you would feel his wrath fall upon you. It was never him that the revenue men came after just us poor villagers.’
The mood has now become a bit subdued. Hep has put both Mizzy’s parents in their place.
‘Life and soul of the party you’ve been haven’t you’ hisses Mizzy at Hep, and quickly thinks of something to lighten the mood, ‘Perhaps now would be a good time to open our presents?’ she suggests.
‘Oh, yes, let’s do that!’ says Cordelia, and there follows an orgy of wrapping paper being torn off and exclamations, some heartfelt – but most merely polite, as they discover their predictable gifts to each over.
‘Wow, um, a CD, mum, with a picture of a whale on?’ says Mizzy.
‘Yes, darling, it’s the song of the hunchback whale!’ Cordelia replies, ‘very soothing, I thought you could turn them into those things you can put on your phone and listen to it while you are out taking photos?’
Mizzy, trying to sound enthusiastic, says ‘Yeah, mum, that will be… great.’
‘A pair of socks, how thoughtful, Cordelia.’ says Frank and gives her a peck on the cheek.
‘Yes, well I noticed most of yours have holes in them.’ she replies a little disdainfully.
Mizzy unwraps the present from her dad. It is a vast tome called ‘The History of Britain’, ‘Great, Frank. I’m sure it will be a really interesting read.’
‘Well, there is always something new to discover isn’t there?’ remarks Frank, adding testily, ‘as Hep has so clearly pointed out to us.’
Frank has also given Cordelia a large book, and she reads out the title, ‘Scientific Magic Tricks’, most amusing. Perhaps, I shall learn some skills that even Hep has not mastered!’ she says good-naturedly.
Hep nods, ‘Mayhap, it is the new magic, after all.’
Frank then opens Mizzy’s present to him, ‘A ship in a bottle, how perfect!’ he exclaims.
Mizzy smiles ‘Well, with you researching smuggling and all that, it seemed a good idea.’ Frank nods ‘Oh yes, I’ll put it on the desk in front of me, so I can look at it when I am writing up my guided tour of smugglers routes.’
Cordelia unwraps her gift from Mizzy, ‘An arm chain, showing the luna cycles! How original, darling!’ she squeals in delight.
‘Well,’ jokes Mizzy, ‘I thought it would make a nice change from the usual Healing Crystals.’ ‘Oh you can never have enough of the crystals to maintain the auras.’ says Cordelia, sagely.
Mizzy then hands Hep a small, neatly wrapped package, ‘’This is for you Hep, Merry Christmas!’ Hep unwraps it and discovers it contains a lighter and…a mobile phone!
Overcome with emotion, Hep is quite tearful, ‘I take back what I said, it is truly generous of you to share the new magic with me.’
Mizzy is pleased with this reaction, but tries to be nonchalant, ‘Not that good of me – it’s just my old mobile phone, I put a pay-as-you-go sim card in it for you.’
‘I shall be more than happy to pay the toll,’ replies Hep, enthusiastically, ‘to travel the mystical paths!’
Mizzy’s parents give Hep a Christmas pudding, and a bottle of Brandy. ‘We thought they might cheer you in your bunker on the long winter nights, says Cordelia ‘you are always welcome here though, if it gets too chilly for you.’
‘My kindred! Fine food, and nectar to warm the soul, you have welcomed me into your bosom and provided me with a feast fit for a king!’ gushes Hep ‘Now, I have gifts for you.’
They are all taken by surprise; everyone had assumed that Hep would be too poor to afford to buy them presents. ‘First, though you must sample my special Christmas cocktail!’ she declares, and brings out a large silver cocktail shaker hidden in the folds of her many layers of clothing.
‘Fantastic! Can I have some Mum?’ cries Mizzy.
‘Well, as it is Christmas,’ replies Cordelia ‘I don’t think there would be any harm in you having a small drop. I’ll get the cocktail glasses.’
Hep pours a sparkling red and blue liquid into each of their glasses. It fizzes and, strangely, mixes to purple and then back to blue and red again and again.
‘The colours are brilliant, there, like, luminous and change when you hold the glass at different angles’ gasps Mizzy. ‘What an amazing flavour!’ gulps Frank, as he tastes it, ‘It seems fruity at first and then it’s like melted chocolate!’
‘It is special,’ says Hep, ‘I invented it back when the Promontory Hotel first opened. I was just a waitress working in the Cocktail Lounge, when Noel Coward first met me. He said it was the best cocktail he had ever tasted.’
‘Frank, Isn’t that the hotel on Gull Head? It’s been empty for years, hasn’t it?’ whispers Mizzy, to her father.
‘Yes, Built in 1933, in the Streamline Moderne style, by the Great Western Railway,’ he murmurs, as if reciting from a book he has memorised, ‘It closed in the seventies and has been disused ever since. It’s just a crumbling heap of Art Deco now. She couldn’t even have been born when it opened, her memory must be confused. Poor thing.’
The cocktail soon seems to loosen the mood and the atmosphere becomes a lot jollier. Mizzy’s parents actually start reminiscing about the time when they first met.
‘Do you remember that Christmas when we just spent the whole day up on the moor with a thermos of coffee laced with brandy, darling?’ says Frank to Cordelia. She smiles, ‘Oh yes, it was so romantic, what was it we kept singing?’
Frank starts singing ‘All around my hat I will wear the green willow…’ and Cordelia joins in, ‘And all around my hat, for a twelve month and a day, and if anyone should ask me the reason why I’m wearing it, it’s all for my true love who’s far, far, away’. They both start laughing and giggling.
Cordelia sighs, ‘Yes, we sang it because you were going off on that architectural dig, and I promised I would wear that stupid hat you gave me for Christmas.’
‘God, yes it was awful wasn’t it? What was I thinking?’ laughs Frank.
Their amusement continues as they remember more of their silly escapades as a couple, but there is also a sparkle in their eyes as the initial attraction that first brought them together is, however briefly, rekindled.
‘What in heavens name did you put in that the cocktail to make them all giddy like this?’, Mizzy jokingly asks Hep who just winks at her and announces that she wishes to give them their presents now. They are wrapped in old paper with runes on them.
Frank unwraps his and just looks astonished, ‘It’s my ring!’ he declares ‘How, is that even possible?’
Hep stares into his eyes, “I found it for you – you might feign indifference, but I know how much you value it”.
Cordelia unwraps a finely cut, iridescent, flint knife. The lights from the Christmas tree reflect a multitude of flickering colours across the blade.
‘This is…gorgeous!’ she says, stunned by the craftsmanship. ‘It must have taken hours for someone to carve.’
Hep nods, ‘I made it myself. It is a proper witch’s knife. You will never have the power, but you can still be a good witch, if you apply yourself.’
Mizzy’s parents are both very touched by their gifts, but the framed black and white photograph she has been given by Hep perplexes her.
‘It’s an old school class photo? Just a lot of kids sitting in rows with their teachers?’
Hep smiles, ‘Yes, it was taken many years ago.’ She points to a young girl in pigtails ‘There is your mother,’ she says, and then points to one of the teachers lined up at the back ‘and there am I.’