Authors: Sarah Painter
Bex knew about Iris Harper – everybody in town did – but had always dismissed the rumours as silly superstition. The way Bex saw it, either the creepy old woman had special powers, which made her, according to every fairy tale Bex had ever read, highly dangerous. Or she didn’t, which made her your usual meddlesome old woman with a side-order of battiness thrown in.
As Bex picked her way across Iris Harper’s overgrown garden she didn’t let herself dwell on what she was doing; knew that she would lose her nerve if she looked at it head on. All Bex knew was that she was desperate. Her mistake had caused so much damage; it had broken up a relationship, lost her friends, and almost ruined her chances of getting work. She’d come clean with the childcare agency and the woman who interviewed her had agreed to bend the rules and take her on, to give her a second chance. If the Farriers called the police or refused her a reference, that chance would be well and truly blown.
Nestled amongst the wild flowers and bushes of rosemary and lavender were ripe red peppers and fat purple aubergines, both of which were utterly impossible outside of a greenhouse at this time of the year. Bex had always been a practical and focused kind of person, not easily derailed. Dutifully, she ignored the impossible vegetables and concentrated on the job in hand; to find the wicked old witch who lived in the broken-down cottage and obtain a magical potion that would sort out her life. She snorted out loud at the unlikely nature of this scenario and then almost fell over with surprise when a voice, very close to her ear, said, ‘And who might you be, traipsing through my garden without so much as a good morning?’
The woman must’ve stepped out from behind the hawthorn tree to the side of the path. Bex swallowed. She was not in a fairy tale and the woman was not about to turn her into a frog. No matter how terrifying she appeared. ‘I’m Bex. Bex Adams. I’m looking for Iris Harper.’
‘You’re Janet Adams’s girl. Silbury Road?’ The woman was old. Frail-looking, too, in that brittle way the ancient sometimes had. It seemed that old women went one of two ways; you could either become comfortably chubby and rosy-cheeked or you could wither away until you resembled a stick.
‘They sold that house,’ Bex said, trying to hide her surprise. ‘Ages ago.’
Iris’s mouth turned up at one side. ‘Ages ago? You’re barely grown, girl, haven’t had time for “ages”.’
Well, there was nothing to say to that. Not unless you had a snappy comeback like ‘I’ve got a rare disease. I’m actually sixty-five.’
‘Not unless you’re like that Benjamin Button fellow,’ Iris continued, giving the unpleasant impression she could read minds. ‘You’d better come in. I’m finished out here anyway.’
In the kitchen, Iris Harper boiled a kettle on the stove and made tea. She poured out thick brown liquid from a cracked earthenware teapot into a stained mug which said ‘Stonehenge Discovery Centre’ on the side in sickly green writing.
Bex thought she’d controlled her expression very well, but when she raised her eyes she saw Iris watching her with quiet amusement. ‘If I gave folk pretty china and a slice of cake, they’d never leave me alone. It’s like Piccadilly Circus in here, as it is.’
The kitchen was painted yellow and the cabinets must’ve been added sometime in the nineteen-fifties or sixties. The Formica worktop was heavily scarred from years of knife cuts and hot pans.
‘So. What brings you to my door?’ Iris raised her mug, regarding Bex steadily over the rim.
‘I’m in trouble.’ Bex stared at the brown surface of her drink and tried to formulate the words. The only sound was a clock ticking.
Then there was a knock on the door and Iris motioned to Bex. ‘Be a dear and get that.’ A man was at the back door, somewhere between the age of seventy and a hundred.
‘Hang on, Fred,’ Iris said. She rose from the table, slowly, with a flash of something on her face. ‘I’ll just get it.’
‘I’m sorry to bother you,’ the man said. ‘So soon. I thought it would last a bit longer, but I dropped it and –’
‘Not a problem,’ Iris said. ‘I’d invite you in, but –’
‘I’m not stopping.’
Bex watched the woman slide open a drawer in the dresser that stood next to the back door. She passed the man a screw-top jar and he went away. So it was true; she was a witch. Or a herbalist, at least.
Bex’s mother had liked a bit of that, natural remedies and so on. She’d poured a foul-smelling concoction from a brown bottle into Bex’s ear whenever she had an infection, no matter how many times Bex asked for the banana-flavoured syrup her friends were all given.
‘So, what do you require, Rebecca Adams?’
‘Bex,’ Bex said. She straightened her spine, as if that would help the words to rise up a little easier. ‘I’ve been accused of something I didn’t do and I heard that you sometimes helped –’
‘I always help,’ Iris said.
‘Yes, well. That’s good, then, because –’
‘What didn’t you do?’ Iris had so many wrinkles around her eyes that it was difficult to tell whether she was giving a sceptical look or an amused one.
‘Steal a pair of cufflinks.’
Iris sat back a little. ‘That sounds like a police matter. The new plod is very good. He’ll see you right.’
‘I thought you said you always helped.’ Bex didn’t know what she’d expected.
‘I’m pointing you in the right direction. That’s helpful.’
‘That’s not what I need,’ Bex began, but Iris broke in. ‘Yes, it is. Trust me.’
Bex was so ashamed of her mistake that she never usually mentioned it, let alone to a near-stranger. She hated the way their faces changed when they realised she wasn’t a decent person, but with Iris it wasn’t too bad. She had the impression the old boot didn’t like her much, anyway, and she had an unshockable quality. ‘They might not believe me.’
‘Belief doesn’t come into it,’ Iris said. ‘The police work on evidence.’
‘I have a record. I got caught shoplifting when I was sixteen.’
Iris blinked. ‘Childish high jinks. They won’t worry about that.’
‘I wasn’t a child,’ Bex said. ‘And the make-up I took was pretty expensive. It wasn’t just a few sweeties from the pick and mix.’ It had been so stupid. A moment of madness, people called it, but Bex felt she had been going mad for months beforehand. She had been so unhappy, so worried about her parents and their constant rowing, and so sick of worrying, too. She’d wanted something else to fill her mind, something so extreme it would transport her to another reality, if only for a few minutes. It had worked. The new reality had involved sitting in the police station, terrified and ashamed, and being interviewed by the disapproving forces for the public good. Not to mention the trouble she’d been in once her dad had taken her home. The worst thing was how embarrassed he’d been. She’d mortified both of her parents, adding the shame and stress of having a criminal for a daughter to their already-fraught relationship. The arguments had happened before, but after she was arrested, they got much worse. Her mum blamed her dad for coddling her and her dad said that her mum was too lax. They both agreed that staying together wasn’t in anyone’s best interests. Bex had proved that. She hadn’t meant to prove anything of the sort, but people could surprise you. Deep down, Bex had hoped that if she was a massive screw-up, her parents would rally together. They would see how much they were hurting her, their child, and they would start acting like grown-ups. Together.
Instead, her mum decided she preferred a party life with a string of younger boyfriends to dealing with a thieving daughter and a tricky marriage. Her dad, who had probably thought his days of being publicly humiliated were over, let Bex know that she had really put the cherry on top of the crap-sandwich that was his life. ‘People around here think worse of us because we don’t have a Range Rover and my parents worked in the paper mill, and you just proved them all right.’
‘Perhaps they won’t call the police,’ Iris said. ‘When they calm down I’m sure they’ll reconsider. I take it you looked for the missing cufflinks?’
‘Yes’ Bex said, exasperated, ‘of course.’
‘Still,’ Iris waved a hand as if shooing away a cat. ‘You’ll be fine. Tell the truth and it’s their word against yours.’
‘Their word is pretty strong.’
‘Well then,’ Iris said. ‘Perhaps you’d better look again. Perhaps they fell down behind something. Or maybe they fell into your bag.’
Bex sat back. ‘You’re very rude.’
Iris shrugged. ‘Just going on the evidence. Most people don’t change and you told me you’re a thief.’
‘Once. I stole one time. And I never would again.’
‘You learned your lesson?’
‘If you want to put it like that.’
‘Oh, I do,’ Iris said. After a moment she said, ‘I believe you.’
Bex tried not to feel pleased. ‘I didn’t come here for your blessing or something.’
‘I could vouch for you,’ Iris said. ‘My word means a lot in this town.’
‘More than Mr Farrier’s?’
The atmosphere changed. If Bex had been a fanciful person, she’d have said the air in the room drained of warmth. Her practical head told her that a cloud must’ve passed in front of the sun at just that moment.
When she spoke, Iris’s voice was like the crackle of dry grass. ‘James Farrier?’
Bex shook her head. ‘Alistair.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course,’ Bex said. ‘He’s my boss. What’s wrong?’
‘I didn’t know there were Farriers in Pendleford, that’s all. It surprised me.’ Iris looked away.
‘Well, you can’t know everyone,’ Bex said, ‘especially the way the town is growing. I bet it’s changed a lot since you were –’ She’d been going to say ‘young’, but Iris was staring into space with a vacant expression. It was like she’d stepped out of the room for a moment, but had forgotten to take her body with her.
‘I’ll get out of your hair,’ Bex said, standing up.
Iris looked up, then, her eyes refocused. ‘How long have you worked for them. The Farriers?’
‘Six months or so,’ Bex said, ‘since they moved here.’
Iris tilted her head as if she was considering something, but when she spoke it was just a goodbye.
Iris leaned over her journal, making careful notes on Martin Angel and Fred Byres. Her back was still sore, though in a slightly more distant and more manageable way, but her eyelids were drooping. She felt weary through and through and her head was too heavy for her shoulders.
What was most worrying was the state of her vegetable garden. The peppers and aubergines looked nice enough, but the last one she’d tried had collapsed to nothing when she’d baked it, leaving a terrible flavour which had ruined her aubergine parmigiana. And then there were the snails. Iris glared balefully at the slimy trail visible on the kitchen floor. Low creatures like that would never have dared come into her home before. Never. She made a note, the pen scratching comfortingly across the paper. Telling her journal about the snails felt like a burden lifting. A problem shared, as the saying went. Of course, she’d never been sure about that phrase. Was a problem shared always a problem halved? Not to mention the fact that she was sharing with an inanimate object, something highly unlikely to be of practical use against the encroaching snail army. She rubbed her eyes and tried to focus. The pain in her lower back wasn’t getting any better and she had to let half of her mind see to that. Time was, when she could have split her mind into three or four useful parts, each handling something different, with no trouble whatsoever. Now, with half of her battling the band of pain which was tightening slowly around her middle and sending outposts of electric agony down her hips and legs, the rest of her brain felt foggy and uncooperative.
Sometime later, Iris jerked awake. Her heavy head was resting on the open pages of her journal and the ink was smudged in a pool of water. Her eyes had been watering again. Another side effect of age. Having never been one for crying it was particularly galling to be let down in this manner, with her tear ducts leaking away at every breath of wind, particle of dust or, as now, while resting. Iris swiped at her face and carried the ruined notebook upstairs. She left it open on the radiator in the bedroom to dry before lowering herself cautiously into bed. In her mind’s eye, she ran up the stairs and flung herself upon the mattress, but the reality took far longer. Plenty of time to reflect on the strange girl, Bex Adams, and the flurry of emotion her visit had awakened.
You are too old for this nonsense, Iris told herself, but the young Iris, the girl who still lived in her heart and head, ignored that and went on thinking, remembering, anyway. James Farrier. Iris hadn’t thought his name in many years. She had been seventeen years old when she’d fallen in love for the first and only time in her life. At eighteen, she’d very nearly married that same love, but her affliction (as her mother called it) had changed everything.
It was better, of course. Not only did she know that James Farrier was not the kind-hearted man he had appeared as he courted her, but being a Harper in this small town was a responsibility more easily borne alone. Yes, it would be pleasant, especially now in her dwindling years, to have another pair of hands around the place, but people told secrets more easily to a woman alone. Iris wrote things down, of course, but anyone who knew about her journals trusted that they were in safe hands. If there were a husband in the picture, people might start to worry what was being discussed over the breakfast table, what secrets were swapped in the marital bed. In short, being married would have made Iris more flesh and blood and that would have made people uneasy. Everyone knew that nothing corrupted more quickly.
When Iris called off the wedding, her parents assumed that James had discovered Iris’s affliction and had, as any reasonable man would, changed his mind. ‘It’s the curse,’ her mother had wept. ‘I’m sorry, my darling. If only I could have spared you this.’ It didn’t matter how many times Iris protested that it had been her decision, that her affliction was a gift which had opened her eyes to the true character of her groom-in-waiting.
It didn’t help, of course, that her mother’s gift was getting stronger and more difficult to bear. Every time someone threw something of emotional value away, it reappeared like the proverbial bad penny. No wonder she couldn’t see it as anything other than a curse.