Authors: Sarah Painter
‘Giving things to people is nice,’ her mother had said, holding a white lacy handkerchief in front of her mouth. ‘I just wish you could be a little more discreet about it.’ She coughed and moved the handkerchief to her pocket, hiding whatever item had appeared.
The problem was, Iris didn’t give people conventional gifts; she gave them what they needed. If it had been a bunch of flowers or a box of chocolates, perhaps all would be well. Instead, Iris was forced to take baby clothes to a woman who did not wish to be pregnant or a purging potion to someone who had been poisoned. Once, she had felt compelled to give an iron nail to a man, with absolutely no idea why. He was as mystified as she was. Three days later, he killed a man in a bar fight, jamming that iron nail into his attacker’s neck.
It was the day before her wedding and the winter solstice when Iris had woken with the pricking sensation that heralded a Giving. She knew that she had to take something warm to Roberta, her future sister-in-law. Already warm from the imagined embarrassment of arriving at the Farriers’ house with a blanket, wary of looking unbalanced and strange in front of her new family, Iris tramped through the snow and ice to deliver her gift. There was no possibility of not doing so, Iris already knew. Over the previous three years, she had tried every way to resist, to ignore her affliction, but the pricking and itching soon turned to burning pain, her mind clouded with the need to deliver the gift. That was something Iris had discovered; how need could very quickly overcome your senses, making a fog of reality and stopping your rational thought processes as surely as a sleeping draught.
When she’d arrived, she’d seen Roberta instantly, huddled on the snowy ground to the right of the front door. She was insensible from the cold and, even as Iris pulled the blanket around her shoulders and hugged the girl close, trying to impart her own warmth, she thought that she was too late, that Roberta had perished.
At that moment, her beloved had thrown open the door. He had not noticed that Iris was there, not immediately, and was already speaking. Iris heard him tell Roberta that he hoped she had learned her lesson and, in that instant, Iris grasped that he had locked her out of the house to punish her. Whatever slight Roberta had been guilty of (and Iris found it hard to imagine such a thing, Roberta was so quiet and cowed), she had been dealt a cruel punishment. The sort of punishment that could only be devised by a cold and disturbed mind.
Iris could never hear the word revelation without a twinge of pain. Her revelation that day had been swift as a knife. James Farrier, the man she loved and had promised to join with in matrimony, was a monster. Or, if not a monster yet, had all the makings of one. Iris had seen enough of human nature in her short life to know one thing: no matter how powerful your magic, you could not change the essential nature of a person.
She’d broken the engagement, horrifying her parents and, it seemed, the entire town. And then she’d buried herself in her calling. If she was a witch then she would be one straight from a storybook. Alone. Austere. Powerful. And, while she had no urge to grow warts or become ugly, she welcomed the notion that girlish prettiness was no longer of consequence. If it was no longer the most important thing about her – her passport to marriage and children – then it wouldn’t matter if she didn’t have it, or that it would decay over time.
She’d never truly intended to become mean, though. Or ‘harsh’, as the child, Rebecca, had said. Iris wiped at her eyes. Damn things were watering again.
Bex was working on her CV when her phone buzzed. It was a text from Jon.
She pressed the call button to speak to him. ‘Didn’t we do that on Tuesday?’
‘You think we’re in a rut?’ Bex could hear the smile in his voice. ‘I’m still taking your mind off your troubles.’
It was a bad idea, Bex knew, but her mouth overruled her brain. ‘What time?’
All the way to Jon’s house, Bex rationalised her bad decision. They were friends. More than that; Jon was her best friend. It wasn’t late, which meant his housemate, Ben, would be around and he could sit in-between them on the sofa. Make it seem less like a date.
Bex knew that spending the evening with Jon was flying in the face of operation ‘get over him and get a new life’, but she shoved that knowledge down and paused in front of a shop window to take her hair out of its ponytail and brush it over her shoulders. In defiance of the sensible voice which was telling her, quite insistently, that she ought to turn around and go home, Bex added a slick of tinted lip balm to her lips before knocking on Jon’s door.
‘I’ve been cooking,’ Jon said. He had a checked tea towel slung over one shoulder. ‘It’s supposed to be a nice surprise, but I’m not sure –’ He broke off, his mouth twisting. ‘Put it this way. I hope you’ve already eaten.’
‘I’ve eaten,’ Bex said. Four bowls of cereal and half a loaf of bread.
‘That’s a relief,’ Jon said. ‘I’ll just go and dispose of the evidence.’ He disappeared back into the kitchen and Bex heard the sound of a plate being scraped into the bin.
‘When’s Ben back?’ His mountain bike had been missing from the hall.
‘Oh, he’s staying out tonight,’ Jon called back.
Bex ignored the treacherous flair of excitement and joined Jon in the kitchen. ‘He’s missing film night, again? You did invite him, right?’
‘He’s busy,’ Jon said, opening the fridge and getting two beers. ‘You know Ben.’
Not really, Bex thought. Jon’s housemate was more elusive than the yeti. ‘Does he hate me, or something?’
Jon had a funny look on his face when he said ‘No, of course not’, which made Bex think the real answer was ‘Yes, he finds you deeply irritating. Soon, I will have to choose between you and you will come off worse; after all, I live with Ben.’ It was a lot to get from one funny look, but Bex was highly trained at deconstructing and decoding Jon’s every move, word, smile and gesture.
‘I’ve got the perfect thing to take your mind off things,’ Jon said, clinking his bottle against hers. ‘Cheers.’
‘Cheers,’ Bex said, trailing back to the living room.
‘I got this.’ He held up a DVD case and Bex let out an involuntary squeak of excitement. It was
Walk the Line
. They’d both been looking forward to seeing it after missing it in the cinema and Bex had watched Reese Witherspoon pick up her Oscar for her performance with great delight.
Too late, as she watched the love story between June Carter and Johnny Cash unfold, Bex realised that this was possibly the worst film he could have picked. At the time of the evening when they were usually cheerfully singing along with Eric Idle to ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, they were instead treated to the sight of Joaquin Phoenix staring at Reese Witherspoon with sparkling, soulful eyes while they sang together. Reese/June was smiling back at Joaquin/Johnny with a naked love that her professional smile couldn’t quite disguise.
Bex looked away from the couple on the screen and focused on her feet. She had taken her trainers off and she looked at her stripey sock-clad feet, concentrating on swallowing down the sudden pain in her stomach.
Joaquin Phoenix stopped singing abruptly and Bex looked up to find him frozen on the screen. Jon was watching her, his hand on the remote. ‘You okay?’
‘Yeah.’ Bex forced a smile. ‘Fine.’
‘It’s not working for you, is it?’
‘I’d better go,’ Bex said. ‘I’m knackered. And I’m not fun to be around.’
‘It was meant to distract you,’ Jon said, indicating the television.
‘That’s all right.’ Bex stood up and stepped into her trainers, forcing her feet into them as quickly as possible. ‘I’m just in a terrible mood. It’s a waste of a good film.’
‘Another time, then?’ Jon looked subdued.
Bex wanted to tell him what was wrong, but she couldn’t, because he was what was wrong. And what could he say?
‘Sorry to spoil your evening. You could call Nicola.’ Bex wanted to hit herself in the head as soon as the words were out. Why give him ideas?
‘Maybe,’ Jon said. He didn’t meet her gaze. ‘She was very enthusiastic.’
‘She’s a blast,’ Bex said.
‘You think I should call her?’
Bex walked into the hallway without answering. She did not want to discuss Jon’s love life. Why had she brought it up? Why was she so bloody masochistic? ‘Night, then,’ she said, not looking over her shoulder, not stopping.
‘Bex …’ His hand was on her arm. She looked down at it. His beautiful big hand, enveloping her arm. Those knuckles she had spent hours staring at; fingers she was pretty sure she could pick out of a line-up.
‘You don’t have to go,’ Jon said. ‘We could talk.’
God, she must look even worse than she felt. She forced another smile, her whole face feeling weird and numb. ‘See you tomorrow, yeah?’
At End House, Iris Harper’s evening was not going according to plan. She had hoped to do some cooking while listening to a play on the radio. But there was something about the girl, Rebecca, that stopped her from relaxing. Her image kept elbowing its way to the front of Iris’s mind. Rebecca had said something she had not intended to say. Not out loud, of course, but Iris had heard it nonetheless. It was a truth so naked and painful that it shone from her being. Iris had spent so many years listening to people and their problems that she heard things they didn’t say louder than the things they did. Rebecca had been wronged by Alistair Farrier and she felt too weak to do anything about it. Iris knew she wasn’t a weak person – she’d shown a quick wit and a sense of responsibility that Iris liked and admired – but Rebecca was scared. Iris realised that she had been staring at an empty saucepan and missed the first ten minutes of the play. She could feel Rebecca’s fear and it made sense to Iris that she would be scared of Alistair Farrier; like father like son.
Iris went out to her work room, which was set at the bottom of the garden. The whitewashed building had a single-glazed window and an ill-fitting door and Iris pulled on the thick cardigan she kept on a hook on the back wall. She never used to feel the cold, used to be so absorbed in her work that nothing short of a bomb could’ve disturbed her. Of course, Iris thought ruefully, she used to be young.
She pulled a mixing bowl from the stack on the table. She didn’t quite admit to herself what she was doing, letting her hands work on autopilot. Bundles of herbs hung from a wooden rack suspended from the ceiling and Iris untied a bunch of verbena. It was almost fully dried and very brittle. She crumbled it into her heavy mortar and pounded it into a fine powder. Iris needed dried lemon peel but, for a disorientating moment, couldn’t lay her hands upon it. She knew it would be in one of the jars which lined the shelves above her work bench, or in the set of small wooden drawers which sat on the table, but she couldn’t remember which. Her mind had always been so reliable and it was terrifying to feel uncertain. For a single awful second, Iris looked around her beloved work room and felt herself in a strange and alien land. And then the memory leapt to the front of her mind. It was in the jar with the brownish paper label, peeling slightly and on the far right. There was a group of dried fruit peels, in fact, including lime, pomegranate and orange.
Iris held the jar of lemon, looking at her own, familiar handwriting on the label, and felt the world shift back into place. She chopped a small amount of peel and placed half into a burner. Setting light to it with a long kitchen match, Iris stated her intention: that people would speak the truth, out loud and in full and in the English language. It wasn’t very pithy, as incantations went, but Iris had learned the hard way; you had to get specific with these things.
The smell of burning lemon peel wasn’t the worst smell that the work room had ever encountered, but Iris opened the window anyway. The scent of lavender and grass and peashoots flooded inside and the chirrups and peeps of the birds were suddenly much louder. The sky, which had been palest blue a moment before, was deepening before Iris’s eyes, providing a dramatic contrast with the sculpted white clouds.
She ground the burned lemon with the mortar and pestle, focusing on her intention and the recipients of the spell. The Farriers. Specifically Mr Farrier. It would affect anybody who drank the potion, of course, but you could influence the relative strength with intention. At least, Iris hoped so. She wanted him to be helpless with truth, wanted him flooded and uncontrolled. She wanted his secrets to spill onto the floor from his lips and for everybody to see him for the man he really was, see any and all evil which lurked inside.
Iris had missed her chance to expose the monster James Farrier kept hidden from society and she felt she had been given a second chance. Those gold cufflinks, spat out by her own mother years ago, had given her the chance to make amends. Somewhere, far at the back of her mind, there was a lone voice which pointed out that Alistair Farrier was not the same man, that there could be no second chances as James Farrier was no longer a part of the physical world. The voice pointed out, not entirely unreasonably, that James Farrier only existed now in the memories of those he loved or hurt, but Iris didn’t pay it any attention. Sometimes, you had to take what you could get.
Iris avoided looking at her garden as she walked back to the house, carrying the mixing bowl with the small amount of precious powder. She didn’t want to see the curling blackberry vines or stinging nettles, the knotweed which had sprung up overnight to choke her vegetables and flowers. Iris needed to feel strong, so she ignored the signs of weakness. Her garden was the closest thing she had to a relationship and her companion sensed that she was failing. Her powers, her body, her mind; they were all breaking down. She was coming to the end and her garden knew it.
But you’re not at the end. Not yet.
Still enough energy for tonight. With a spring moon low in the sky and the birds singing out and the sap running through the world.
Iris fetched a bottle of her good elderflower wine from the pantry. It was a swingtop with a ceramic stopper and she popped the lid and took a slug straight from the bottle. It was delicious so she had another nip and then added the powder to the bottle, tipping it carefully with the aid of a small plastic funnel, and fixing the stopper. She swirled the liquid in the bottle until the powder disappeared and put the bottle and a few plastic cups into a bag. The less you had to ask people to provide, the better, and Iris was always well prepared. If she hadn’t been a witch, she’d have made a marvellous girl scout.