Ha! Matthew Makespeace, aged eleven, pressed his eye against the knot-hole of the fence that divided his garden from the one next door, made a triumphant fist and remembered just in time not to shout out loud. He could see Old Mrs Dodds plucking berries off the rowan tree – aka The Witch Tree! – that stood in the centre of their lawn. In broad daylight!
Quickly, he pulled out his phone and pressed the camera lens to the knot-hole. Proof! He’d been doing what his teacher called ‘internet research’ and had discovered not only the name of the tree, but also the fact that its orange-red berries had five seeds on their base arranged in the shape of a pentagram. Everyone knew witches and wizards drew pentagrams to raise up evil spirits.
The fence suddenly shivered, and he heard a hissing noise like air escaping from a balloon. Startled, he stumbled backwards. The witch’s cat was balanced on top of the fence, glaring at him, like an angry black pompom with yellow eyes. The witch must have set it on him! As he stared, it hissed again, its neck fur rising.
‘Go away!’ mouthed Matthew, hoping Old Mrs Dodds wouldn’t hear. The cat stretched out its front paw, claws fully extended, and, panic-stricken, he threw his phone at it. The phone fell short, landing in his mother’s lavender, but it was enough to scare the animal, which leapt back into its own garden.
Danuta’s knees creaked as she stood up to answer the knock at her garden gate. The aches and pains were getting worse. She’d have to try some turmeric and ginger tea.
It was the woman from next door and her son. The boy was standing slightly behind his mother, looking nervous. She’d seen him peering into her garden through a hole in the fence on several occasions.
‘Matthew has something he’d like to say to you.’
Danuta saw Matthew’s face redden. ‘Oh, yes?’
The boy scowled and then, staring defiantly at the doormat, rattled out on one resentful breath: ‘I’m sorry I scared your cat!’
Danuta glanced over to where the black cat was curled up beneath the rowan tree. It looked up at them impassively, twitched its tail, and settled back down to sleep.
‘I thought he was going to attack me,’ muttered the boy.
Danuta’s shoulders relaxed. ‘Ah, well, he can be a bit of a diva.’
‘Well, Matthew is very sorry,’ said the mother.
On an impulse, Danuta found herself asking if they’d like a cup of tea. Matthew’s mother smiled warmly and nodded. Danuta brought out three mugs, each bearing a picture of a flower on it (Atropa Belladonna, Digitalis, Nereum Oleander) along with a plate of home-made scones and jam.
‘These look good,’ said the boy’s mother. ‘What kind of jam is it?’
‘Rowanberry and verbena,’ said Danuta, her watery gaze on Matthew.
Matthew was sitting up in bed, surrounded by cutlery. His research said witches were allergic to iron – hence the knives and forks, which his mother said were made of stainless steel, but that was a kind of iron, wasn’t it?
He knew Old Mrs Dodds would want to shut him up, now she knew he knew she was a witch. She’d probably turn him into a frog or something, most likely at midnight, which, Matthew had discovered, was sometimes known as the witching hour. He’d have to protect himself every midnight until she made her move.
The main item in his arsenal was the bathroom mirror, which he’d carefully unhooked from the wall, with some difficulty, and now held ready in his lap. This was essential. He’d been practising all afternoon. He’d even left the front door unlocked to tempt her in.
Danuta was surprised to find the front door unlocked, but it saved time. If she could just get to Matthew’s bedroom and blow the forgetting powder she’d spent two hours concocting into his face, she knew he’d forget his suspicions and all would be well. She felt uncomfortable creeping into a child’s bedroom in the middle of the night but, after all, the first rule of being a witch was to keep it secret. Once people knew, it was ducking stools and bonfires on the village green.
At the bottom of the staircase, she paused to let the wooden treads tell her which of them was likely to creak. Then she climbed upwards through the shadows, missing out the fourth and seventh step. On the landing, she stopped to listen. She could hear the boy’s soft snore coming from – her keen eyes scanned the doors – ah, yes, from the second door along. Carefully, she pulled out a small bottle from her pocket and loosened the cork stopper.
She pushed open the bedroom door. The light was off but the moon through the window lit up the edges of the boy’s bed.
She took a step towards it. Ouch! What on earth had she trodden on? It felt like a fork! It skittered away and hit the bed leg.
The bedside lamp came on. Through squinting eyes, she saw Matthew holding up something round and flat that glittered in the moonlight.
She heard his voice, quiet and clear, intoning: ‘You’ve sent me strife and caused me pain, I now reflect it back again’.
For a moment, she was caught in a spotlight of sharp white light. The forgetting powder in her hand rose out of its bottle and circled her head, sparkling as the moonlight caught it, before suddenly vanishing with a tiny pop.
She shook her head in confusion. It felt as if she was underwater, sounds billowing and receding, distorted by the mirror-spell he’d thrown at her. Why was she here? She should be at home in bed. She felt exhausted. She’d been working so hard recently, though she couldn’t remember what it was she’d been doing.
Something to do with rowanberries, she thought vaguely.