A NOTE TO THE READER
I've always liked to read and write. I think my fascination with words grew as a way of taking control of life, over which I often felt so powerless.
I kept a diary as a child, a scrapbook of sorts. I'm glad I did – I might have doubted my memory without it. Of course, I still doubt things happened in quite the way my twelve-year-old self describes; but then, I have the vial that was left to me that night, and that's not something I can easily explain away.
I've edited the account from my childhood diary, made it easier to read and put it in the present tense, just because that's my favourite way to write. But I still present it to you as accurately as I'm able. I've also included a few photos that were in the diary and others I've collected since. If you would like to see more photos, and a few other documents I've gathered, I've published them on my blog www.beaswitch.wordpress.com
I hope you find my story nourishing,
It's been seven weeks, three days and five hours since I was forced to leave the place I called home. Time feels like rock in my belly.
What do I wish?
My hand's cold. I can't concentrate. I'm holding it in a pool of freezing water. The sign says it's a natural wishing well, fed by "magical waters."
"Make a wish within this well," it says, "give your hand but never tell."
There are rules:
"Use your right hand.
Make your wish.
Let the water dry naturally on your hand.
Don't wish for money.
Don't wish harm on others.
And keep it secret."
The pool is carved into the side of a rocky passage, tucked behind a waterfall they call the Petrifying Well. It's damp in here, and I have to stoop, making my back ache. It's all part of a tourist attraction called Mother Shipton's Cave. There are woods stretching along the side of the river, hiding this pool, the waterfall and the cave. Denise brought me here. I didn't want to come.
They say Mother Shipton was a witch.
Wind blusters down the passage making me shiver. Somewhere above, a jackdaw caws, its harsh cry echoing along the rock. I wish it would shut up. I can't think.
What do I wish?
It cries out again. It knows a storm is coming. Storm Ali – I heard it on the radio this morning. I imagine Prince Ali from the Disney film, but giant, made of swirling, dark clouds, looming over us, flicking a genie-like tail. I hate Disney.
Think, Beatrice, what do you wish?
I wish I could concentrate!
My palm's flat against the bottom of the pool; the rock is worn smooth, cold and slimy. It feels weird to touch. Green light shines through the water, making my shadow look ghostly and misshapen, as if there's someone standing behind me.
What am I doing?
Usually, I wouldn't pay any attention to this sort of thing. It's for kids, and I'm eleven, nearly twelve – not a kid anymore. But something made me want to put my hand in the water. I don't know what it was – a feeling in my belly. I was going to walk away, but I kept looking back, as if something was calling me, as if something almost…whispered.
Wind whips mouldy leaves around my legs. They smell of decay. Drizzle has trickled under the edges of the sleeves of my coat. Summer's over. It's a new school year.
A new school.
A new home.
I don't want to think about it.
The cold stings my skin, but I push my hand down harder, holding it under the water. The light has changed now. Blue. There are tourists chattering in the distance and the constant sound of dripping water.
I flinch. What was that?
Is Denise calling me again? She's always calling. I look round.
No. There's nobody there. It's just the wind. The old iron lantern above me sways, creaking.
I turn back, irritated. But despite feeling the whole thing is childish, my hand is still in the water. It's starting to go numb now. I'm about to pull it out when a coke can clatters along the passage, making me jump. The ivy hanging from the rocks flicks, as if an invisible hand is brushing through it. The icy gust hits me and I close my eyes.
My eyes spring open.
'Who said that?'
There's nobody there. I'm alone.
You have an overactive imagination. Everyone says so.
I scrunch my eyes closed. What is it I wish? What do I want?
I feel the light in the pool change again. Red. The dark spots behind my eyelids pulse and I watch a shape form. It's familiar, a figure I've pictured many times. I see the strands of her hair appear first, writhing, Medusa-like, a swirl of energy. The strands are tangled and chaotic. She's like a torch, a flame. I feel my heart lift, her energy pulsing through me. She's the only thing that lifts me this way, the only thing that makes sense. Below her twisting hair, I see her body. She sits still and rooted, crossed-legged, as solid as a tree, anchored deep in the earth. I feel her stillness, her safety. It surrounds me. I breathe it in.
She holds her head in her hands, the sleeves of her jumper pulled over her fists. Her eyes are covered, her head turned down. I want to burn with her, to be lost in that stillness. I begin to reach out.
My trance is broken, and the fiery-haired woman vanishes. Cold stings my skin again.
It's Denise. I spin round, pulling my hand from the wishing well, embarrassed.
Denise smiles. She's watching me, just along the passage.
'You're making a wish!'
Her smile is perfect, her teeth whitened. Even in this wind, her hair looks like something from a catalogue. She's wearing vintage Levi jeans, white pumps and a Saint James top with red, sailor stripes. She's trying to look younger than her age. She must be at least fifty. She's trying to be my friend. I don't want a friend. And I certainly don't want a new mum.
I move to wipe my hand dry on my jeans.
'Oh, don't dry it!' Denise interrupts. 'Haven't you read the sign? You have to let it dry naturally, otherwise your wish won't come true.'
What does she think I am – five?
I shrug and move to wipe my hand anyway, but as I do, I realise it's clenched. There's something in my fist, something small and hard. I release my grip and look down. In the centre of my palm is a shiny pound coin.
I glance round. I must have taken it from the well.
I didn't take it.
'Come on,' Denise says. 'I want to show you something.'
I stare at the coin again, and something icy brushes the back of my hand, the ivy above swaying.
I look up ready to tell Denise I wasn't stealing, but she's turned away and is heading back down the passage, away from the pool.
I peer at the coin. It glints in the light from the well. It looks brand new. The water must have washed it clean.
Nobody's going to miss it, I tell myself, as I slip it into my pocket and hurry down the passage after Denise.
As I turn the corner, I freeze, my pumps skidding on the stones. Ahead is the cave. Denise is standing in its mouth, looking up at the cliff above. Ivy tumbles over it like the hair of an ogre. There's a hollow in the rock. I imagine an empty eye, the cave a distorted grimace. I step away.
Denise moves further into the mouth of the cave.
Like it's going to eat me.
Don't be stupid!
I tell myself to move forward but can't.
The river hisses.
Don't think about it.
I push the feeling away, the feeling of being alone, scared. I want to cry.
Don't be such a baby! Only babies are scared of the dark!
I look away from the cave.
It's just a cave! I'm angry with myself. A stupid cave!
My skin is sticky with sweat, and I realise my hands are trembling.
Something touches my shoulder, and I spin away, suddenly alert.
It's Denise. Why is she creeping up on me?
'Get off! Leave me alone!' My voice sounds weird. People are watching.
Denise looks embarrassed and steps towards me. She speaks quietly. 'Don't you want to look in the cave? It's where Mother Shipton was—'
'No!' I glare at her. It's the look I use to let people know I'm serious. We hold each other's gaze for a moment. I won't turn away.
'Okay,' she says, slowly. 'We don't have to go inside the cave.'
Why does she have to be such a loser?
'We don't have to do anything you don't want to do.'
'But there are other things to see, why don't we just—'
'I want to go back,' I say.
It's not my home! I nod.
'Okay.' Denise pauses. 'Do you want to have another look at the waterfall – the Petrifying Well? Did you see all the things people have hung in it – that old mask, all those teddies, the kettle and that strange looking lobster – did you see how they've gradually turned to stone?'
Of course I saw. It's like something from a horror movie.
'Apparently,' she continues, 'it's because the water comes from a deep underground lake. The pressure forces it up through the ground and minerals get dissolved into it – that's what makes the stone. People used to think it was cursed. I think Paul Daniels hung something in it a while ago.'
'Who's Paul Daniels?'
'He was a magician. Like an illusionist. He was on the telly when I was younger.'
'…It doesn't matter…' She fumbles for something else to say. 'And there's a playpark too.'
I shake my head and look away. Playpark? I can still see the cave out of the corner of my eye, the ogre watching. It makes me shudder. Great looming gob. I grin, my face turned down into the collar of my coat. Gob. Sometimes the words that pop into my head make me smile, like there's some goblin poking them into my ears. Who uses the word gob?
'Where d'you get all these words from?' my old social worker, Gwen, used to say. 'Must be all those books you read!'
'What are you smiling at?' asks Denise, trying to lighten the mood.
I stop smiling. 'Nothing… Can we go?'
She sighs. 'I suppose… I thought you'd like it here. You like stories, don't you?'
'This is a story right on our doorstep.'
For a moment, neither of us speak. The dripping is giving me a headache.
Denise breaks the silence. 'Alright, let's go home. Shall we have pizza when we get back?'
I shrug again.
'Okay, we'll do that then.' She sets off along the path, away from the cave. I follow her, slipping my hand into my pocket and touching the coin. The metal is warm.
I run the coin between my fingers. Somehow, it makes me feel less anxious.
As we walk away from the cave, the waterfall and the wishing well, wind stirs the surface of the river.