Spell Stories: Careless Magic

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This is another in my story series inspired by a book of everyday spells.

Careless Magic

‘Life is so tiresome,’ Agnes said.

Her mother raised an eyebrow. ‘Perhaps a spell?’ she offered.

‘Why not? Something to make things different.’

Agnes seldom asked her mother for a spell. They were always so unreliable in outcome, and sometimes dangerous, too. But just now the drudgery of domestic routine, the endless repetition of cleaning the same objects, of preparing food, was trying her patience.

‘A wishing spell!’ said her mother. ‘Wish for whatever your heart desires. It’s very simple. Find a stone, write your wish upon it – you can remember your letters, can’t you – bury the stone with a blue ribbon beside it. When the wind changes your wish will be granted.’

Agnes wasn’t sure she could be bothered. Yet another wasted piece of ribbon. And what could she wish for? She had a roof over her head, enough to eat, a good husband. Well, perhaps not that good a husband. Robin had his faults. He trailed mud from the gravesides over the kitchen floor; he ate with his mouth open; he had a fair few annoying habits. Agnes listed them in her mind. She would need a very large stone indeed to write all of it down. I must keep it brief, she thought, and having taken that much trouble, decided to proceed with the spell.

Whatever your heart desires. She found a stone and wrote on it in an uncertain hand, better husband. Into the ground it went, with a scrap of blue ribbon. And she forgot all about it.

On the last day of the month, Robin rolled in so late that the supper was spoiled. He said nothing and sat at the table shame-faced. ‘Wife,’ he said at last, ‘I wished to show my appreciation of you – buy you a few treats – some ribbons, perhaps.’ Agnes waited, not understanding. ‘But the saving of money is a tiresome business. I thought to speed things along.’

‘What?’ said Agnes, while Robin regarded the table-top, ‘What have you done?’

‘I wagered all my money on the toss of a coin,’ he said in a small voice. He did not need to add that he had lost.

The spell came back to her. ‘That wasn’t what I meant!’ wailed Agnes. Better husband. Not a husband who bets.

Look out for another Spell Story next week.

 

 

Spell Stories: Worrisome Magic

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A cautionary tale inspired by my book of Romany spells:

Worrisome Magic

Agnes turned to her husband. ‘Robin, I worry about my mother.’

‘She worries me, too.’ This was said with a doleful look and absolute honesty.

‘No. I mean the dabbling with spells. I fear she will be taken up for witchcraft. I will have a word with her.’

Robin gave her a look that said, rather you than me, m’dear. He stood up. ‘Anyway, I’ve a grave to dig.’ He said this as if it were a novelty, which it hardly was for a grave-digger. Agnes nodded and waved him out.

When her mother walked in Agnes was prepared and went straight to the point. ‘Mother, about the spells…’ She stopped. Her mother, usually so robust, was very pale. ‘What is it? Are you ill?’

‘Nothing. Nothing. I did a spell to improve my eyesight, that’s all. Saffron boiled in springwater. On a Sunday. Bathe the eyes with it and it will take the mistiness away. That’s all it was.’

Agnes gave her a long look, her own eyes screwed up. She could tell this wasn’t the whole story. ‘And did it improve your sight?’

‘It did.’

Agnes nodded. There was something unsaid, and she waited, but her mother turned away.

She would never tell her daughter that this spell was for insight as well as for eyesight, and that after she had bathed her eyes she had seen herself, as clear as clear could be, somewhere in a future time. All alone. Completely and utterly alone. She would never, never use that spell again. But it was too late. She couldn’t un-see the future.

 

Look out for another Spell Story next week.

Spell Stories: Beloved Magic

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Another story inspired by my book of Romany spells…

Beloved Magic

‘Oh, Mother,’ said Agnes, ‘he goes out, night after night, comes back late. I fear there is another woman.’

‘Who?’ says her mother. ‘What, your Robin? He hasn’t the sense to keep another woman interested, never mind the looks.’

Agnes hesitated, unsure whether it was her husband who was being insulted or she herself for marrying him. ‘He’s not that bad looking, not for a grave-digger.’ There wasn’t much she could say to defend his common sense. ‘Still, he’s got no right to go gadding about at night with some strumpet.’

‘You want him back?’ said her mother, sounding slightly surprised.

‘Certainly, I do.’ Agnes knew this was asking for one of her mother’s slightly unreliable spells.

‘Very well, if you must. Get yourself an onion and a paper of pins. Stick one pin in the onion each night for seven nights. Then bury it in the garden. Your love will return to you. Couldn’t be simpler.’ And she flounced out.

That evening, Agnes sought out an onion. ‘Seems a waste of perfectly good food,’ she murmured, and then had an idea. Her mother, a superb pickler, had given her a jar of shallots at Christmas. Agnes didn’t care for them, and wouldn’t miss one. So she winkled out a vinegary shallot and pierced it carefully with the pins for seven nights. And then buried the evil-smelling thing in the garden, as instructed.

She had barely finished washing her hands when Robin rolled through the door. My goodness, she thought, that was quick. He looked at her for a long moment, and she thought he was about to take her in his arms. Instead he staggered and fell full length on the floor, a strong smell of stale beer emanating from his prone form. Her love had returned, for sure. As pickled as pickled could be.

Look out for another Spell Story next week

 

Spell Stories: Stray Magic

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Another in my series of stories inspired by a book of Romany spells.

Stray Magic

‘Clod!’ said a voice from the top of the tree. ‘Clod, clod, clod. Thou art a clod!’

Agnes was out of the door in a moment. ‘Oh, Reuben! You are back!’

‘Fie, sirrah!’ said the voice. Scornful, and peppered with disgust, too.

‘Come down, do,’ said Agnes, pleading. ‘Your breakfast is ready.’

‘Clod!’ said the voice. ‘Pea brain!’

‘Come down!’ said Agnes, peering into the tree and shading her eyes. ‘Where on earth have you been, my little darling?’

It all stemmed, of course, from the fact they had had no children. Agnes’s husband Robert had taken the jackdaw from a nest in the church tower, handed it to her as something small and helpless to love and raise. And so she had. The bird had been given everything of the best, loved and tended as well as any child. She had named the creature Reuben, because, she said, the priest had told her it meant ‘gift of a son’. Robert said this was nonsense, since there was no way of knowing if the bird were man or maid, but he had built a wicker cage for it nonetheless. Agnes had patiently taught Reuben to talk. But the jackdaw was quicker to learn the insults that Robert – a little jealous of the attention the bird had from Agnes – secretly muttered as he passed the cage. Many an argument between man and wife had erupted over it, particularly when the bird called his loving owner a clod.

But for today, Agnes had never been more pleased to be called a clod. Reuben had escaped from his cage a week since and she had been heartbroken.

Her mother, always ready with practical help, had recommended a useful spell for strays.  ‘Clean the cage,’ she said, ‘put food and water inside. Say the creature’s name three times, tie a yellow cord round the cage, and say the name three times again. And the bird will come back. Simple as that. Never fails.’

Agnes did this each day. And now, at last, here he was, sitting in the top of the apple tree, grey eyes glittering, and insulting her. She welcomed him as the prodigal son.

‘Reuben, come down, do. Your cosy cage is waiting.’

The jackdaw eyed her, apparently considering his options.

‘I will love you and keep you and teach you nicer words,’ said Agnes hopefully.

There was another long pause.

‘To hell with that,’ said the bird and flew off to the church tower where he enjoyed a long and happy career insulting the church wardens.

 

Look out for another Spell Story next week.

 

 

 

Spell Stories: April Fool

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I wrote this story over Easter, once again consulting my book of Romany spells for inspiration.

April Fool

‘It is invariably true,’ said Agnes’s mother, ‘that the last day of the month is the best time to cast a spell for good luck.’

Agnes shrugged. Good luck? Was that what life was about? She was married to a man she didn’t specially like, but didn’t actively hate. Was that good luck? None of their children had survived babyhood. Was that bad luck? And she had a loving mother who was always only too ready to offer yet another infallible spell to improve matters. Was that good luck or bad?

‘Oh, Mother,’ she said. ‘I don’t know. The priest disapproves…’

‘Fiddlesticks!’ said her mother. ‘What does he know? I’m teaching you the spells for your own good. Now pay attention. Tomorrow is the first day of April, and there is a simple spell to bring excellent good luck all through the month.’

Agnes caved in. It was easier than arguing. ‘What do I do?’ she asked.

‘When you go to bed tonight, say “White Rabbits” three times before you go to sleep. It’s important they are the last spoken words of the eve of the new month. And when you wake tomorrow, say “Hares” three times.’

‘But… Robin. Whatever will he think? I can’t tell him it’s a spell. He’s an employee of the church.’

‘Never mind Robin. Just murmur it. You’ll have good luck all the month. Trust me. And I’ll know if you haven’t done it, mind.’

Agnes thought her mother could be decidedly scary at times, so she did as she was told. Lucky white rabbits were invoked (very quietly) at bedtime and lucky hares first thing in the morning.

She was stirring the porridge for breakfast when Robin burst in. ‘Look outside,’ he said breathlessly, ‘just look!’ He dashed out again.

The little street outside was full, completely full, of white rabbits and long-eared hares, squabbling ill-temperedly amongst themselves, while the villagers ran about trying to catch them. It was chaos, and there was Robin now with a struggling rabbit under one arm and making a lunge at another.

‘Oh Mother!’ said Agnes, ‘just look what your spell has done! I thought you said it was a true spell for good luck?’

‘Some spells are not quite true,’ said her mother airily, ‘but technically, I’d say a nice rabbit pie constitutes good luck, wouldn’t you?’ And out she went to join the hunt.

 

Look out for another Spell Story next week.

Spell Stories: Dark Moon

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Here is the second in a series of stories inspired by a book of Romany spells, featuring my characters Agnes and her mother and husband.

Dark Moon

‘Under the first new moon of the year, go out and make your wish to it. The moon is a woman’s friend, you know. Be respectful, mind! Say it aloud ten times over. Do this every night until the next new moon and your wish shall be granted.’

Her mother had a spell for every eventuality, so here Agnes stood under a dark moon.

‘Let there be no more,’ she said. And said. And said.

It was heartfelt. Six times, she had carried. Five boys and boy twins, too, one year. And none had outlived their cradle days. Robin had said nothing in his disappointment, just buried them with loving care until it was said the family was taking up more its fair share of room in the graveyard, and the lost children were obliged to share.

Robin’s long gravedigger’s face became longer, and Agnes felt her health splitting apart under the strain. Her soul was worn with it. Let there be no more, please.

After twenty-three nights of this under the January moon, Agnes lost patience. If the moon hadn’t got the message by now… And so she stopped. But at the end of the month and of every other month she endured afterwards, there was no sign, and despite her being a dutiful wife to Robin, there were no more.

‘The moon is a merciful being,’ said her mother, ‘be grateful for favours granted.’

Agnes bowed her head and gave thanks.

 

Look out for another Spell Story next week.

Spell Stories: Sympathetic Magic

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This is the first of a set of stories featuring regular characters, all inspired by a book of Romany spells I happened across. Who knows, by the end of lockdown, I might have a book-full of stories!

Sympathetic Magic

‘Think on it, Agnes,’ said her mother. ‘Robin dotes on you, you know it. And he has a steady trade.’

There followed a long and profound silence, broken only by the spitting of twigs in the fire. A steady trade, Agnes thought. I should think it is! A grave-digger. A grim and grimy trade, too.

‘Oh, but Mother,’ said Agnes at last, ‘what a life! Think of the melancholy – think of the laundry!’

‘Think of the steady income,’ said her mother, a woman of immense practicality.

But Agnes saw only Robin’s long face, the inevitable mud on his clothing. ‘I don’t want him,’ she said.

‘Try a spell to find your true love, then.’

‘Oh, Mother!’

‘Get a sprig of bay leaves. Tie a pink ribbon round it. I know you have some. Put it under your pillow. When you wake, look out of the window and you’ll see your true love.’

Agnes snorted. But, well, who knows? It might work. She said nothing to her mother, but went out for a sprig of bay, tied on the ribbon and slept on it.  She awoke to the scent of the leaves and peered through the window.  Smiling up at her was Robin the grave-digger. Quite nice-looking with a smile on. And he did have a steady trade.

Robin had had his instructions. ‘Be outside her window before dawn. Wear clean clothes and in the name of Heaven wipe that grim look off your face. A smile will work the spell.’

 

Look out for another Spell Story next week

Ancient Wisdom

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This is the first of a set of stories written in recent weeks, all of them inspired by a book of Romany spells I picked up by chance a week or two before lockdown began.

Ancient Wisdom

He was found in a field. Entirely dead.

‘Oh, such a state he was in!’ said the ale-wife who found him. ‘Gave me an attack of the vapours!’ And indeed, she still looked a little green round the gills.

‘Never mind the vapours,’ said the town constable, making enquiries. ‘How did he get in such a state?’ The ale-wife shrugged.

‘He said he had a headache,’ volunteered the blacksmith. ‘Was going to the doctor.’

‘Call in the doctor, then.’

The doctor looked shifty. ‘Yes, he came to me. With a headache. I sold him a pill.’

‘What sort of pill?’ The constable doubted anyone could end up in such a battered state from taking a pill, but due consideration had to be given.

The doctor looked cornered. ‘It… could not have harmed him.’ The townsfolk turned on him, frowning. ‘No – no, it was a sugar pill. It’s all I ever sell! Red for indigestion, blue for headaches, green for female troubles.’ The doctor seemed to be shrinking. ‘I am a quack, you see,’ he breathed. I am finished in this place, he thought.

‘Very well,’ said the constable, ‘off with you then. The deceased took a sugar pill for a headache. What else?’

‘He visited the wise woman in the woods,’ said the smith, ‘since that pill didn’t work.’

‘Call in the wise woman.’

‘Well?’ said the constable, when she finally appeared. ‘What did you do? None of your funny spells, I hope?’

The wise woman, behaving with rather more dignity than the quack doctor, looked everyone in the eye. ‘I gave him advice,’ she said. ‘Good advice, too. And I charged him only a farthing for it.’

‘And this advice was?’

‘Trade secret!’ said the wise woman.

‘Tell me,’ said the constable, ‘unless you want to be tried as a witch.’

The wise woman caved in. ‘I advised him to rub his head with a horseshoe. Sure cure for a headache. Ancient wisdom.’ She folded her arms.

‘And did he take this advice?’

‘He said he would, directly. Went to seek a horseshoe. Very grateful.’

‘So how do you account for the battered state, indeed the very dead state, in which he was found?’

The wise woman drew herself up. ‘He died of stupidity,’ she said. ‘And I will amend my advice in future to take account of it. You’re not supposed to rub your head with a horseshoe while the horse is still attached to it.’

The Chesil Apothecary, Part Seven

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SamphireTitledStony-hearted

(Inspired by Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) an incredibly tough and tolerant seaside plant that grows directly on rock or shingle all along the Chesil.)

Jemmy stared at his bootlaces, the apothecary watching his face anxiously. What was a simple fisherman to think? Fighting a debtor was one thing – taking on a powerful conjuror was quite another. Not a fair fight at all. Dr Thrift had done a bad thing. He was a thief, and that was that. But he was not a bad man, not at heart. And Jemmy looked into his own heart and found it wanting; had he not decided to run away to avoid marrying Daisy, and all that it entailed? People would say that he had as good as jilted her. Not exactly a crime – but not Sunday-best behaviour, neither.

‘We all have our failings, Mr Apothecary,’ said Jemmy at last. ‘It’s not for me to judge you, whatever y’did. I’ll help if I can.’ And if you will take me with you when you go. It went unsaid, but both parties understood.

Dr Thrift let out a shuddering sigh of relief. ‘That is very humane and kind, Mr Herring,’ he said. ‘But I don’t know what’s to be done, I’m sure.’

‘We can defeat this conjuror,’ Jemmy heard himself say. It was wild talk, and quite possibly dangerous, but Jemmy felt it was a change for the better. ‘Tell me about him, if you please.’ This sounded brave and bold in the face of feral magic.

‘Well,’ said Dr Thrift, ‘to begin with, I know he is a thief himself, and an arsonist, to boot.’

Jemmy brightened – Dr Thrift may have done something wrong, but his pursuer had done worse!

The apothecary went on, ‘He caused a terrible conflagration in the city, quite on purpose.’

‘Conflag…’ Again Jemmy wished the apothecary would use shorter words.

‘A fire, Mr Herring, very terrible. It blazed to the very sky. And while the people were thus diverted…’

Diverted, thought Jemmy, I should think they were!

‘…he flew in and stole their gold, piece by piece, from the guildhall, from the saddlers, the bakeries, the brewhouses.’

‘When you saw “flew”…’ said Jemmy, puzzled.

‘I mean flew, Mr Herring. This conjuror can turn himself into a magpie – a thieving magpie that found and took the gold, and made a cache of it, and escaped the fire as the poor souls of the city could not.’

‘And how do you know this, Dr Thrift?’ Jemmy thought it a mighty tall story.

‘Why, because he boasted of it, Mr Herring. Told me himself.’

‘But what would make you believe such a thing?’ asked Jemmy, still sceptical.

‘Anyone would, Mr Herring,’ said Dr Thrift, ‘if the conjuror turned himself into a magpie before their eyes, perched on their shoulder and chattered the story into their very ears. And doubly distressing when you had thought yourself responsible for that very fire – written in my stars, they told me, and it wasn’t me at all. I found his cache of gold hidden in a tree-root, and took one coin, just one! And he pursued me, Mr Herring, in the forms of loathsome animals, delivering his threats. I ran away. I have run from him ever since. What else could I do?’

‘You, we, can stand up to this conjuror,’ said Jemmy, wondering if this were a very grave mistake. It was only a very few moments before he found out.

SeaAsterTitledJemmy Makes a Stand

(Inspired by Sea Aster (Aster pannonicum) a plant once used as a treatment for the eyes, and perhaps just the thing to make everything clear!)

The big black and white gull transformed itself before their eyes.

‘It’s the conjuror!’ breathed Dr Thrift. ‘Back already! I told you… oh, I said…’

The man before them smiled nastily. ‘Well, apothecary, time is up. Give me back my gold. Or take the consequences.’

Jemmy forced himself forward and edged between the conjuror and the terrified apothecary.

‘Well, well. And who is this bold knight? Come to save you, has he?’

Jemmy pulled himself upright, brandishing his net and boat-hook, and feeling seriously underprepared. The conjuror was not the wizened old man he had imagined, but no older than himself. Young and strong.

‘Will you fight me, Jemmy Herring?’

How does he know my name, wondered Jemmy.

‘Fight me as a black-back gull, will you, if I turn myself into one?’

Jemmy thought he could cope with that, if he were careful of the beak.

‘Fight me as an eagle, could you?’

Jemmy had never seen one, but he had a worrying notion of the size and potential armaments. His hand flew to the lucky shark’s tooth on the bootlace round his neck. The conjuror followed the movement.

‘Fight me if I turned myself into a great shark, would you, fisherman?’ Jemmy was wondering whether this would be in the water or out, and thinking that a boat-hook was a tad underpowered as a defensive weapon either way, when his eye was caught by another black-back gull veering out of a wave-trough, over the crest and straight up the beach towards them with a very determined look in its pale eye.

‘I… oooh!’ said Jemmy as the gull fastened its beak firmly on the conjuror’s ear.

‘Ow, gerroff! The gull let go and glided to the ground. ‘I’m really most awfully sorry,’ it said, before transforming itself into a tall grey-haired woman. ‘But you know what children are like.’

Jemmy dropped his boat-hook and almost speared his own foot.

The woman frowned and cuffed the conjuror round the ear. ‘This is my son. I have been looking for him, years on end, ever since that, ah, regrettable incident of the fire in the city and the stolen gold. Most embarrassing.’ She cuffed him again.

‘M-madam,’ Dr Thrift had found his voice, ‘you are his mother?’

Jemmy looked, open-mouthed, from the conjuror, now hanging his head, to his grim-faced mother, to the clearly befuddled Dr Thrift.

‘Stole my gold,’ said the conjuror out of the corner of his mouth, pointing at Dr Thrift.

‘It wasn’t yours, y’little thief,’ said his mother, cuffing him again. ‘I had to pay it all back, bear the cost of the rebuilding. D’ye know how much it costs to restock an arsenal?’ She rolled her eyes at Jemmy and Dr Thrift. ‘And now I hear you turned yourself into a whale and sank a ship, forsooth.’

‘I had to smoke him out, Mother. Had to. I suspected he were here somewhere. Knew he’d come out to sailors in distress.’ The conjuror sneered. ‘And out of the woodwork he came. And I had ’im, too, ’til you poked your nose in.’

His mother assumed an even more dangerous look. ‘Never mind that. I have a ship-full of coals to pay for, now, too. The cost is astronomical! Just wait ’til I get you home, you little brute.’

Dr Thrift recovered himself and stepped forward. ‘I thank you very kindly, madam, for intervening – but the fact remains that I took a gold coin, whoever it might belong to. And I cannot pay it back.’

‘Oh, I know that, Mr Apothecary. I have already paid it back on your behalf. And given that you invested it in the good of others – I know how often you treat poor folks for no payment – let us say no more about it. I shall, however, have a lot more to say about it to you,’ she added, turning to her son, who looked stricken.

And both of them turned back into black-back gulls, soaring off over the sea, the mother pecking tufts of feathers out of her son’s tail. His mournful cries of ‘Owk, owk, owk’ carrying back to Jemmy and Dr Thrift as the birds faded into the distance.

‘Well,’ said Jemmy, ‘I never expected that.’

Pebbles crunched as people, wary observers of the scene, scrambled up the beach behind him and Jemmy felt a small hand slip into his own.

‘Annie…?’ he said. But it wasn’t Annie. It was Daisy Goodship.

‘Oh, Jemmy!’ she breathed. ‘You faced they magical creatures so bravely. They could’a turned you into a real herring, if they’d had a mind, but you stood your ground.’

Her face glowed with admiration, and Jemmy glowed too in the reflected light of her look, all his resolutions to escape crumbling to pieces.

‘Nothing,’ he said, modestly. ‘It was nothing.’ But he squeezed her hand affectionately. Life with Daisy maybe wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.

PortlandSpurgetitledChesil’s Blessing

(Inspired by Portland Spurge (Euphorbia portlandica) named for the isle at the very end of the Chesil Beach, and so a fitting end for this story.)

You would have thought the very pebbles of the Chesil had eyes and ears, considering the speed with which the news of Dr Thrift’s encounter with the conjuror had spread along the beach. When Jemmy had helped the apothecary back to his dishevelled black hut and made him comfortable, he had asked to be left in peace for a day or two, and Jemmy had respected the request and chased off any curious sightseer who had wandered bearing bread, milk and fresh fish, went to see how the apothecary did. They were surprised to find him outside and at work.

‘Now then, Miss Annie,’ Dr Thrift said, ‘you can assist me, if you will, by running over to the meadow behind the beach – you know the place – and fetching me some of the best bitter buttercups – I think there are a few left – just a couple of leaves, no more. We must be respectful of the plants, yes?’

‘Oh, but Dr Thrift!’ wailed Annie, ‘there are nettles there. I do so hate them.’

The apothecary looked at her quizzically. ‘Ah. Yes. Hatred. I never quite got the hang of it myself. But is it not illogical, Miss Annie, to hate a plant for defending itself?’

‘I am always stung!’ cried Annie passionately, ‘I hate them all!’

Dr Thrift assumed a grave expression. ‘As a herbalist I have seen many people consumed by hatred, beyond recall. No medicine can help when a person is being eaten up from the inside. It is the most destructive force I have encountered, and I heartily recommend that you do not indulge in it, Miss Annie, for your own sake.’

Annie looked mutinous. ‘You must have hated the conjuror, though. He per… pers…’

‘Persecuted me? He did. But I deserved it. I am still a sorry thief, whatever the excuses.’

Annie still looked doubtful.

‘And besides,’ said Dr Thrift, ‘do you not know that the top-growth of the nettle make a most nutritious soup? And that the stems can be woven into a very acceptable twine? Nothing is all bad, you know. Now cut along, and find me the leaves, if you please.’

Annie fled.

Jemmy, who had listened with interest, said, ‘Surely, sir, you must have hated the people who called you ill-starred? They spoiled your future.’

‘I did not,’ said Dr Thrift. ‘They thought it the truth – not said with malice, not really. The fact is I should thank them all – the conjuror, too; they have made me what I am.  And as you see, the future has not turned out so badly for me after all.’

‘What will you do?’ asked Jemmy, expecting an imminent departure

‘Oh,’ said Dr Thrift, ‘Well. I thought, if the local people will agree, that I might stay here.’

Jemmy’s face fell into visible confusion. He honestly didn’t know whether this would be good or bad from his own viewpoint.

The apothecary looked at him keenly for a moment and then turned, saying over his shoulder, ‘Of course, I should be very happy to have you and young Miss Annie as my apprentices. I have much to tell and teach, you know.’

Jemmy nodded, still in two minds.

Dr Thrift seemed to read his mind. ‘Once you have the knowledge, Mr Herring, you may choose what to do with it, and where. And, er, with whom. Even with Miss Goodship, should that idea suit you after all.’ Jemmy blushed to the roots of his hat, and the apothecary smiled. ‘Just as I suspected. And by the way, Mr Herring, there is no known cure for love – the potion I gave you will have improved your digestion but nothing more.’

Jemmy gawped.

‘Now, come along, do,’ said Dr Thift.  ‘Miss Annie will be back with the leaves, and there is much to be done before winter sets in.’

The End

The great beach of Chesil had nothing to say, of course. But it rattled its pebbles in an agreeable way, as if to say yes indeed, I do so appreciate a happy ending.

ChesilTitle1

Well, that’s the end of The Chesil Apothecary and I hope you enjoyed it. Next week I begin a series of flash fiction stories written during the current lockdown.

The Chesil Apothecary, Part Six

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YellowRattleTitledRattled

(Inspired by the Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus) a semi-parasitic plant that grows among grass behind the Chesil.)

It took a great deal to rattle the Chesil fishermen, but the man dressed all in black worried them. His clothes were spotless, boots polished, hat properly brushed. No worn patches, no down-at-heelness. Anybody would attract attention dressed like that. No-one here had anything that fancy, that new. People stopped to stare at this weird and alien being. It was rumoured that he had been seen speaking quietly with Dr Thrift. The Chesil fisherfolk thought he was a spy from the outside world – from the far outside world. Some of them thought the same of Dr Thrift, and that the two might be in cahoots. But then such a closed community as theirs did love to dramatise the arrival of a stranger if they possibly could.

Jemmy Herring would have none of this. ‘A true spy,’ he said, ‘would have dressed to blend in with the background. Them fine clothes show up wherever he goes. He’s nothing but a crony of the apothecary come to visit. Besides, what do we have here that’s worth spying on, eh?’

‘In cahoots,’ people said, stubbornly.

‘What in the world is there for them to be in cahoots about that would concern us?’ said Jemmy in contempt. In truth he was jealous of this man for monopolising the apothecary’s attention. It was interfering with his own carefully laid plan to learn the cures by stealth.

‘The cargo, y’fool,’ somebody hissed. ‘The coal we took from the wreck, of course. As we should not have, as y’well know. That sailor as was unharmed went off to report the wreck, didn’t he? And this fellow has the look of a coal merchant’s man, don’ he, all in black? Making ’quiries concerning the lost cargo. Stands to reason. And that ’pothecary man will betray us, a’ purpose or not. They will take all that good coal away from us. And whose need is the greater, hey? We’ll freeze come the winter.’

‘The apothecary is a good man,’ said Jemmy stoutly. ‘He’d not betray us. And that is just a friend of his, come to visit, no more. Why, he’s no more a spy than that there black-back gull.’

The bird gave them a quizzical look and flew lazily off along the shoreline.

SeaBindweedTitledIn a Bind

(Inspired by Sea Bindweed (Calystegia soldanella, which grows on the Chesil shingle)

‘Oh, Mr Herring,’ said the apothecary, flapping about the hut in a fever of anxiety, and throwing things into bags. ‘Oh, dear. I believe I can trust you?’

Dr Thrift didn’t sound too sure, but Jemmy nodded stoutly. Of course he could be trusted. ‘What’s the matter, sir?’

‘Ah, I am a fugitive, you see.’

Jemmy wasn’t sure he did see. This was stretching his vocabulary to its limit. ‘A fugi…?

‘Oh, that is to say, I must fly!’ said the apothecary, distractedly.

Fly? Jemmy’s staunch expression vanished and his mouth fell open. What had Annie said? About the apothecary’s magical powers, about his being able to turn into winged creatures, birds and butterflies? For a moment Jemmy’s romantic dream of being apprenticed to a magician re-flourished.

Dr Thrift stopped long enough to pick up Jemmy’s confused look. ‘I am running away,’ he said. ‘I must!’

Jemmy’s mouth fell open further as understanding increased. Running away? Not magical then? Just afraid of someone?

Jemmy was furious – not a common condition for someone so naturally even-tempered – but he found Annie’s perfidy unforgiveable. All those stories she had told about the apothecary being able to fly had spread from neighbour to neighbour and become accepted fact, and it was all her fault, the little tattle-tale. And it was completely untrue. Jemmy pulled himself up abruptly. What was he thinking? Of course it wasn’t true. People did not transform themselves into birds and butterflies and flap off, did they? Jemmy’s unaccustomed fury began to transfer itself to the supposedly sensible adults who had taken the word of a nine-year-old and accepted it as truth. But most of all, his fury fell upon himself. How could he possibly have believed any of it, even for a moment? He was deeply ashamed. Had it been the sheer romance of becoming the apprentice of a man with magical powers? Not something you do every day. He had been swept away on a tide of intrigue and excitement, and now he was washed up on the shingle of reality like an old boot. No magic, then, no romance at all. Dr Thrift was just a man on the run. Jemmy’s dreams collapsed round his ears, and he hung his head in disappointment. It was a practical matter, then, no more.

‘Shall we have a breath of air, Dr Thrift, sir, while you tell me all about it?’ Jemmy led the way outside, picking up the net and boathook he had left at the door. He could always think better when he was standing on shingle.

ScurvyGrassTitledA Scurvy Knave?

(Inspired by Early Scurvy-grass (Cochlearia danica), very common all along the Chesil. Not actually a grass, but packed with vitamin C and once used to prevent scurvy in sailors.)

But who could possibly be pursuing the good and helpful Dr Thrift – apparently with evil intent? It was unthinkable.

‘I promise you it’s true,’ said the apothecary, as they trudged along the ridge of the beach, just as if he’d read Jemmy’s mind. ‘I must get away.’

‘But whyever would anyone be pursuing you, sir?’

Dr Thrift stopped, examining the pebbles. It was a guilty look, sure enough. ‘Because I stole something of his.’ There, it was out.

Of all things, Jemmy could not believe Dr Thrift was a thief. A thief, after all, needs presence of mind, and the apothecary spent much of his time holding rambling conversations with plants. No, he could never be a thief.

‘What?’ said Jemmy, disbelieving his own ears. ‘Stole something? Stole what?’

‘A large and beautiful gold coin,’ said Dr Thrift, his eyes filling with tears. ‘And I could wish to the heavens I had never set eyes upon it.’

Not a small theft, then, thought Jemmy in dismay.

‘I stole it,’ said Dr Thrift, extracting a linen herb-bag from his pocket and dabbing his eyes. ‘I persuaded myself it was lost. Finders keepers – you know. But in my heart I knew this wasn’t true. Of course it belonged to someone. He must have counted the coins – there were many. He saw me looking, and knew I had taken one.’

‘It was only one coin,’ said Jemmy, desperately seeking excuses.

‘Indeed,’ said the apothecary, ‘but it had an owner, and he wants it back. Only to be expected.’

‘But Dr Thrift, sir, can’t you just give the coin back to him?’

‘Bless your heart, no, Mr Herring. I spent it, you see. That was how I set myself up as an apothecary. Spent it all, to the last farthing. There is nothing to give back but my books, my bottles, my stock in trade. I should be ruined and he would still not have his gold coin. That is what he wants – he has told me it is my last chance – he will return soon and I must be gone before he does.’

The stranger in dark clothes! It all began to make sense. That man had not visited Dr Thrift as a friend – he had come to threaten him, to demand the return of the gold.

Jemmy chewed his lip, thinking. ‘Then we must do something about it, sir,’ he said.

The dilemma, as Jemmy saw it, was simple. Dr Thrift was guilty as charged, admitted it himself. He had not set out to steal anything, exactly, but he had picked up and kept something that did not belong to him. And the rightful owner was perfectly entitled to demand reparation – and punishment, too. Any court in the land, great or small would agree to that. So to assist the good doctor – Jemmy still thought of him as good – was to thwart the rule of law, and to place himself on the wrong side of it, too. This was not what he had anticipated when he had set out to become the apothecary’s assistant.

Jemmy closed his mouth and drew himself up. ‘Y’need not distress y’self, Dr Thrift,’ he said earnestly. ‘I will fight him. See ’im off for you.’ He sincerely hoped the apothecary’s pursuer might not be too good a fighter. ‘I’ll take care of you, sir.’

‘Very kind,’ said Dr Thrift, ‘Oh, most thoughtful – but I fear you don’t quite understand. My adversary is not an ordinary person. He is a most clever conjuror. Vindictive, you see. He has many powers. Can take on any form. I can only run away.’

Jemmy wished the apothecary would stick to shorter words. Vindictive – now what did that mean? He only understood that it was bad. However, he did have an idea what a conjuror was – and that was not to be believed. ‘Oh, sir,’ he said. ‘You’re pulling my leg, I believe.’ The apothecary’s expression showed otherwise.

SeaweedBlock

Look out for the final part of this unique story next week

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