CITY WITCH – 6 MINUTE LISTEN
Some things in this world were more beautiful than sun-showers that streak the pavement slick with silver, but Anna Salts hadn’t seen them. She stood transfixed. Her umbrella drooped and rain inched lovingly under her collar. The world smelled of wet brick. The trees shivered contentedly in their gratings. The sun bounced off glass windows and the ground, and it felt physical when it landed on her exposed elbows: a flash of warmth like a sip from a stiff drink. When it landed on her exposed elbows, the warmth felt like a sip from a stiff drink.
Anna unglued herself from the pavement just in time to dodge an oncoming tram that was loudly announcing its presence.
“Girl! I’m talking to you.” Anna looked up. There was a witch coming after her.
To be clear, Anna had never looked at someone before and instantaneously determined that they were a witch. To be clear, the woman was not holding a sign that said ‘I am a witch’ and she was not wearing a black hat nor carrying a wand. It was evident nonetheless.
Her hair scraggled, her nose pointed and her eyes were black and deep as wells. She was dressed all in dark colours that called to mind a storm-roiled sea. “Miss Salts,” she said.
Anna stopped. The witch arrived. She was much shorter than Anna and this surprised neither of them. They were now both standing in the doorway to a Starbucks, bothering passers-by and customers alike.
“This won’t do,” the witch said, irritably. She took Anna by the elbow and pulled her down to the next shop along, which was just enough off the main road to make Anna nervous. They were no longer in anyone’s way and that meant no one was watching what was happening.
“You know my name?” she managed to say.
“Obviously,” the witch replied. And pulled her into the shop. Inside, was not a shop. It was a roof-top garden.
Anna had passed by the shop front many times before, and had been under the impression that it was a ground floor tattoo studio which was always closed but never went out of business. Now that this had been so vigorously disproved, she suffered a moment of dizziness and disorientation, not unlike vertigo. Though it had been raining on the street, it was not raining here.
“We’re only ten stories up,” the woman said, unsympathetically. “You can’t be that afraid of heights.”
“No,” Anna replied weakly. “But I was on the ground, and now…”
“Yes, well, these things happen. Listen, I’m supposed to be at the estate agent’s by three so I’d rather speed things along. You can always ring me later with questions. Coffee? Tea?”
“Tea, then,” the woman bustled over to the other side of the roof where a fire was crackling to itself in a ring of stones.The flames were the wrong colour. There was a workbench littered with old books, post-it notes and paperclips. The witch collected a stained tea-pot and filled it at an antique tap coming directly out of vase of roses sitting on one of several mismatched wooden stools.
Anna turned around to look for the door back out onto the street, but it was gone. Instead she could see over the edge of the roof down onto Piccadilly gardens. Though it was not a warm day, children in bathing suits were standing in the fountain. The grass was very green, and the pigeons were flocking to a metallic sculpture of a tree, paying no mind to the many perfectly serviceable real trees available. Clearly, they were keen appreciators of art. It was just past noon and the cafes were full of people grabbing business lunches. She felt like she was watching the opening credits of a TV drama, all of their lives unfolding into one long angle shot from a great distance.
The rooftop garden smelled strongly of herbs and wood smoke. There was a huge sycamore growing out of an air vent, several raised beds with neatly labelled rows of flowers and vegetables and a beehive. The ground was mossy and the edges of the roof were lined with countless mismatched pots. The garden did not seem to be bending space and time, but it gave off an air of unreality all the same. A slinky ginger cat appeared from underneath one of the raised beds and twined itself around her ankle.
The witch reappeared. “I’m standing right here, Mildred.”
The cat meandered away from Anna and took up a sulky residence behind the witch.
“We’ll have to get you a familiar,” the witch said. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Right,” Anna arrived abruptly at her limit. “I’m afraid there’s been some misunderstanding. I don’t mean to be rude, but what is actually happening right now?”
“Didn’t you apply for the position?” the woman asked. “With the council? To be the city’s Witch?”
She had indeed applied for a job with the council that had the rather vague title of ‘General City-wide Custodianship and Stewarding’. She had given it a long look at the time. The person specification had listed a need for soft skills such as ‘understanding with people and animals, but also firm’, ‘knowledge and deep appreciation of local flora and fauna’, ‘good with folk cartography’ and ‘able to make strong emotional and mental links between practical tasks and highly conceptual rituals’. She had thought it was a kind of glorified ushering for local events. Maybe the word ‘ritual’ did stand out a bit now… At the interview there had been a very odd non-verbal reasoning skills test to sit and a few of the interview questions had been out of left field, but she’d though she’d handled them well through sheer determination to find gainful employment that didn’t involve being shut up in an office all day.
“But…that was months ago. And witches…aren’t…real…” She said, to the witch.
“Things move slowly at the local level. Everyone knows that. And they don’t really like the throw around the words ‘witch’ and ‘magic’ and ‘holding our plane of existence in place through sheer force of will’ lightly. You know how it is.” The witch was exasperated. “Are you telling me you didn’t know what you were applying for?”
“I guess not,” Anna said. She was starting to feel a bit anxious, though it was hard to pin down why. She was pretty sure she’d finally landed a good job and now she wasn’t even going to be able to do it because it was make-believe and she’d slid sideways into either a hallucination or an alternate dimension. “Have I slid sideways into an alternate dimension?”
“Obviously not,” the witch said. “That’s the whole point of us, isn’t it?”
The witch sighed, frustrated. Mildred the cat offered an aloof brand of sympathy that involved pressing against her human’s calf warmly and then ambling away as though it had just been an accident. Anna scratched her nose uncomfortably. She was ill-suited to sympathy. It was something about her eyebrows. They always looked insincere. “What’s the time, now?” The witch asked.
“One-o-seven,” Anna replied. She wasn’t wearing a watch, but knowing the exact time had always been a party-trick of hers.
“Let me make a phone call,” the witch said. “You sit tight. You don’t mind?”
“Of course,” she said, surprised at the politeness after so much brusque talk. She paused for a long moment, and then, just as the witch was turning back towards the workbench where there was an old rotary phone, Anna added. “I’m still interested in the position. If that’s possible.”
The witch gave Anna a long look, up and down. Anna became suddenly self-conscious, wondering what she looked like to the woman across from her. Better yet, what did she look like to the people she passed every day on the street, with her permanently shadowed eyes, her too-straight shoulders, the judgmental acuteness of her nose and her hands that itched to always be reaching out and brushing against stone pillars and wet leaves? In lieu of anything useful to do, Anna pushed up her sleeves. It made her feel ready.
“Obviously,” the witch said. “And I’ve got a lovely cave with a subterranean garden waiting for me in the High Peaks and I’d rather not put off the move for yet another torturous recruitment phase.”
The witch was on her phone for a long time. Anna watched the street again and scratched Mildred under her chin. The lunch rush was passing. There was an empty quality settling over the square now. The statue of Victoria, partly obscured by the dripping trees, presided indolently over an unoccupied bus shelter.
“That’s the kind of mood you’ll need to look out for,” the witch said, her voice right at Anna’s shoulder, making her jump. “See how it feels like no one’s down there, even though there’s still all sorts bustling back and forth? Perfect atmosphere for mischief and nonsense. Your first task can be to walk round down there with some burning sage and a mean look on your face. Got to show the ghosts you mean business from the first.”
“And whatever other things are skulking about.”
“Right,” Anna said, taking a deep breath. This was what was happening. “Okay.”
“I’ve explained that you’re new to this, but that you’re keen and I’ve said I’ll stay on as a consultant for the first few months. Dan’s only over in Salford, so he’ll pop over to check on you. He’s the best witch in the North West. I’ve left his number with mine next to the phone. You’ll need a familiar as quick as, but they’ll find you. The rest is in the handbook. Your contract and all that rot is in the cabinet labelled ‘All that rot’.”
“Are you going now?” It came out as an embarrassing plea.
“I’ve got an appointment, love!” The witch smiled. It looked sideways and a bit threatening, exactly like Anna’s own smile the last time she’d caught a glimpse of it in a mirror.
There was a door in the big sycamore now, where there hadn’t been one before. The witch was holding an old-fashioned carpet bag. Anna wildly thought of Mary Poppins but it was the wrong story. “Have you left your phone number?”
“Next to the phone, with Dan’s, I said. You’ll be fine.”
“But…” The door slammed shut.
Anna was alone on the roof. A bee from the hive landed gently on her shoulder. There was a drawer labelled ‘dried sage’ in a slashing black scrawl and, after a good bit of fumbling through ‘bits and bobs’, she also found some matches.
She went out through the door, which obligingly appeared in the roof’s ledge and arrived back on the street in front of the tattoo studio. She reminded herself to be understanding but firm with people and animals, and got to work.
Commissioned by Read Manchester for 6 Minute Reads delivered by the Writing Squad and Manchester Literature Festival in 2017.