Hand-in-hand mother and son step between piles of collapsed masonry and outcrops of nettles.
‘Ow!’ says mum. ‘I shouldn’t have worn sandals.’She looks down at James. ‘Keep your elbows in and you won’t get stung.’
‘Why are we going this way, mum? Did you dream it too?’
Mum freezes, squats down and steadies herself by clutching crumbling mortar. Dust and fragments hiss and clatter; a beetle tumbles and scurries into shade.
‘Ah! Now I’ve made my jeans dusty.’ She stares at James. ‘What did you say?’
James falters at the intensity of her gaze, thinks he’s said something wrong. ‘Nothing.’
She jerks his hand a little. ‘James love, this is important. What did you dream?’
He looks down, twists the heel of his trainer in the dirt. ‘I dreamt the witch-woman told me to come here.’
‘You know, the old lady that died. She always smelled and Cass said she was a witch.’
‘That was very rude of Cass.’ Mum shakes her head, not sure what to ask next. ‘Um… James, what did Mrs Alnwick say in the dream?’
‘Nothing, mum. I dreamt I was playing here and she was…’ He glances up. ‘I don’t play here, not since you told me not to.’
‘Good for you, James. The old creamery is falling down and there’s all sorts of danger. She wobbles his nose with the tip of her finger. ‘You’re precious to me and I don’t want you getting hurt.’
‘Did you dream about her too?’
‘I, well… Can you keep a secret?’
‘I dreamt she told me to come here with you. Three times I’ve had that dream. I tried to ignore it but…’
Footsteps on corrugated iron interrupt her. Crashing aside the dried sticks of last year’s wild raspberries, a man bursts into view and wipes twigs and old leaves from his face. Eyebrows shoot up over his large and sun-reddened nose.
‘Meg… little Jim, what brings you here?’
Meg clutches James’ hand tighter. ‘Hi Chuck. I… we…we’re out looking for beetles. And you?’
A variety of expressions flicker over Chuck’s features. He massages his chin and looks away. ‘I, um…’ He looks behind and calls, ‘Linnie, come on, I’ve made a way through the weeds for you.’ A six-year-old girl, wearing wellingtons and holding Chuck’s jacket over her head, emerges from the shadows.
She smiles at James. ‘Hi. Did you have the dream too?’
James, locked into a pact of secrecy with his mother, looks to her for guidance.
Linnie goes on. ‘About Mrs Alnwick who shouted a lot and had fits. I dreamed about her: daddy did too.’
A spaniel, trailing nettles and goosegrass from tangled fur, romps through the weeds and wags its tail. A hot tongue drips loops of saliva as the dog tries to say hello to everyone at once.
‘Mitch, you total maniac, come back, or I’ll rip your legs off and throw them for you to fetch.’ The owner of the voice rounds a blackthorn bush, pulls her leather sleeve from the thorns and stops in her tracks. ‘Oops. Hello, people.’ She looks from face to face. ‘It’s a bit crowded here…’ Thin, with stark white, spiked hair and multiple piercings, the woman goes on. ‘You’ve been having visions?’ Getting no verbal response, but grinning at people’s averted gazes and awkward movements, she claps her hands. ‘You have; it’s all right, I know. Old Aileen Alnwick’s been getting into your dreams. Aileen, the weird, the smelly old woman who shouted abuse in the middle of the night, scared everyone and went mental when she forgot to take her medication. You know, the ugly old woman who frightened kids to death and was madder than three moons on a Monday…’ She laughs. ‘Well, well… are you in for a surprise.’
Meg says, ‘What are you on about?’
Juliet ignores her, kneels down in front of James and says, ‘What do you remember of old Aileen?’ She glances up at Meg and back to James. ‘Mum won’t mind you being honest.’ She takes his free hand and one of Linnie’s. ‘Come on, kids. It’s important.’
James looks up at his mum, who nods. He says, ‘She was scary. Cass said she was a witch.’
Eyes closed and head back, Juliet laughs. The music of it contrasting with the hard lines of her face and the desolate surroundings. ‘No, I’m a witch. Aileen was something much more special.’ She looks up at Chuck and Meg, tilts her head as if in question and looks back at the children. ‘Aileen was not very intelligent and she was always sick, and different and ugly. She scared people. But she was a lovely person. The tragedy is that she liked people but they didn’t like her. She was the loneliest person ever.’ She squeezes the children’s hands. ‘After she died, she popped into my dreams and told me everything. I cried a lot. She didn’t have a nice life. But you, James, always said hello to her on your way to school. Linnie…’ she looks at the girl, ‘you always smiled at her.’ Juliet looks at Meg and Chuck in turn. ‘Meg, you used to give her flowers from your garden. And Chuck…’ She stands and pokes him in the chest. ‘You drove off a bunch of kids that were taunting her after she’d had a fit in the street. You helped her home and waited until the doctor came.’
Juliet reaches down and picks up a stick. Throwing it into the scrub, she shouts, ‘Mitch, you smell-bomb, whatever you’re doing in there: stop.’ She turns back to the others. ‘Don’t look at me like dumbstruck animals. Aileen told me all this in my dreams. It’s all true; you did those things for her.’
She ducks down and takes the children’s hands again. ‘Aileen was an angel. A real angel from heaven.’
Linnie shakes her head. ‘Angels are beautiful…’
‘No, Linnie, angels are there to show us how beautiful or ugly we are. Other children ran away from her, but your smile lit up her day. You’ve no idea how something as little as that can mean so much.’
‘If she’s an angel, will she bless us?’
Juliet shakes her head. ‘Nope, not at all. This may be a bit complicated for little ones, but you blessed yourselves when you did things for her.’
Chuck runs thick fingers through his wiry, unkempt hair and says, ‘That explains everything in those dreams. They were weird… and sort of real.’
‘Eloquence was never your strong point, Chuck.’ Juliet releases the children’s hands and gives him a playful punch on the chest. ‘But you make a good dad.’
She stretches and looks from face to face. ‘Any questions?’
James puts his hand up.
Juliet kneels in front of him again. ‘You don’t need to put your hand up with me, James, my man. I’m a friendly witch, not a scary teacher. You just speak up.’
‘If angels aren’t beautiful, how will we know if we meet another?’
Juliet rolls her eyes. ‘If you meet one? If?’ She stands again. ‘Actually, James, good question. Heaven keeps us supplied; there’s always an angel in our lives, and there are more around than you can possibly imagine.’ She turns. ‘Gotta go. Witching won’t wait.’ She strides through head-high nettles, stops and turns. ‘Meg, Chuck, you’re both nice people and both a bit lonely. Maybe you should meet up more often. Oh, and Aileen says hugs to you all.’ Turning away, she disappears behind greenery.
‘Mitch, you miserable monster, get yourself in gear, or I’ll never feed you again.’
Mitch, tail wagging in circles, thunders after her through the undergrowth.
© Gary Bonn: 2012