I was walking along the high street outside the hospital thinking about Joyce and how bad a state she was in when I heard someone behind me say,
“Listen, I don’t know what you think you’re playing at, but don’t think we don’t know what your game is.”
Like a verbal tap on the shoulder, immediately I knew those words were meant for me. Turning around, I saw a man and woman, both in early middle age, with the same short pudgy build, the same flared nostrils, beady eyes and agitated demeanour. Instantly, I knew exactly who they were.
“I’m sorry, do I know you?”
The little fat woman spoke next,
“No, but we know you. You’re the young man pestering mother.”
“Auntie Joyce ?
“Look she’s not your Auntie, she’s our Mother.”
“No ones saying she isn’t.”
“Me and Martin haven’t said anything up to now, but when things, you know, come to a head, we don’t want you anywhere near.”
“Anywhere near what?”
Now Martin decided to throw in his two penneth.
“You’re not entitled to anything you know, me and Greta, we are her only blood relatives, her blood… relatives!”
Martin blurted it out triumphantly, like he was announcing it from the steps of the Coliseum. His declaration complete, he and Greta began to shuffle nervously, like a pair of fat sprinters about to settle into the blocks.
“Listen, I don’t want anything from your mum. She’s been good to me. I just want her to get better.”
The word better seemed to set off a violent attack of nodding.
“Oh of course we want her better too, of course we do, don’t we Greta?
Greta’s nodding intensified as she bravely attempted to squeeze out a tear.
“Look, you’ve upset Greta now !”
“Why, because I want your Mum to get better?”
“See Martin? He’s twisting things!”
“Come on let’s go. And young man, whatever is in that will, don’t think we wont fight it every step of the way. Ok?”
“I don’t care what’s in her will, I haven’t given it a seconds thought.”
“And you expect us to believe that? Always up there, listening to all that psychic nonsense? Don’t tell me you actually like being in that grotty cottage? A young man like you? Come on, pull the other one!”
We were standing outside a Greengrocers. People were starting to stare. Martin linked his sister’s arm, the two fat biceps entwining like hemp rope on a dock.
“Come on Greta, we’ve better things to do than stand here bickering like fishwives.
“This a Greengrocers.”
A pause as they examined the rows of onions and parsnips inside the shop, as though the answer to their agony might lie somewhere amongst the vegetables. Then after one final sneer in my direction, they waddled off together, muttering to themselves in that impotent, obsessive way self-centred people often have.
I looked inside the greengrocers. Debating whether to buy some grapes or flowers for my evening visit, I was just about to step inside when a silver Mercedes pulled up by the kerb. The rear door fell open, almost scraping the pavement, so sharp was the camber of the Tarmac. From inside, looking like he was about to spill out onto the pavement, a fat man with a shaved head glared up at me. Then, from the passenger seat I heard a familiar, chilling voice.
“Tom? Fucking get in here. Now.”
Ten years previously, my summer at the cottage was drawing to a close. The leaves were just beginning to swirl around the garden and the smoke from the chimney, instead of blowing east on the prevailing wind, was now being sent west.
My bag was packed. Mother was picking me up from the station to take me into town for my last ever uniform. A sick, Sunday night feeling seeped through me, like a wet cold fog. Sitting at the kitchen table Auntie Joyce, surrounded by spices and chopping boards rubbed away at the pelt of some unknown wild animal while I pretended to clean down the dresser for the third time that afternoon.
A knowing smile playing around her mouth, she glanced up at me from over her tiny glasses. Putting some not inconsiderable effort into scraping the red flesh away from the fur she said,
“Tom? Do you like school? Are you looking forward to going back?
“School? Yeah I think, yeah it’s ok.”
She turned over the pelt and in doing so flipped the head upside down. I stared at the eyes. They stared back.
“You’re not getting…. bullied are you?”
I snorted a laugh of derision. Standing up taller I said, “Bullied? Me? Ha!”
She went back to her rendering. “Tom, pass me my pipe if you would.”
Smoothing my hands down my apron, I scurried to the pipe draw to retrieve her smoking paraphernalia. Placing the wild animal’s coat to one side, Joyce set about rolling some rough shag.
“That’s good. That’s good. If, I mean if, anyone you know is being bullied, you know what to do, don’t you? ”
“No, Auntie Joyce, what?”
“You tell them to come and see me, and I’ll put a curse on who ever it is that’s bullying them.”
My next words came out a little too eagerly
“Well they won’t be allowed over here so you tell me what to say and I’ll tell them.”
Joyce, her grey bun now invisible behind a blue fug of smoke, eased her wide beam off her chair and went to a shelf above the range. Moving the hemlock carefully to the next shelf down she produced a heavy wooden box from a space behind the chimney breast.
Manipulating the stem of her pipe from one side of her mouth to the other, she carried the heavy wooden box to the table.
“Here, move that Pine Martin over there. Don’t worry, he won’t bite you now Tom.”
A space now cleared, the box sat squarely in the middle of the oak table, directly under the glow from the paraffin lamp.
Joyce undid the latch and produced two glass phials, each containing bright purple liquid.
What’s in those little glass things?
“You remember when I was boiling that pigs head? Well I wanted the meat off the cheek for our stew you see. Don’t look at me like that, you gobbled enough of it up. But I wanted the skull boiled so I could grind down the teeth, see the little flecks in the potion? Now, this has a right high stink to it, and no mater how hard they scrub they’ll not get it off for weeks, and it will remind them that they been cursed as a bully. And bad things will happen. So, snap it open like this and say-
Pigs do as pigs think,
Bully no more –
And when you says stink, throw it like this and it will smash on him and it will stick like you won’t know what.”
“Won’t I get into trouble?”
“Do you want avoid trouble or do you want to get rid of a bully?”
On the train home, I spent most of the journey rolling my fingers over the little parcel concealed in my chest pocket