The Cunning Woman - A short story by Tessa Harris
PUBLISHED: 16:22 13 October 2016
Copyright Maureen McLean 2011
The last thing you need… a sick child, all the power off, that leaking roof and now a very strange ‘school run mum’ at the door…
The power went off just as it was growing dark. Ginny had been warned these things happened in the country. A month ago, just when they were about to move out of London and into Cunning Cottage, the prospect wouldn’t have alarmed her. It almost sounded quaint; as quintessentially English as the roses that grew round their gnarled oak door, or the lopsided horse shoe that hung over it.
“Better straighten that up,” remarked a builder from Newbury. “Bad luck if you don’t.”
Well, bad luck had been one of the first callers to their “17th century West Berkshire idyll” as the estate agent’s brochure described it. Rampaging squirrels in the attic, a leak in the roof and now, on a bleak day at the end of October, the Aga that she used to dream of in their tiny flat in Finchley had given up the ghost. Not only was there no light, but no heat either.
It was Hannah she was worried about in the cold darkness. Her little girl remained listless on the sofa bed; her red hair plastered to her scalp with sweat. She put out her cold hand to stroke her forehead. It was searing hot; the only hot thing in the house.
Her mobile phone sat on the bedside table; her one contact with the outside world. The second it rang she snatched at it.
“How is she?” The voice at the other end sounded muffled and remote.
“No change.” Ginny shook her head as, eyes firmly shut, her daughter let out a low moan. She’d been like this for three days; three days of listlessness and delirium and all the locum had said when he could be persuaded to make a house call was that it was “a non-specific childhood illness.”
He’d taken a swab from Hannah’s mouth for tests, but the results, he said, wouldn’t be back for a few days. “What time will you get here?” She looked at her watch. He should be on the plane.
“The fog. We’re delayed.”
“Fog?” She lifted the curtain and saw, to her shock, that yes, there was fog; so dense and close that she could see nothing at all; not even the headlights of passing cars on the nearby road. Of all the nights, it had to be this one. Their child was ill and they were both fog-bound; Rob at Manchester Airport and she in a cottage just outside Hungerford. She felt angry tears well up, but choked them back.
“Will you get back tonight?”
“I can’t say.”
Suddenly a dog barked loudly outside, followed by another, then more, until it sounded like a whole pack of hounds was bounding toward the cottage. She lifted the curtain again.
“Ginny, are you still there?”
“Yes. I just thought I heard something.”
Neither of their neighbours owned a dog. She scanned the gloom outside, but the fog pressed against the window. She shivered.
“There’s always old Needham.” Rob was trying to be up-beat.
“You mean the old chap at the end of the lane? I thought he was retired.” They’d been invited in for sherry by their new neighbours and had been introduced to the affable elderly gentleman in a tweed jacket and MCC tie.
“Only semi. He gave me his number. I’ll call him now and ask him to pop round.”
“Oh Rob, that would be great.” She pulled a blanket round her shoulders.
“I’ll get back as soon as I can. Don’t worry. Hannah will be f... ” His voice was drowned out by a flight announcement. “Got to…” The signal suddenly broke up. She was alone again with her sick five year-old. Hannah was burning up.
As Ginny reached for the face flannel to dab Hannah’s swollen neck, she noticed the little witch costume hanging on the back of the door. She was suddenly reminded it was Halloween and for days Hannah had been talking about nothing else. She’d planned to go trick or treating with her new school friends.
Ginny had rustled up a witch’s outfit and they’d bought a pointed hat. Hannah had decorated it with tin foil stars. They’d carved out a pumpkin, too, and put a night light inside. It was the first thing to hand when the power went off and, as it was Halloween, she’d put the jack o’ lantern in the kitchen window to guide in the trick or treaters.
All their plans had been dashed, however, when Hannah had taken ill in the middle of the night. On the second day, Rob had carried her limp little body into the downstairs study, so that Ginny, who worked from home, could keep any eye on her. That second night Hannah had been too ill to move back upstairs, so Ginny had slept in the chair opposite her, dosing her regularly with paracetamol.
A loud knock at the door jolted her back to the present. She jumped, but then remembered Rob’s promise. Dr. Needham. It was either him or the trick or treaters. She grabbed the torch and gingerly made her way to the kitchen. But it wasn’t the GP she saw through the diamond of glass in the door, but a dishevelled–looking woman.
“One of the mothers from school,” she told herself. Although she didn’t recognise the woman immediately, she concluded it was because she was in costume and her hair was all tousled and matted.
Ginny unbolted the door and flung it open crying cheerily “Happy Halloween.” But to her surprise there were no little witches or pumpkins on the doorstep. No happy chorus of ‘trick or treat.’ Only the woman, standing there, breathing heavily. Had she been involved in an accident? Her face and hands were smeared with mud and her long skirt was torn. There was an odd look in her eye, too, like a frightened animal.
Ginny’s stomach suddenly knotted as she felt herself wanting to shut the door in the face of her strange visitor. Instead she asked: “Are you all right?”
“I… I ‘ad a fall,” replied the woman, showing Ginny the grubby palms of her hands. Ginny could hear the sound of dogs again, now howling. It made the woman seem all the more nervous. “Please?” She gestured toward the door.
“Of course.” Ginny stood aside to let her in. “We’ve had a power cut, I’m afraid. I’m not surprised you fell. It’s terrible out there. Not a good night for trick or treating.” She managed a weak smile, but the woman returned a blank stare. “Halloween,” prompted Ginny, pointing with a smile at her caller’s long skirt.
The woman finally nodded to signify she understood. “All Hallows eve.”
“Yes.” Ginny suddenly felt very urban. She was starting to think leaving London was a mistake.
Country ways were not hers. They even had a different name for Halloween in rural Berkshire. She had so little in common with this woman, except, perhaps… there was something terribly sad about this stranger, as if she was carrying the weight of the world on her scrawny shoulders.
Ginny watched her as her glassy eyes scanned the candle-lit kitchen and suddenly settled on a pastel portrait of Hannah on the wall. Walking toward it, she squinted at the child’s face, then stood back.
“You have children at the school?” asked Ginny.
The woman switched round and fixed her with a strange gaze. “School? No,” she shrugged. “Mine all died afore they was three.”
Shocked, Ginny thought of Hannah. Having her so sick was pain enough, but to lose all your children. “I’m sorry. That’s so terrible...I …I…” She didn’t know what to say.
The woman kept staring at Hannah’s image. “I tried to save ‘em,” she said wistfully. “But the Lord wanted them for his own.”
It was then the thought struck Ginny. Perhaps such tragedy had turned the poor woman to religion. Perhaps she was a member of one of those cults. Maybe she was trying to escape.
Why else would she be out alone on such a night? Should she call the police? Unsettling thoughts chased around her brain, crashing into each other. She needed time to think.
“The cloakroom’s that way if you’d like to clean yourself up,” Ginny told the woman, pointing into the gloom of the little passage that led off the kitchen.
The woman nodded but just as she was about to turn Ginny asked her: “Would you like a drink? Obviously not tea or coffee, I’m afraid, but there’s lemonade or beer.”
“Small beer’d be good, if you please,” replied the woman.
“Beer. Of course.” even though she’d offered it, Ginny wasn’t expecting the woman to ask for a beer. Rob had bought some bottles from West Berkshire Brewery.
She opened the fridge door as she watched the woman shamble off, then grabbed her phone.
“Just heading for the gate now,” he told her breathlessly.
“There’s someone here.” She spoke in a half whisper. “A woman. She just came to the house. A stranger.” She could barely believe what she was saying.
“A stranger? I can’t hear you. What are
you talking about?”
“She just appeared. She was all muddy and I let her in and…”
“Are you all right? Is Hannah all right?”
Why was she telling Rob this? He was in Manchester. She suddenly felt very stupid and pathetic. “Yes, yes, we’re fine.”
How could she tell him that there was something about this caller’s presence that unsettled her, like a stone in her shoe.
She changed tack. “So you could be home by midnight?”
On the crackly connection she could hear a voice over a tannoy. “That’s the final call. Love you.” And he was gone.
“Pull yourself together, Ginny,” she murmured under her breath. She remembered the beer. Prizing off the cap, she noticed her hands were shaking.
The woman seemed gone a long time. Come to think of it, she hadn’t heard a sound from the cloakroom. The rickety old water pipes remained silent.
Ginny decided to check up on her. But just as she was about to, a terrible scream ripped through the gloom; a visceral, blood-curdling banshee wail that sent the bottle of Good Old Boy smashing onto the flagstone floor. Ginny ran toward the cloakroom. She flung open the door but the room was empty.
“Hannah!” she cried. She rushed into the study but the bed was empty too.
“Hannah!” she screamed. Jack-knifing back toward the passage, she was just about to go after the woman when she saw the little girl standing behind the door.
“Mummy,” she said, rubbing her eyes.
Ginny dropped to her knees and hugged her. “Oh my darling.” Tears of relief welled up and she blurted: “Are you all right, my love?” As she held her little girl’s body against hers, she realised it was no longer scalding hot. Her temperature felt normal.
“Where’s the lady?” asked Hannah.
“Lady?” Ginny looked into her daughter’s eyes. “The lady came in here?”
“Did she touch you?” Ginny could barely contain her horror.
Hannah nodded. “She stroked my head and told me I would get better.”
Ginny’s shoulders slumped with relief.
“That’s all? Nothing else?”
Hannah shook her head. “Then she went.”
“Went where?” Ginny pressed.
The little girl shrugged.
The thought seized Ginny by the throat.
The woman may still be in the house. That scream. She was in distress. Mentally unbalanced. She had to find her. “Back to bed,” she urged Hannah, taking her by the hand. “Stay here, you understand.”
She spoke firmly as she covered the little girl with the duvet and snatched the torch.
“That mad woman is somewhere in the house,” she told herself. Upstairs. She must have gone upstairs. She shone the torch beam up the narrow staircase, but could see nothing. She couldn’t go up there alone. What if the mad woman attacked her? The police. Call 999. She fled into the kitchen for her phone. Outside the dogs started barking again. They must be after the mad woman. Somehow she’d managed to escape.
Just as Ginny was reaching for the phone there was a loud rapping on the door. She gasped, then she heard a voice; a man’s voice.
“It’s Dr Needham. everything all right?”
“Thank God!” cried Ginny as she flung open the door to see the elderly GP.
“I came as soon as I could.”
“The fog. I know,” said Ginny, eager to shepherd him inside.
“Fog?” queried the GP. “There’s no fog. It’s a clear night.”
Ginny wasn’t listening as she took him by the arm.
“What on earth…?” he asked, bewildered by Ginny’s haste.
“Did you see anyone, doctor?” she asked breathlessly.
“See anyone?” he huffed.
“The dogs. They were barking.”
Dr Needham shook his silvery head. “What dogs?”
Through the kitchen toward the study, they went, as Ginny ranted on about her mysterious visitor. “I said she could clean up, but she went to Hannah’s room.” She gulped back tears. “She said she only stroked her head, but, oh God!!”
In the study Hannah was sitting up. “I can’t understand it. She was burning up,” said Ginny, feeling her daughter’s forehead.
“What have you got there?” asked Dr Needham, bending low to see a small glass bottle in Hannah’s hands.
“The lady left it for me.”
Ginny and Needham swapped wary glances. “The lady?” repeated the doctor gently. “May I see your lovely bottle?” Hannah handed it over willingly and Ginny shone the torch at it.
Needham lifted it up to the beam. Inside sat a clove of garlic and what seemed to be leaves. Ginny thought it looked a little like a spice jar, if it had not been for the fact that there was also a ball of fine red hair in it.
“Hannah’s hair!” she cried. She darted a look at the bedside table where Hannah’s hairbrush lay upturned.
“What does this mean?”
Needham’s eyebrows were raised. “It’s what they call a witch bottle. It used to be filled with medicinal herbs and something from a patient, like their hair or finger nails, to ward off evil spirits.”
Confused, Ginny shook her head. “So the woman was trying to help Hannah?”
The doctor shrugged. “Whoever she was, she meant no harm. Best call the police to be on the safe side, though. From what you’ve told me she clearly needs help.”
Ginny nodded as Dr Needham opened his case. “Meanwhile I’ll examine missie, here,” he told her with a reassuring smile.
An hour passed before the police arrived. They conducted a search of the area, but found nothing. Rob returned later that night. The following day Ginny insisted he fix the drunken horseshoe above the door and the day after that Hannah returned to school.
On the same morning Ginny was about to leave for a meeting when Dr Needham called round. “I’m glad I’ve caught you,” he said as he walked into the kitchen and deposited his case on the table. “I thought you’d like to know I’ve got Hannah’s test results. How is she?”
Ginny smiled. “You’d never know she’d been ill.”
Dr Needham nodded gravely. “She certainly was ill,” he said, shaking his head as he retrieved a file from his case. “May I?” he pointed to the chair and sat down.
“It’s a miracle she’s here at all.”
His words stopped Ginny in her tracks. She slumped into the chair opposite. “What was it?”
The doctor smoothed the papers in front of him and raised his gaze. “Diphtheria,” he told her.
“Diphtheria?” repeated Ginny. “But that’s impossible. She’s been vaccinated.”
“I know. The last death in England from the disease was more than 20 years ago, when an unimmunised child became infected in Pakistan. It’s unheard of her nowadays.” The doctor was shaking his head. “The amazing thing is the swab that I took from her showed no signs of the bacteria whatsoever. She was fully cured when I saw her.
“The bottle!” Ginny cut in.
Needham nodded. “I examined the contents.”
“A garlic clove, as I thought, and the leaves were curled dock.” Ginny frowned.
“The leaves were commonly used in the treatment of diphtheria for centuries,” Needham explained.
But she could tell by the odd look in his eye there was something else. “What is it?”
The doctor delved into his bag once more and this time brought out a dog-eared old volume. “It’s the diary of the vicar of St. Lawrence’s,” he told her.
“The local church?” asked Ginny.
“Yes. Reverend Tilney was there between 1669 and 1700.” He opened the diary at a marked page. “He recorded the story of a woman by the name of Mary Ilsley. She lived in this cottage.”
Ginny swallowed hard. “Go on.”
The doctor sighed heavily. “She lost all five of her young children to disease and as a consequence began to practise herbal medicine. She was what was known as a cunning woman. People would come to her for remedies, love charms and spells, that sort of thing. But one of her cures went very wrong and a child died, so ….”
“So they chased her out of the village with hounds on the eve of All Hallows,” muttered Ginny, her eyes widening as she spoke. It was as if someone else was speaking. How did she know? “Are you telling me I saw a… a …”
She could not bring herself to say the word.
“Call her what you will, my dear. Whatever she was, whoever she was, she was very real to you, and people react differently to stressful situations. Your daughter is alive and well and, at the end of the day, surely that is all that matters?”
Ginny looked at the kindly GP and suddenly felt calm, as if this place, this cottage, was where she belonged. “Yes, it is,” she said softly. “Let’s keep this between ourselves, shall we?”