“It was the 17th Century,” I say, scrambling up out of the mud-pit after Cunning Murrell, “there wasn’t much on TV.”
He neither understands nor cares to hear my attempt at wit, he’s dazzled by the 2:30am streetlights: “What Prometheus had to suffer for these flames?”
We stand facing each other, the skeleton-man and me. “What really does my head in is the children, your children, all dying like that. You couldn’t have known: in 1818 this guy named Ignaz Semmelweis was born, he died five years after you, in disgrace in a mental-asylum. His madness: he’d suggested obstetricians and midwives wash their hands before work. The idea that there might be tiny invisible things in the air was absurd and blasphemous.”
“1818…” The dead man is remembering, the prime of his life, a young wizard about town, anything to get himself a bit of a reputation: he carries an umbrella in any and all weathers! Yes, there are downpours too subtle for most of us to feel but James is always protected, he seeks solitude in long dusk lanes, sometimes going where there are ghosts, the forest at night! Sometimes the dawn sees him conversing with his Thames, telling it what it needs to know today. When he passes people he seldom acknowledges them, not in a rude way, he’s absorbed in the incantations he’s quietly chanting, his hushed invocations of sublime and gibberish gods. On the rare occasions he find himself in the pub he gets his round in; his door is always open.
Here’s a customer now at that door, at the cottage on the corner: he enters and is awed as he should be by the haze of scents, the herbs and grimoires on every surface, charts and diagrams on the walls: astronomy, astrology, angels… One of Cunning Murrell’s daughters leads the seeker into the study, they find the soul-doctor staring through the eye of a telescope, it’s pointing at awall! “Oh!” Murrell exclaims, straightening up, “You’re early?”
“The, the telescope,” the visitor points at the telescope.
“Mm? Oh this can see through mere matter; I invented it myself.”
“Now then: what seems to be the problem?” Cunning Murrell takes the scenic route around his room, he points out the mirror – “It’s as much a door as it is a mirror.” – and what does the querent think of James’s new bracelet? – “It alerts me to dishonesty.”
There is an awkward silence. Awkward for some. “I, it’s… It’s a very good bracelet.”
“To business! Have a seat.”
Seems like something has been done to this man’s daughter and, for a number of good reasons, this man doesn’t want to go through the proper channels. “Not, I mean, not that you’re not proper, James. It’s just, I don’t want a public scene of it.”
“Very wise of you. You’ve come to the right place.” The cunning-man dobs inkblobs onto water in a bowl: the two men sit staring at that spreading blackness, they see shapes. “Don’t blink… Don’t dare blink…”
“I can see… I can see! It’s them.”
A grim nod: “Thomas Fairhead and Henry Gilliot: I knew it was them.”
“I knew too. I’ll make up a witch-bottle: you and your daughter will be avenged and no-one will ever know.”
“Thank you,” and cash.
And at that very moment they’re talking about him elsewhere, in “The Castle” over drinks: “He can heal animals and exorcise demons, he can tell the future what to do!”
“Old Hankinson’s girl wouldn’t stop barking, like a dog! The vicar tried to cast out the dog-demon, blind bit of good that did! No, it was all woof-woof-woof!” Laughter. “So then Murrell, what does he do? He puts her on a leash and takes her for a walk! ‘Sit! Fetch!’ They played like that for a while then she was back to normal, he’d walked the dog-demon out of her!”
We stand facing each other, me and the skeleton-man: “You know your problem, James? You always wanted the overview, you needed to know a bit about everyone and everything, then a bit more, then it’s not enough to know, you’re the Chessmaster, facing down Evil with your stratagems and ruses: and as long as no-one ends up dead, which they so rarely do, you can take the credit: things played out, they played out as well as they possibly could have done, and in retrospect doesn’t it all seem so divinely ordered? And, if it didn’t perhaps go quite to plan then, well, our plans always have a certain wobble built into them. And we’re all alive and that’s the main thing!”
“I know where I am: I lived there. This is Southchurch Road! But…”
“It’s called ‘London Road’ now: our horizons have widened. London is nothing.”
Those bones and a century-and-a-half’s worth of caking mud step towards the church-gates, crumbling-falling bits of him trail as he goes. Cars: I thought they’d do our cunning-man’s head in but he lived to see trains, he can extrapolate. It’s the registration-plates that get him: “T! 5! 9! 2! N! S! U! D! N! 5! 8! M! H! A!” London-bound on the London Road, late-shifters work-zooming or nightlifers chasing the thrillbuzz in their rear-view-mirror, to or from the latest limp get-together: I flashback suddenly to being sixteen, remember there was a time you could remember every time you’d got drunk and every time was an adventure. And here’s the cunning-man: “V! U! 0! 7! F! L! E!”
“It doesn’t,” I calm him down, “it doesn’t mean anything.”
He turns to me: the absurd-awful gape of his eye-sockets and nose. He looks away again, left, down the road, against the traffic, he sees spectral reds and oranges and greens hovering. “The world is warmer,” he mutters.
“The world is nothing.” A sweep of my arm indicates the shops surrounding our church-island, at the far-distant shores of the ocean-road there are Ladbrokes and Shoe Zone, Stead & Simpson, Entertainers.com, Welcome To Your Fresh Market, Tipplers, Tickled Pink, Alpha Signs, Balloons From Me To You, there are bus-shelters, here’s one, bus-stop plus “Clear Channel” ad-space: “You’re not getting trolley rage, you’re relaxing in a roof top bar watching the breathtaking sunset. Another fresh fantasy brought to you by CAFFÈ LATTE.” There are banks. Essex Bedszz. Devine Nails. Domino’s. Offices To Let. No late-night takeaways, no kebab-shops: the tone is snoozy-bourgeois, no fights or sick on these streets. On the metal grille over the windows of the closed-down Costcutter is aerosoled the greater part of Hadleigh’s graffiti, two words in black: “BACK TRIPS.” There are public-toilets, locked by 6pm. There’s Your Local Boots, then the Salvation Army store, every one of its exterior surfaces has been spiked against burglars and doves, a sign in its upper window reads: “Aerial & Satellite Technology, ASTEC.” There are supermarkets, there are mini-markets. Drunk-sot women in Ye Old “Castle” Inn will grope your balls but only once. Across the road from us a couple walking at this late hour past Hairport and the McDonalds Drive-thru notice our shadowydistant figures, they pretend not to be arguing as they pass. “We are the joyless, the effortlessly stupid. We take our pleasure where we’re told to take it. Give us a world and we’ll complain.”
I wanted more: in my imagination not just Murrell but all the others too return, every last grave is self-excavated, here comes yesterday to teach tomorrow a thing, here come the dead, the frustrated dead, the bored and senseless dead, the didn’t-have-their-cake-or-eat-it dead, the dead dead: alive! they take the town, they’re everywhere, uncremating ash-men tornado back into being with swept-up crisp-packets and cigarette-butts become a part of them, girls who lost their virginities to worms tear themselves free of the soil and walk into strangers’ houses, six-month-old babies who never got to see snow help themselves to all the sweets in supermarkets, mini-markets, the hour resounds with mingled screams of horror and orgasm, “Life is wasted on the living!” they cackle and howl spitting out mouthfuls of sod, they’re all along the seafront pissing in the seafront and they infest “Adventure Island” and snog on the rollercoasters, in “Top Shop” they put on as many clothes as they can plus all the make-up, they chase shadows, “We!” cry those who were damned as witches, “are free now to be everything you said we were,” they wake the sleeping and make them dance till their ankles break, they loot the off-licenses and make gutters run with wine and beer and fizz, they smear shit on ATMs and grin toothless at spiked-hissing cats, they give machine-guns to eight-year-olds, atom-bombs to teenagers, they steal policemen’s clothes and crash their cars, they make men shit footballs, they set the astral-dream-image of famous footballers to guard the gates of Orgasm, they lie in wait in bookies to rape horse-gamblers, they surge for Southend Airport and order a hundred planes to land at the same time same runway, they bake cakes as best they can, they catapult grannies and babies as high as treetops and someone catches them every time, they make the moon show her true colours, they blackplague the pompous with idiot visions of talking snakes, they award themselves dubious doctorates in medicine and at the hospital they transplant taste-buds into anuses. Zombies on our streets! Who knew!
But no. Just me and Cunning Murrell and Hadleigh High Street at night: “It’s this place that died, not you.” All roads lead away from here. I get my dirty hands dirtier, resting one gently on his back as we walk, away from St. James the Less, I leave my shovel and the dug-up grave and the toppled-over bench, some other fucker can deal with it. We walk, the traffic-lights:
“Green man…” He’s amazed: “Green man…”
“Yeah,” a bewildering siren calls him to the other side. My hand on his back.
He looks nervously along the street: “Did we make something that ate us? This, this is too much, I…”
“This is nothing.” Castle Lane: Murrell, small and even smaller with his skin off, although he has got that hat, and of course his umbrella in one hand as well, studies what was once his house: “PAUL NEWMAN INTERIORS.” The slogan on the shop’s windows: “And Your Bathroom Has A Name.” “What? That’s like something I would come up with: ‘And Your Bathroom Has A Name’!”
“Yes,” agrees Mr. Murrell. Also on the corner, opposite us, we are gratified with another bit of graffiti: some bold Joycean has sprayed “TuLip” under a sign saying: “PANASONIC… audio visual… PIONEER.” We walk, away from the church, down a slight slope: the jingle of a cat’s collar. The stern eye of the “Neighbourhood Watch” signs peering down kindly but firmly from poles, on them is a black-and-white picture in a yellow circle on a white rectangle, the picture shows a husband and wife and their daughter, with a good old British bobby smiling over their shoulders. Offshoot cul-de-sacs named after trees: down this road the houses get bigger and bigger until halfway down they stop, the road continues though, with fields at its sides now not houses, fields and farms. “The cunning-men and the wise-women were the ones who survived. It was easier by your time: people were smarter, they didn’t hang witches because witches had been mostly disproved by Science; the last of the Witchcraft Acts reclassified the offence as a category of Fraud.”
“I was never safe! I defied powerful people my entire life: maybe I didn’t risk my neck but a charge of Fraud would have been hardly less ruinous. I defied the powerful right to the very end.”
“True.” He’s remembering his death-bed: his surviving children attended him, he’d already given them certain instructions: “Whatever time I die, that was the time I prophesied I would die.” The wise-ones, the cunning-ones, know there’s a fine line between Fraud and Artistry.
But this man here doesn’t know anything about that: this man, the curate, has ingratiated himself into the household against the express wishes of the dying Murrell, this man has come to darken James’s last moments: “You have perhaps profaned your Religion but there is still time to…”
“I’m a very religious person!” coughs the cunning-man. “I can recite the Bible backwards!” He resists the urge to add: “And I sometimes do.”
The churchman has come to administer Last Rites but Murrell is more than capable: no spiritual authority outranks his, certainly not that of this pale dogcollared little prig, this smallminded secretary who seeks and deserves the company of sheep. “Repent! Admit before your offspring for their souls too are at stake; admit it was lies or games, confess that much! Lest God declines to rain favour upon your spells and magics; lest the Devil…”
“I!” roars the dying man, sitting himself up with half the effort he has left in him, fixing this stalebreadcrust representative of a hollow church with a well-practiced evil-eye, “I am the Devil’s master!” The nonentity flees from the house leaving James to die in the company of his children. His last words: “All… All my previous prophecies are overturned. I see now: there will be witches around these parts forever. How can there not be… now?” He dies.
“True,” I soothe his wounded pride, “you stood firm to the end. And they wanted to get you for worse than Fraud: there were several snide and unspecific allegations that you were performing abortions and…”
“For shame!” he cries. “That I would ever think of murdering a child! The most heinous crime of all!”
I snort amusement down my nostrils: “Things have changed a bit since your day.”
“Your day,” he echoes: the road has become a tractor-scarred mud-path. Now a metal gate, spiked; a sign on it says: “The public have permission from English Heritage to enter this land on foot for recreation but this permission may be withdrawn at any time.” I can’t resist, I stick one of my “DON’T READ THESE WORDS!” stickers over those words, then we enter the wind-blown grass grounds of the castle: “Yes, tell me about your day.” He tries his evil-eye, old bone and dirt and absence: “Child of comfort! What risks did you ever take? All your occult lore is merely a safe glamour to wrap around yourself.”
“Oh you think? I’ve got plants and powders in my bedroom that could get me stuck in a cage at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.”
Here: the castle at night, a Norman portrait of power and decline, used to be you’d sometimes see lights, highwaymen or smugglers or ghosts, but the lights now are further away and creepier, redprick hell-dots over the Kent shore. “What… What…”
“Power-stations. You should see it in the daytime: there are chimneys over there bigger than anything you’ve ever had in your head ever! Even the interiors of the public-toilets back that way would sci-fry your brain or the worms that have taken its place, James, James, what is my bathroom’s fucking name?”
He’s stuck on the sight of Canvey Island: “How can there be so many houses?” We walk round, against the loud wind, to the south-east tower: the castle, something familiar for him to cling to, cold stone against cold him. “I wish you hadn’t brought me back. Why did you bring me back?”
“To see if you had anything to teach us.” He’s leaning against the ruined tower, he wants to slump to his exposed kneecaps but I won’t let him, I turn him round and point, out and down, the dark Thames: to our left a line of lights suggests a heavenly road reaching halfway across the river here where it becomes sea: “The pier,” I explain. “Did you have that in your time?” He nods queasily. “What about the Crow Stone? That’s there somewhere.”
“The Crow Stone. I think it… Yes…”
“Our crow phallus canarywharfing out of the sand and water…” A grey obelisk seaweeded purple and green, it marks the limit of the City of London’s authority. “I like that, James: the Crown comes this far, but…” I gesture to my left, beyond the Crow Stone, the estuary, the brightlight roads and houses of Leigh, with Southend beyond it obscured by the shore’s twists, “Here is where authority ends! Home to freebooters and ronin, smugglers and dodgers, partyharders and autonomous zoners, gunrunning poets, the untaxed, the tribes, and of course the government-inspectors always trying to inspect us.” The swoop of my hand becomes a single finger pointing: “I grew up there, you can’t see it from here, the Kursaal, that big black shining tit dome, pride of Southend seafront! Inside the splendid insides of that pleasure-palace they had ‘The Wall Of Death,’ James, long before I was born, they had a vertical wall on which daredevils used to race and trick each other up and down and all around on motorbikes! George ‘Tornado’ Smith kept a lioness, she sat on the crossbar as he rode! Half these words mean nothing to you, do they.” He’s slumped on the floor, I’m not sure if he’s fainted. “James ‘Cunning’ Murrell: you did a great job. You lived. And so did George ‘Tornado’ Smith.”
So! To all the witches – and we’re all witches one way or another whether we care to admit it, we all fly off in the night and sometimes in the day too, we’re all glamourous in our own legends, we churn and desire as we calculate arcane arithmetics whose import we do not presume to pretend to understand – to all the witches: on behalf of a brighter millennium I say sorry for what you were forced to endure, I say thank-you for what you chose to endure, and I say goodbye; and if all the cunning-man’s Art amounts to one Wish then I wish future ages may have good cause to forget me same as I have so many better things to be doing than fretting over the imps and gargoyles and travesties of the silly past. Relativity! Queerpunk! £39.95 flights to Europe, inclusive of tax, Mr. Murrell, inclusive of bleeding tax! Cheap tryptamines bought off the Internet! Spirit guides! Pierced nipples! Debbie Does Dallas! Guy Fawkes masks in Tahir Square! Helicopters! Jetpacks! Sushi bars! Smart-ware! Magic bus! Butterfly-effects! Nudism! Kamaclipse! Indeterminacy! DIY gods! Transgender! It’s all art! Vote yourself in! Blue hair! Trampolines! Biologism! Sky-writing! Thelema! The high frontier! Live longerer! If aliens don’t exist we’ll invent them! Wikipedia! Water-bombs! Superman! Nanohack! Schoolkids on strike! Camp! Libraries! Fully immersive game-worlds! Genetic-Splicing kits for 12 Years And Under! Rollerskates! Bondage! Beat! World Records! Swimming-pools! Multiculture! Reverb! Eighty-eight cures for cancer! Power-shower! Be anyone! Furry handcuffs! Buildings that build themselves better! Cubismism! Rainbow-dyed skin! Play-hells! Sports in zero-gravity! Moving things with your mind! Intelligence über über! Sex on the moon! Cosmic immortality or die trying! Sex on the moon!