LOOKING FOR THE WITCHES (Part 1 of 11)

Consciousness becomes a gas and fills the room, awareness lingers, slowly dissipates; there is only this flesh. These bones. And my voice: I prophesy graffiti onto all the walls, throbbing pink letters, words you can’t quite read. First…

FIRST THE FACTS

But why “an unmarked grave”? Sitting on a bench with the church and all the very much marked  graves behind me, a tree and a wall and the London-bound traffic in front of my bowed head, I contemplate the documents in my hands and keep coming back to that question: why was he buried in an unmarked grave? For sure he clashed frequently with the church and its con-job authorities, but if he was nonetheless allowed to be buried in so-called consecrated ground alongside all those children of his then why not a proper memorial, a stone with his name and dates on?

James Murrell, c.1780-1860. He was born in Rochford, like me. He was the seventh son of a seventh son: unlike me. In his early adulthood he trained as a chemist in the capital before returning to Essex, setting down roots in Hadleigh with his wife Elizabeth, née Button; if I lift my eyes from my papers and look across the road I can see the house I think must have been theirs, a rented cottage that’s now a shop, “KITCHENS – BATHROOMS – PAUL NEWMAN INTERIORS,” it faces the south door of St. James the Less Church. And James the not-so-Less, James the More! lived for the rest of his life opposite this building and yes they sometimes clashed, “a dangerous quack and a disseminator of superstitions” the ecclesiastics called him, but they too visited when their own prayers and petitions failed. In his day-job James was a cobbler, he fixed people’s shoes, but by night he worked on some other sort of souls, he also fixed people or at least he tried, with his magic-numbers and his herbs and his books: Agrippa, “De Occulta Philosophia,” “If in the beginning of thy work thou shalt perceive that Rats have gnawn thy garments, desist from thy undertakings.” Nostradamus, “The Prophecies,” “At the time of the completion of the great seventh number, when appear the games of slaughter, not far from the grand Millennium, the buried will come out from their graves.” William Lilly, “Supernatural Sights And Apparitions,” “Could I but remove Saturn out of the eleventh house, or if Mercury could have been more elongated from the Dragon’s Tail, peace would instantly follow in England.” Francis Barrett, “The Magus,” “Therefore the places most fitting for these things are churchyards. And better than them are those places devoted to the execution of criminals; and better than these are those places where of late years there have been so great and so many public slaughters of men.” Nicholas Culpeper, “Opus Astrologicum,” “Do not judge rashly that the absent party is dead: it may be he is but drunk.” These nighttime interests gained our man the nickname by which he is, barely, remembered: Cunning Murrell.

James the cunning-man: soon he could afford to give up the day-job, he was a full-time worker on people now. It seems that pretty much every piece of writing concerning him is compelled to sneer that, yes, he charged for his services: as though he didn’t have to eat, pay rent! As though the churchmen opposite weren’t on the payroll! As though he didn’t have dependents…

In 1814 his and Elizabeth’s first child is born, William, he dies that same month. A year later, another boy, another go at “William,” another little corpse. Next year, a girl, Maria, they get to watch her grow. Soon after, 1817, another girl, Rebecca, she dies aged four months. 1818: Eliza. 1820: Matilda. 1821: Ellen. 1823: Mary. Mary dies, three weeks old, and Ellen follows soon after, she managed a couple of years. 1824: Edward. 1825: Another William, he lasts two weeks. 1827 brings twins, Peter and Paul, neither of them complete their first summer. 1830: Louisa. 1831: the seventh son of a seventh son of a seventh son, another William, dies after thirteen weeks. 1833: George, dies after nine months. 1834 sees the arrival of the sixteenth of their sixteen children, Eleanor. No more births, but: in 1837 Maria, the oldest daughter, dies aged twenty-one. A couple of years later her mother follows her: “inflammation of the chest.” All buried in St. James the Less churchyard, and one more burial for Cunning Murrell to have to witness before his own: 1852, Matilda, in her early thirties. Sixteen children of whom four outlived their father! It was a different world.

1860: James “Cunning” Murrell dies. And is buried in an unmarked grave, here. On his death-certificate under “Occupation” they wrote “Quack-doctor.”

St. James the Less: it occupies its own little island in the traffic. London Road, the A13, splits in two to accommodate the twelfth century stonework in the middle of the comatose row of shops and shoppers that constitutes the High Street – and pretty much the entirety – of Hadleigh. Save for the one crumbling attraction for which “Castle Lane” gets its name this is a nothing sort of place with a graveyard at its centre. I get up from the bench, temporarily bag my papers and pocket my pen and walk three times around that graveyard: fell asleep… entered into rest… passed away… passed over… passed to his reward… promoted to glory… called to higher service… called suddenly to his heavenly home… No, these places need privacy, I sigh; there’s just too much road around here. An exhaust-fume halo. Back to the bench, I sit down, look up: to the front of me and just slightly to the left is a cherry-tree, behind that the church’s wall then the road, then a fish-and-chip-shop: to the right of that there’s “HAIRPORT” then a McDonald’s then a pub, The Castle, it has “Ye Old ‘Castle’ Inn” tasteful like above its entrance; to the left of the chippy there’s “PAUL NEWMAN INTERIORS,” the house Cunning Murrell once lived in. Above the nice-nice kitchens and bathrooms is printed a phone-number: 01702 552868. Add each of those individual numbers up and get forty-four which, if all my wasted years were not wasted, by Qabalah means BLOOD. Four plus four… Did Murrell sit on this bench, I wonder? Would there even have been a bench then? I imagine so, and I imagine him here, facing away from the church, looking at his home, not seeing the stonecross ranks that one day would surely claim him, perhaps not seeing his house either, his mind engrossed in higher architectures, more powerful names and numbers.

So why no memorial? Probably he didn’t want to be bothered. He achieved a certain notoriety in his own time and I’m sure he hoped his name would persist, would resonate: so, please, a certain privacy. And to die as he lived: aloof, mysterious. And, if he really was party to any secrets, any forbidden knowledge, to keep them close to him, to keep them a secret?

And then it hits me: the cherry-tree, one of its overdangling limbs, dips in the wind and strikes my head. I look up: a smashed vase of blue inbetween the branches. I look down: the church’s wall, waist-high. I look down: the bench is unconvincingly fastened to a smooth stone slab laid on the grass.

Cunning Murrell! I know now, I know where you got yourself buried. “A Wizard Of Yesteryear” someone called you once in a fond magazine-article. Cunning Murrell: how’s about one more spell for Tomorrow?

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