A short story about a disgruntled office worker who crosses paths with a seventeenth century Staffordshire witch…….
You can read more about Molly Leigh here.
Amber says I’ve got fat fingers. Yes, Amber Rowlands. Her of the orange skin, cow eyelashes and bee-stung gob. Or as she puts it, guitar-shaped hips and blow-job lips. The office bike has a problem with me. She’s twenty-nine, she’s got a halo and angel’s wings on her profile, and she thinks I’m the weirdo.
‘What would you do if you won the lottery, Mill?’ she says, and we all have to play along for at least the fifth time that month. I tune out, already knowing Debbie wants a house off Grand Designs, Kayleigh wants a white Porsche that goes ‘like shit off a shovel’ and Diane wants to retire and knit booties for sick kiddies. Amber’s made my life hell. She says my fat fingers are like the pink, pudgy bangers her Dean sticks on the barbecue. ‘Her Dean’ left her for a mobile hairdresser. ‘He soon came running back when he heard I’d get everything,’ she said. How am I supposed to help what my fingers look like? Even if I stop going to Maccies and cut out the salted caramel bites it isn’t going to make my fingers any slimmer. Amber’s got a list of things about me that offend her. She sent them round on Whatsapp, her inner circle group. Top of the list is being ginger, then there’s having a boomer phone, no boyfriend, and liking music she hates. Oh, and reading books. See, I don’t conform and that’s my sin. I don’t talk about my sex life or my ovaries; I don’t spend Saturdays drooling in the window of Pandora. I don’t have a gym membership. I hate passing mirrors. I’m thirty-seven and I’m getting bullied at work like it’s the school playground.
What Amber doesn’t know – and this the wonderful irony – is that it’s her fault I met Molly. Well, sort of. It was the fat fingers she hates so much that made me hit ‘O’ on the keys when I should’ve hit ‘I.’ And I swear to God that the moment I hit that key a crow tapped the glass of my bedroom window.
Tapping ‘O’ changed my life. It meant no more doormat for me. No getting whispered about or having my screen display turned upside down when I forgot to lock it. Or having to present the engagement stats at the monthly meeting when we’d screwed up. Or getting all the really nasty, noxious complaints on social media to deal with. Or having my coffee mug pinched. O Why should I feel bad about doing what I did?
She says I’m a ginger, making the Gs hard when she says them, so they rhyme with ringer or finger. Banter, she calls it. ‘That a new hairdo, Mill? It’s good to see you haven’t given up…entirely.’ Sometimes she calls me Millicent. My parents were dull, but they weren’t sadists, I tell her. I was christened Milly. Amber has taken to posting stuff publicly and I feature in lists she’s made. ‘The People in Your Office’ was one she’d adapted from a newspaper article. I was number 8. ‘Invisible, no boyfriend, cats on her profile, knitting in her top drawer, buys the milk and teabags to win friends.’ I typed Milly Lee, a local search. My fat fingers made me hit the ‘O’ and so I typed Molly by mistake and swore. I was going to clear the search when an old, cracked photo of a woman with a crow on her shoulder stopped me. It was perished at the corners as if it’d been freed from an album. There were photos of the same woman standing beneath a fingerpost in a country lane. The woman was called Sybil Leek and she’d reputedly been part of Aleister Crowley’s circle. She was from Staffordshire and went about claiming to be a descendant of Molly’s before she’d left for America. I began to read and soon understood what had attracted Sybil to Molly. Everyone hated Molly and said she was an ugly bitch, and she didn’t care. She lived on her own and never went to church. She sold milk and she sang as she did so. She had a black crow, or maybe a blackbird, that perched on her shoulder, went everywhere with her.
I glanced out of my bedroom window. There was a crow perched on the Johnson’s TV aerial. He tilted his head and stared at me. Hello Molly Leigh, I said. A woodcut had given her a great hook jaw and black, piercing eyes. Her skin was lumpy as porridge and pocked. They’d cursed the poor woman and taunted her since she was knee-high, rumour and myth attaching themselves to fact until it was impossible to know what was true. But she was a real woman, born in 1685 with church records and deeds and property. They said she ate solids almost from birth, rejecting her mother’s breast to suckle on animals. That she behaved like an adult as a little girl. That she stole from them, watering down the milk that she sold. She lived in a thatched cottage long since pulled down and swallowed up as part of Stoke. The forest that surrounded it had been chopped down to build factories, potteries, and endless streets of red-brick terraces. But her grave was still there.
Monday morning. I hadn’t sat down when Mr Haskins called me in. He motioned for me to sit down opposite, without looking up. I’d worked for him long enough to recognise I was in trouble. His cheeks were ruddy – he was a known drinker – and his hair fuzzed at the crown where he’d run his fingers through it. He still didn’t look up from his screen. ‘The deadline is eleven and it’s already half nine,’ he said.
‘I thought I’d sent it.’ As my mother would say: You know what thought did. I dashed over to my desk, tapped in the password, and waited while the screen buffered. I clicked through to My Docs, but the file wasn’t where it should be. I closed the folder and re-opened it. It was no longer there. I tried again. I checked the recycle bin, my heart thumping faster. There was no sign of the report I’d spent two days writing and updating. ‘I’m waiting,’ Mr Haskins said, from the doorway. I held my hands clasped to my face in prayer. Amber was staring at me, dead-eyed, the faintest twitch of a grin on those bee-stung lips.
Misery Monday they called it. Drinks were half-price with deals on spirits and, even though the week had hardly begun, there were plenty of office workers prepared to get ‘shit-faced’ as they put it, falling-over drunk. I wasn’t asked to go, I just tagged along. ‘Christ, you must’ve had a bad day, Mill, if you’re hitting the bottle.’ I’d had Haskins shouting at me for an hour. He’d closed his door, but you didn’t need to be able to lipread to know I was going to be performance-managed until further notice. I ordered a double scotch. ‘You don’t hang about, Mills,’ Amber said. She thought I didn’t see the wink to the others. I poured it under the stool when she was checking her lippy in the mirror. It had been pouring down outside so the floor was puddled and no one was going to notice a cheap scotch tossed on the woodblock. I got Amber a vodka, then another. Her eyes got misty, and her face flushed, and she got louder. She got more tactile, tapping forearms and stroking hands and winking. ‘Soz about what went on,’ she said. Was this an admission? She leaned in close, her perfume stinging my eyes. She was on her fourth double vodka and Coke. I’d sniffed and tossed two scotches and left another to a guy in a baseball cap with the legend ‘Muff Diver’ on it. He’d downed it and was minesweeping for empties. ‘You got stitched good and proper, Mill.’
‘In what way?’
Amber jabbed a finger towards the toilets as Debbie came out. ‘She knows what she did, the bitch.’ Amber stifled a burp. ‘When you were in the kitchen she was looking at your screen. Now, I’m not saying that she did anything but….’
‘What’re you saying about me?’ Debbie asked.
‘Just that you’re a star,’ Amber said, and clasped a hand on her shoulder. I got us another round in and told Amber her hair would look great if she wore it down. She’d come from the gym and still had it up in a bobble. She must’ve been drunk cos she didn’t bite when I suggested ‘trying a few things.’ I wanted her bobble. ‘Ouch. Go easy,’ she said. ‘There you go, it’s great when you wear it down.’ I went to the toilets and set the bobble down on the enamel sink. There must’ve been five or six of Amber’s frizzy hairs, with the roots still attached. I watched from the toilet door as a bloke I’d never seen before set Amber up with another drink. She slumped forward on the bar her chin supported by the heel of her hand. I put the bobble and hairs in a freezer bag in my pocket and slipped out into the frosty night.
It was bucketing down when I got off at Longport. It was getting dark, and the trucks were soaking the pavement with floodwater from potholes and gutters, so I pulled up my hood and took shelter from the rain in an empty shop doorway. I passed forgotten churches and chapels, a pottery works being demolished and a high street of chips and kebabs and fried chicken, Turkish barbers, and taxi firms. It was quite a climb and I kept close to the buildings to try and stay out of the slanting rain. A strong wind had got up and I kept an anxious eye on the crumbling ledges and chimney pots above. This part of the city seemed old, with cobbled stretches of lane and brick warehouses backing onto the canal. There was a sign for a lap-dancing training school with a silhouette of a pole dancer pinned to a crumbling grey building.
St John’s was on a bend at the bottom of the bank. This was the Mother Town of the Potteries. Three brick bottle kilns stood in fenced-off waste ground where busted mattresses and sofa cushions had been slung into the weeds and buddleia over the rusting fence. The churchyard was surrounded by empty streets, a hand-car wash with motifs of soap bubbles rising into the clouds, and a line of seventies terraces. I’d phoned in sick, knowing everyone would blame it on drink but hardly caring. I spent the morning checking what I’d read online and replying to a few emails I’d received from a woman in Chicago who had been happy to give me guidance and instruction. It must be amazing to live where you do, she wrote. So much history! And I bet Molly’s a local hero. Hardly. There was a blackboard tied to a lamppost with ‘Molly’s Cafe – 8am-2pm’ written on it in silvery pen. There was little else to point to the witch’s existence. I ran across the car park into the church porch, stooping into the tiny door beneath a sandstone arch to get out of the rain. My fringe was plastered to my forehead and my jacket steamed in the cold air. Molly’s Café was a greasy spoon, patio chairs set out around an awning with twinkling lights in a transport yard. I could’ve done with a hot chocolate, but it was closed, long since bolted, and padlocked.
I needn’t have worried about finding Molly’s grave. I’d favourited a pic of it in case, but there was no missing the stone table that was at right angles to all the other graves beside St John’s. There was no inscription. I crouched and checked all around the stone for initials or scrapes, but there was nothing. Molly’s grave was a little like a desk, a block of stones with a shelf on top. There were dips in the top stone where the rainwater gathered and puddled. ‘Are you well, Molly?’ I took an apple from my bag. It had been there two or three days, a forgotten lunch, but it was an offering of sorts. I set it down on her grave and took a few steps back, so I was sheltered from the rain by the walls of the church. St John’s had seen better days; it’s windows were fenced off with wire frames and there were CCTV cameras and warning signs about toppling headstones. I tried to imagine this place when Molly lived here, and it was thick woodland and streams and cattle grazing all around. When she’d sold her milk and been accused of watering it down by her neighbours. I took out my phone and read the words I’d saved.
Weight and measure sold I never,
Milk and water sold I ever
As I repeated them there was a rustling behind me. My heart thumped and I leapt back against the brick wall and turned to see a white polythene carrier bag, rise, and drift toward me. I stood perfectly still, as it passed within centimetres of my face. I felt the cold brick against my neck. The bag seemed to hover and then it dropped, crinkling, as it fell to the floor. Rainwater pounded it from a busted church gutter, pinning it to the flagstones. My heart raced. When I turned I saw that the apple had gone from Molly’s tomb.
I checked the gravestones around Molly’s, wondering if the apple had rolled or blown behind them. Alice, wife of Thomas Daniel, departed this life on 14 February in the year 1759. Valentine’s Day. ‘I’ve never had a Valentine’s card either, Molly,’ I shouted into the wind. The words were blown back at me. There had been a card last year, but it was a pretend one from Simon Hillman in Accounts and Amber had put him up to it.
Molly’s grave was at right angles to all of the other graves. This was done to try and settle her restless spirit. I took photos of her grave and the small stone trough beside it where they’d tried to force her wandering, troubled spirit. It seemed odd there was no plaque here, no sign of Molly’s life and death. Perhaps the council feared Satanists or freaks like me showing up to pay their respects or raise the dead and didn’t want it on the tourism list.
I was crouching to get a pic of the trough when a bird flapped its wings and took off, cawing loudly. I saw what he had been pecking at in the trough. The crow took off through the trees and over the abandoned land and bottle kilns with a fleshy, white piece of apple in his beak. Molly’s familiar. I no longer felt the cold or the rain. I repeated the rhyme again and again, raising my head to the night and the driving rain. ‘We could be sisters, Molly. Help me, Molly.’ I blinked away the cold rain, my vision blurred so I could only see the faint glow of streetlamps and porch lights in the houses across the graveyard. ‘I know you’re here, Molly. You sent me a sign. Help me, Molly.’ Yet nothing happened. The carrier bag lay where it had fallen, pinned to the pavement with rainfall from the broken gutter. Shards of apple lay in the trough, where the crow had pecked and stabbed at them. I’d hoped for more, but I was elated. Molly had sent me a sign. The woman in Chicago said the crow had been Molly’s familiar. Molly had gone everywhere with her crow or blackbird – no one seemed sure – on her shoulder. I unzipped my bag and took a mesh pouch from the pocket where I kept my pills. I ran round and round the tabletop tomb like a schoolgirl, chanting the rhyme over and over, stamping my feet in the puddles and turning my head up to the sky as the rain lashed down. The pouch rested on the tomb. It was tied with a ribbon and had two things inside. There was a wish I wanted Molly to grant written in copperplate writing with Indian ink. And there were those strands of Amber’s jet-black hair caught in the bobble.
I went back into work on the Thursday, so my sick wouldn’t be taken as a hangover. Amber was usually in first, straight from the gym with damp hair and glistening skin. She’d corner someone by the water cooler, and we’d all be forced to listen to an interminable conversation about lap times, or recovery or carbs or something. There was no sign of Amber – her coat wasn’t on her chair and her porridge box was untouched. ‘What the heck does he want?’ Debbie said. I turned and saw the crow was on the window ledge. He turned and tap-tapped the glass, his eyes staring at us. Debbie tried to shoo him, but he wouldn’t budge.
‘Amber not in today?’
‘She took some leave,’ Debbie said.
‘She not well?’
Debbie rested her palms on her hips. ‘What makes you say that?’ She waved a magazine at the window, but the crow didn’t budge.
I shrugged. ‘Nothing, just wondered.’
A few weeks passed with no news of Amber returning to the office. She hadn’t been on Facebook or Insta either which was weird. No one was talking about her which was odd too. They were proper gossips and there was no chatter or disappearing off to the kitchen or toilets which meant they knew something. I was going to ask Debbie or Michelle when Mr Haskins strolled out into the space between our desks and clapped his hands. He seemed tired and took off his glasses to huff on them and wipe them before he spoke. ‘OK, now listen up,’ he said. ‘I’ve got some news I need to share about Amber.’ Debbie glanced at me and looked away when I met her gaze. Mr Haskins clasped his hands and stared down at his shoes. ‘This really isn’t an easy message to deliver,’ he said. He was interrupted by the crow hopping along the window ledge, tap-tapping at the glass.
She’d planned something in the conference room, but it turned out she couldn’t face it. It was typical that when Amber was on a downer she instantly became the victim and got everyone’s full attention and support. Amber said she’d see a few of her close colleagues ‘and Milly too.’ We trooped down the corridor clutching phones, pens, and pads for want of something to do with our hands. Amber sat at the far end of the meeting room table; her head bowed. She wore a pink baseball cap, pulled down. The others started asking her if she were OK, and could they do anything. She said she felt a bit faint. Debbie got her a glass of water. I said she should take off her cap if she was flushed. ‘You’re not even aware, are you Milly?’ Debbie snapped. ‘No, it’s OK,’ Amber said, glancing up. ‘It’s not Millicent’s fault. She’s not to know.’
‘If I’ve said something wrong then I’m sorry but…’
Michelle told me to button it. ‘It’s about Amber for once, not you.’
Amber raised her head and spoke in a soft, hushed tone I’d never heard her use before. ‘I don’t know what has happened to me these last few weeks,’ she began. ‘I felt odd first. I was tired and I was so, so sad. I kept crying and then…..’ Debbie patted Amber’s shoulder as she struggled to stifle tears. ‘And then this happened. I want to prepare you for….’ Amber whipped off the baseball cap and, although they must’ve known, there were gasps. Amber was bald, save for a few strands of hair at her fringe and her crown. Her skull was like a white swimming cap. She said it was called alopecia. ‘The doctors say it’s stress. Anyone can get it.’ Amber was given a box of tissues. ‘Will it come back?’ ‘How are you?’ I squeezed out of the room, making apologies. ‘You’re very brave,’ Debbie said. I gripped the ledge and stared out of the landing window. It couldn’t be. I ran some cold water in the toilets and splashed my face and neck. I tried to remember what I’d said and done at Molly’s grave. It had to be a coincidence. Later, when everyone had gone home, I was catching up on a report when the tapping came again at the window at twilight. ‘Go away,’ I shouted. It didn’t stop. When I looked up the crow was on the ledge, tilting its head and staring at me. At first I took it for cloth or thread, but when I went to the window I saw what it held. The crow’s beak was stuffed with long strands of jet-black hair.
The next morning Mr Haskins said we needed to speak ‘urgently’ about my progress. I opened my desk drawer and took out a model of a Mercedes SLR. It was the same model and same ghostly silver as Mr Haskin’s. I ran it across the desk into a box-folder, so it tipped it on its side so the wheels span. I laughed. Tonight, I’d be taking it to Molly’s grave. Then we’d see about performance managing Milly.