The ambulance passed the Figaro at the turning from the dual carriageway to the estate. Apart from pulling up to let it pass, Sarah Jane didn’t think anything of it. Nor did the three teenagers she was ferrying home from school on a Friday night that was routine even for her. When they turned into Bannerman Road, though, and saw that the ambulance was parked opposite Sarah Jane’s house, next to a police car, they all started to worry.
“Dad!” Maria exclaimed anxiously. Sarah Jane stopped the car long enough for her to dive out before turning into the drive and parking properly. Maria dashed across the road and around the ambulance and was relieved to see her dad standing by the gate of the house next door talking to a policeman.
“Dad! Oh, no. Is it Mrs Hanley?”
“I’m afraid so,” Alan Jackson said as he put his arm around his daughter’s shoulders and finished giving his statement to the policeman. “When I got home from work, I noticed she hadn’t brought in her milk. She always has six bottles, for all her cats. But they were still out on the doorstep. I looked in the window and she was lying there on the rug with the cats all milling around her. So I called 999, and then I broke the pane in the back door and got in there to see if I could help. But she’d obviously been dead since this morning.”
The policeman seemed satisfied with that and after taking his full name, address and phone number, moved on.
“Oh, dad!” Maria bit back tears. She always liked Mrs Hanley and her cats. The old lady was a lot like her own gran, but much closer to home. And the cats were all nice and clean and purred when she stroked them.
And now Mrs Hanley was gone. Her dad squeezed her shoulder a little tighter as they watched the paramedics bring the body out, covered by a blanket. There were murmurs all around from the neighbours who stood watching, and speculation that she had been ‘done over’ by burglars.
“It didn’t look like it,” Alan said. “There was no struggle. Nothing obviously missing. I think she went to sit down on her chair and missed, and couldn’t get up again. That’s all.”
One of the cats, a white and black one, came down the path, meowing plaintively. Maria picked it up and stroked it.
“The RSPCA are coming,” her dad told her. “To collect the cats. The police officer said we can go in and feed them and sort things out while we wait for them to come.”
“Alan,” Sarah Jane said as she joined them from across the road. “I’ll come in with you, if you don’t mind. There was something Mrs Hanley said to me a day or two ago, and I’d better check…. Anyway, Luke and Clyde are up in the attic playing computer games. They’ll be all right for a bit…”
Sarah Jane was obviously upset, too. She was usually more coherent than that when she talked. They waited until the ambulance drove away, followed by the police car. The neighbours dispersed now there was nothing to see. The three of them walked together up the garden path to the house.
As soon as Alan closed the door behind them, the cats all made themselves known. Four of them, apart from the one Maria was still holding rubbed up against their legs and meowed loudly. Maria looked at the name tag on the collar of the white and black one and noted that it was called Molly.
“Hello, Molly,” she said, scratching the cat’s ears. “I bet you’ve missed your meals today. Come on, let’s go to the kitchen and get you and your pals something to eat and drink.”
The milk had been in the shade and it was a cold day anyway, so it was still relatively fresh. Maria divided a whole bottle between the five bowls on the floor and the cats lapped it up appreciatively while she opened several tins of cat food and put that down as well. The cats were happy. She wondered what else she could do, and decided to put the kettle on. There was still plenty of milk left and it would only go to waste. Mrs Hanley wouldn’t be needing it….
She didn’t mean the thought to come out like that. It seemed cold and mean and that wasn’t how she really felt.
It made her cry. She stood by the window, looking out onto the back garden lawn with one single cat toy in the middle of it and cried. Then she heard the electric kettle click off as it boiled. She dried her eyes and made coffee for three and brought the tray to the living room.
A house where one old lady and lots of cats lived ought, by all expectations, to be smelly and unpleasant. It wasn’t. It was actually a really nice room with a faint smell of furniture polish and roses. The remains of one of those scented candles that turns to oil in the metal container sat on the coffee table where Maria put the tray.
Sarah Jane was obviously looking for something. She went through all of the drawers in the sideboard and didn’t find it. Then she turned to the glass cabinet full of the more valuable china and crystal ornaments. There was a small drawer at the top of it. she opened it carefully.
“What are you looking for?” Maria asked.
“Not looking, found,” she answered. She turned and came to sit on the sofa. She had a small, slim, leather-bound notebook in her hands. She opened it and showed Maria what was written on the first page.
“Sarah Jane Smith, I know you can be trusted. You and I were always two of a kind. We were both people who know there is more to the world than can be seen with ordinary eyes. That’s why I know I can trust you to carry out my instructions when I’m gone.”
“She left you a message… for in case…”
“Not in case… for when. She knew it was going to be soon. Last week… I was walking by, and she told me… to look for the notebook. I didn’t like to ask why at the time. I hadn’t had a lot to do with her in the last year or so. I used to visit more regularly. But I’ve been so busy lately. I’m sorry I didn’t pay more attention. But anyway, Mrs Hanley and I understood each other. She knew there was something about me. And I knew there was something about her.”
“What?” Maria asked.
“She was a witch,” Sarah Jane answered.
“She… what!” Alan looked upset by that. “I mean… come on. She lives in Bannerman Road, suburbia! Lived, I mean…. Sarah Jane… it’s not really good taste. The poor woman is barely cold and you... I mean… broomsticks and…”
“No, that’s all just silliness. Real witches don’t do that. She wasn’t the sort to go dressing up and chanting around bonfires at midnight. She just cast the occasional spell and read the future… tarot cards, palms, tea leaves, that sort of thing. She didn’t do anything to harm anyone. Mostly she used her spells in her cooking, to get a sponge to cook right or her home made bread to rise properly.”
“But… she didn’t look like a witch. This doesn’t look like a witch’s house.”
“Well, it wouldn’t, I suppose,” Alan pointed out. “If she was a… what is it? White witch?”
“I’m not sure,” Sarah Jane answered. “I think some of that sort of thing is just fantasy. I think a witch it a witch. It just depends what you do with the power.”
Alan still didn’t look happy about the idea that he had been living next door to a witch, even if she only used her powers for cooking. He’d eaten a lot of her bread and cakes since they moved around here.
“Well, anyway, what’s in the message?” Maria asked. “What does she want you to do?”
“Take her cats to new homes,” Sarah Jane answered. “She made a list of names and addresses. Five of them. One for each cat. “taken to Mrs Anne Grey of Rose Cottage, Teddington Lock. Bessie is to stay with Miss Minnie Lipton of 41 Pearly Avenue, Acton. Penny is to go to Lou Thomas of 23 Bow Lane, Putney. Sukie goes to Mrs Bridget Armitage of Shaw Road, Guildford. And lastly, Molly, should be taken to Mrs Patricia Jackson of Marsh View House, Peasmarsh, East Sussex.”
Maria and her dad both shouted out at once. Sarah Jane was startled by the sharp tone in both their voices.
“What’s the matter?”
“That’s my gran,” Maria said.
“My mother,” Alan confirmed. “Why is she… listed… among those other women… as… as… recipients of a cat… a… witch’s cat?”
“Because…” Sarah Jane chose her words carefully. “Alan… Maria… these women… well… they must all be witches, from the same coven as Mrs Hanley. Alan, your mother… Maria…. Your grandmother… must be a witch, too.”
Sarah Jane watched their expressions in the silence that followed. She wished she had thought of a different way of saying it. Alan’s face especially went through several shades of pale. Maria was having trouble with the idea, too. Despite her experiences of aliens and other strange things, the possibility of her grandmother being a witch was astonishing.
Looking at Alan, Mrs Jackson’s son, the most ordinary, down to Earth…
Sarah Jane ran out of words to describe him. Ordinary was about the only one. Mr Ordinary Alan Jackson. Looking at him, it was difficult to believe his mum was anything out of the ordinary.
But then again, Maria’s grandmother had sent her a doll for her birthday that came with a Cavean Entity to protect her. Sarah Jane had assumed that was accidental. But perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps the old lady had sent her granddaughter that strange and initially misguided guardian angel.
“Isn’t it possible that they’re just people who like cats, who Mrs Hanley knew she could rely on?” Maria asked. “I mean… well, it could be that, couldn’t it?”
“Yes, Sarah Jane answered, grateful for that normal explanation that made Alan’s expression relax into relief. “Yes, of course that’s possible. It’s probably all there is to it. Yes.”
There was a knock on the door. Alan went to let in the man from the RSPCA who brought with him a stack of flat-packed cardboard cat boxes. Strangely, as soon as he entered the house the cats all went quiet. Maria looked in the kitchen. They had cleaned the food bowls. She looked out of the window and caught sight of Molly, the white and black one, disappearing under a bush.
“There’s been a change of plan,” Sarah Jane said to the RSPCA man as Maria came back to the living room. She showed him the notebook with the addresses.
“Well, he said. “If these ladies will take the cats, then that’s all right. Rehoming adult cats is difficult enough. Five of them at once puts a lot of pressure on the cattery. Perhaps you could take some leaflets about identity chipping to give to the new owners. And I can let you have the boxes... usually we charge for those, but you’ll be saving the RSPCA a lot of money if you can make these arrangements.”
“Well, that’s all right then,” Sarah Jane said. “Thank you very much.” She saw the RSPCA man out of the house and closed the door behind him. As she did so, there was a meow from Molly and there were sounds from the kitchen as if the other cats had all come back.
“Clever cats,” Maria said. “They didn’t want to go with that man. They want us to do what Mrs Hanley wants.”
“I can do the first three, tomorrow,” Sarah Jane said. “I’ll drop Luke off at Clyde’s. They’re going skateboarding or something. Then Acton, Putney and Teddington are no problem. Guildford and Peasmarsh….”
“We’ll do those ones,” Alan decided. “Guildford is on the way down towards East Sussex. Maria and I will go. We can talk to my mum and find out what all this is about.”
Maria smiled happily. A Saturday drive to the countryside, to see her gran, was fine by her.
“Isn’t it a coincidence that we moved into a house right next door to somebody who knows my gran?” she said. “And we never even knew.”
“Yes,” Sarah Jane said. “Yes, an amazing coincidence.”
Or was it? She wondered about that for a moment. But she couldn’t think of any way that Alan and Maria moving into Bannerman road after the divorce could have been contrived by any force, even magic – black or white.
“Well, we know what we’re doing tomorrow,” she said brightly. “Perhaps we should tidy up in here now. Alan… could you put a board on the back door and clean up the glass. Maria, you get meter readings for the gas and electric and turn off the gas at the mains. And the water. We’ll do the electric after we pick up the cats in the morning. I’ll make sure all the upstairs windows are locked and the house is secure. And that’s all we can do for now, I think?”
Practical, ordinary matters to take their minds of the strange, the extraordinary, the shocking and puzzling.
For now, at least.
To Be Continued...