Maria didn’t feel like going to the attic to join the boys after they left Mrs Hanley’s house. She went home with her dad. She did her homework and ate her tea, watched a bit of television, then went to bed.
She was surprised when she came to get into bed to find a white and black cat on her pillow next to the doll she got for her fifteenth birthday.
“Hello, Molly, how did you get in here? I haven’t got any more milk, but you can sleep that the end of the bed, if you like. We’re going on a nice, long car drive tomorrow. Well, it might not be so nice for you. You’ll be in a box. But when we get to my gran’s, I’m sure you’ll like it there. it’s in the country and you’ll have fields to chase mice in, and lots of new things to explore.”
The cat looked at her and purred as if it understood what she was saying. It got up from the pillow and strolled to the end of the bed. Maria got into her bed and turned off her bedside light before she settled down to sleep. The cat purred continuously, and the sound was rather soothing as she dropped off.
In the morning, she and her dad went next door. Sarah Jane arrived as well to help them put all the cats in their boxes. It was much easier than they expected. The cats were all in the kitchen and they didn’t mind having their collars checked for their names. They did meow rather loudly once they were all inside and Maria was glad they were only travelling with two of them.
The two cat boxes were strapped into the back of their car. Maria was beside her dad. Sarah Jane waved to them as they set off.
“Molly spent the whole night on my bed,” Maria commented as she looked around at the back seat and assured herself that they were all right. Both cats were meowing a bit. It almost sounded as if they were having a conversation with each other. “I think she’ll like living with gran.”
Alan nodded and concentrated on his driving as they got through the Ealing traffic. Maria didn’t say anything else for ten minutes or so.
“I had a really strange dream last night. I dreamt I was talking to Molly, the cat, and she was talking back to me.”
“What did you talk about?” Alan asked.
“I can’t really remember,” she answered. “But it was a really interesting conversation. It’s funny I can’t remember. Because it seemed really important when I first woke up, but I couldn’t remember afterwards.
“A lot of the real conversations I have with your mum are like that,” Alan told her. “They seem important at the time but once she’s gone home I can’t even remember what she said.”
“I think the cat was talking about something more important than the things mum usually wants to talk about,” Maria commented with a sigh. “Says something about mum, I think.”
“On which note, perhaps we should leave that line of conversation.” Alan said diplomatically. “We’re nearly at Guildford. We’d better get ready to deliver Sukie to the lady there.
“Make sure we don’t get the wrong cat,” Maria said. “It’s important that Molly goes to gran’s house. I’ve told her that’s where she’s going.”
“I don’t think the cats would mind,” Alan told her. But Maria was insistent that the one called Molly had to go to her gran’s house. When they got to the address in Guildford, he was careful to check the cat boxes. Maria sat in the car. She didn’t want to leave Molly alone and she didn’t think it was fair to bring her into the house and then out again.
Alan didn’t take too long. Soon they were on the road again, heading towards Peasmarsh.
“That was a quite nice old lady,” Alan said as they got onto the motorway and made good speed after so many traffic lights and junctions. “She didn’t seem like a ‘witch’ at all. Sarah Jane really must be wrong. I mean, the house was lovely. Very neat and tidy and lots of furniture polish. Nothing on the bookshelves except ordinary cookery books and crochet pattern books. I mean, it doesn’t fit at all.”
“Just like Mrs Hanley,” Maria said. “If somebody was a witch, they wouldn’t really want to look like one. People have funny ideas about witches. So somebody who was one would probably have a nice house with lots of cookery books, not spell books.”
“Yes. But…” Alan thought about it a bit. “She didn’t look like a witch, either. And I suppose you’re going to say that’s obvious, too. Then again, it’s the twenty-first century. It’s not as if little old ladies have to be careful in case they’re hauled off for a ducking or whatever it is they used to do to witches.”
“No, but people might throw stones or be nasty to them. I think real witches would do their best to fit in and not look strange at all.”
“I wish they would,” Alan admitted. “Because… I really don’t like the idea of my mum being one. And all I could think back there was that the house was such a lot like hers. I mean, if that old lady had been a bit sinister, I could think, yes, she’s a witch. But that doesn’t mean mum is one. Does that make sense at all?”
“Yes, I suppose it does,” Maria answered. “I never thought gran was a witch.”
“She isn’t,” Alan insisted. “She can’t be. I mean, she has a cross on the mantelpiece and a tapestry of the Lords Prayer in the hall. She goes to church every Sunday. And does the choir on Wednesday night. Witches are pagans, aren’t they? They dance around bonfires at midsummer and all that.”
“Can’t imagine gran dancing around a bonfire.”
“Well, there you are, then. She can’t be a witch.”
“But… if she was… would it be a terrible thing?”
“It…” Alan thought about it. “I don’t know. I mean… she’s my mum. I mean, it’s a funny thing to think of. It’s like… No, I can’t imagine it in any way. How could she be? I would have known.”
Alan really didn’t want to think about it. He certainly didn’t want to talk about it. Least of all to Maria.
They lapsed into silence, punctuated by the soft meowing of the cat in her box. Maria fell asleep, lulled by the sound of the car engine.
She woke up as they were almost at Peasmarsh, East Sussex. She looked around, surprised to find herself in the car.
“Funny,” she said. “I had that same dream again, about talking to the cat.” She turned in her seat and looked at the box on the back seat. Molly meowed a little louder as if she knew she was being checked up on. “Don’t worry, Molly, we’re nearly there now. There’ll be some milk, soon.”
The cat almost seemed to reply with another meow and then went quiet for the last mile, purring contentedly until Alan parked the ca\r outside a very nice, un-sinister modern bungalow.
Maria carried the box up the garden path and into her gran’s house. There, indeed, Molly got milk which she lapped up from a saucer by the fire. Mrs Jackson made tea and put home made scones on a plate for her son and granddaughter.
“It is lovely to see you, both,” she said. “But I am sorry about the circumstances. I knew Margaret wasn’t well the last time she wrote. But I didn’t quite expect… At least not yet. Of course, I am delighted to look after Molly. Thank you, Alan, for bringing her to me.”
“That’s all right, mum. I don’t mind. But… How did you know Mrs Hanley? And why did you never tell us? She lives next door to us and you never even mentioned it.”
“Didn’t I?” Mrs Jackson looked puzzled. “I’m sure I did. Didn’t I?”
“No, you didn’t. But it doesn’t really matter. Except, it would have been nice if you’d visited and we could all have had tea or something. Besides, where DO you know her from?”
“We were at school together,” Mrs Jackson answered him. “During the war, you know. When everyone was evacuated to the country. Seven of us from our school and another five girls from elsewhere all went to live in mid-Wales with a lady called Myfanwy Kerr. She owned this huge, rambling house with simply enormous gardens, and the Evacuation Board decided she could take care of twelve girls all at once. She had trained as a teacher before the war, and so she decided she would make her house into a private boarding school and teach us all. She was a really good teacher. We had the best lessons.” She paused and looked at her son and Maria. She smiled and gave a soft sigh. “I suppose I can tell you. It’s not as if it can make much difference now. Miss Kerr was a witch. She told us about it, and suggested that, since the twelve of us and her made thirteen, we should form a coven.”
“No!” Alan was shocked. “Mother, you can’t be serious. You can’t be. You’re not.”
“We were. All of us. We thought it was great fun at the time. Some took it more seriously than the rest. Margaret Banes – that was Margaret Hanley before she married, of course – she was very enthusiastic. She was Miss Kerr’s prize pupil. But we all got initiated. We all learned how to do very basic spells and incantations. Don’t look so shocked, Alan. We didn’t do anything terrible. We made puppets dance without strings once, and another time we prepared all the sandwiches for the Christmas church fayre using spells to make the bread butter itself. And of course, none of us ever had to put our hands into the water to do the washing up. It was all perfectly harmless. And I suppose we felt a certain excitement about being ‘witches’. We felt different enough from everyone else being from London and evacuated. At least that way we could feel different in a good way.”
“But… afterwards… did you carry on?”
“I never did. Well, not properly. I didn’t do the rituals. But… now and again… We ALL remembered the spells for getting bread to rise or a sponge to set, that sort of thing.”
Maria and Alan both looked at the cakes they were eating doubtfully. They finished them, because Mrs Jackson looked at them so balefully.
“My last REAL spell was the one we did on our very last night together at Miss Kerr’s. By then we were young women, sixteen or seventeen. We were ready to get jobs or get married, some of us were even going on to universities or teaching colleges. But before we did, we performed one last big spell. It was Margaret who suggested it, actually. We all thought it was a wonderful idea. The Nine Lives Pact.”
“The what?” Maria was intrigued. Her father was less enthusiastic. He still wasn’t quite sure about what he was hearing. Could this really be something his mother had kept secret all these years, all his life?
“Did I mention… one thing witches can do, once they’re initiated… they know exactly how long they will live. They know when they will die. At sixteen or seventeen we all knew that we still had sixty, seventy or more years. But even so, we wanted more. We wanted immortality. That’s something witches can’t have, by the way. Immortality. It’s impossible. But we can prolong our lives. Through the Nine Lives Pact. We performed the spell, so that when we came to the end of our lives, we would go on living… but not as a Human being. We would be…”
“Cats!” Maria almost jumped off the sofa in shock. “You become cats.”
“Our souls pass into the cats. That’s why witches traditionally always have a cat around them, you know. The familiar.”
“For them to become the cat when they die?”
“Not exactly. That’s where the Pact comes into it. The cat is a witch who has already passed on. The living witch has undertaken to care for her for the rest of her life. Think of it as a witch’s retirement – to a life of comfort and luxury, with nothing to worry about, just a warm, sunny place to sleep and somebody else providing the cream and the choice cuts of meat.”
Maria turned to look at Molly. She was stretched leisurely on the windowsill in the sunlight, her fur moving up and down as she breathed slowly.
“You mean… Molly the cat is… She really is… She really DID understand me… She…”
“Only a bit,” her Gran told her. “The witch’s consciousness will be lost after a little while. But the first day or so, there is still a bit of memory left. Margaret… Molly… was obviously fond of you. She stuck with you overnight.”
“And… does that mean…. All of her other cats… the others we had to take to new homes… they were all part of your coven?”
“Yes, that’s right. Sukie Webb, Tabitha Moore, Penny Seaborne. And of course, the oldest of all… Bessie… That was Myfanwy Kerr’s cat name. I don’t know why she wanted to be called Bessie. I suppose it doesn’t matter.”
“But…” Alan tried again to speak. He gave up. His mother was a witch and he knew he would never be able to look at a cat again without wondering about it.
“Gran,” Maria said. “When you… when you die…”
Her grandmother smiled warmly.
“That’s why it was time you knew. Don’t worry, dear. You’ll be a grown woman before it happens. I was a bit low last year. I had a bad time with my chest. But I’m better now. And you can rest assured I’m going nowhere, yet. But when the time comes…”
“I’ll… I’ll look after your cats,” Maria promised. “That’s… all right, isn’t it?”
“That’s just what I hoped you’d say,” Mrs Jackson said. “I knew I could rely on you, Maria. Alan, you’re a good boy. And you’ve brought her up just right. A good, reliable girl. I know, you’re shocked. I probably should have told you before now.”
“Would it have made it any less shocking? Just promise me one thing. Don’t teach Maria any of your spells. She has enough to contend with, being a teenager, exam results, and the things she’s involved in with Sarah Jane and with Torchwood. She doesn’t need to be involved in occult things as well.”
“It’s all right, dad,” Maria promised. “I don’t want to be a witch. I would rather work for Torchwood. All this means is…. Is we don’t have to be sad about Mrs Hanley dying. Because she’s not really dead. And… and we don’t have to be sad when the times comes. When it’s Gran’s turn. And that’s good, isn’t it, dad?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” he conceded.
“Well, now that’s settled,” Mrs Jackson said brightly. “Let’s have some more tea. And you can tell me all about what you’ve both been doing since I saw you last.”
And that seemed to settle the matter. Alan glanced around at the cat on the windowsill, that was more than it appeared to be. It woke up from its slumber and gazed at him for a moment before turning around and going to sleep again. It was a perfectly happy cat. Why should anyone else have a problem?
To Be Continued...