When my sister and I were small, my father was almost always the designated storyteller. He was essentially the book-reading equivalent of John Lewis: accommodating, dependable and customer-focused. He knew that it was the child’s job to pick the book, shut up and go to sleep, and the parent’s job to read whatever was asked of them and then enjoy a quiet beer in front of the Ten O’Clock News.
My mother, on the other hand, was a real bastard storyteller. If my father was John Lewis, she was Paypal. Or Parcelforce, possibly. It didn’t matter what we wanted to listen to, she was reading and therefore got to pick, and all her favourite books were about fairies, witches and other pagan-ass shit that used to scare the living daylights out of us. The small selection of books on offer when she was in charge ranged from the cheerfully magical (The Folk of the Faraway Tree, etc.) to the bed-wettingly nightmarish. The most frightening of these – and therefore her favourite – was The Witch’s Hand by Peter Utton.
Nobody knows how many childhoods this book has ruined, but as far as I was concerned it was a dread portal sandwiched between two big pieces of cardboard. Utton is Austrian, which says it all really. They love terrifying children in their neck of the woods. Look at Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm – admittedly French and German respectively, but they all piss in the same pot. Kids on the Continent must be real hard-asses.
I, on the other hand, was not a hard-ass, and the more I begged her not to read The Witch’s Hand the more she enjoyed it. The story goes that a small boy – George – asks his dad about the crinkly brown thing stuck to the pin-board. The father, a proper wind-up merchant, tells him that it’s the severed hand of a witch he found preying on poor unsuspecting Georgie one night. “I rushed on tiptoe to your bedroom,” he says. “The door was slightly open. I peeped in. My hair quietly and swiftly stood on end and I gazed in horror as I saw, bending over your little bed, a huge witch, dressed in a great black cloak and a tall pointed hat.”
Predictably, George shits his pants, but then PLOT TWIST, it turns out it’s all lies and the witch’s hand is just a leaf. It’s strong stuff, clearly, but it was the illustrations that were the most terrifying. Every page was covered in gruesome watercolours showing the witch in sick-making detail, mad-eyed and ravenous. Reviews on Goodreads are positive, “striking the right balance between silly and scary”, according to one parent. Bitch, please, this is no Tickle-Me-Elmo shit, this is the real deal. In fact, I know it was fucking terrifying because you can no longer buy The Witch’s Hand with the same cover it had in 1989 when it was first published, which showed a deformed hand reaching around the door of a child’s bedroom with an ominously empty bunk. Nowadays they’ve toned it down and there’s some round-faced ginger kid on the cover looking vaguely anxious.
But my mother has always had a bit of a thing for otherworldly creatures, hostile or otherwise. Such a thing, in fact, that when we moved house and I got my own room she spent a small fortune decking mine out in flower fairy wallpaper, primrose yellow curtains and matching fairy-themed knick-knacks, music boxes and wind chimes. My room was a shrine to skinny-ass blonde bitches poncing around wearing bluebells as hats and clearly, on reflection, high on shrooms.
“I want a new room!” I raged when I got a bit older and inevitably grew to despise the fairies. “It’s so babyish! And my friends laugh at me.”
“Don’t be silly,” my mother would say. “The fairies aren’t babies, some of them have bosoms. Look!” And then she proceeded to mortify me at every opportunity by pointing the fairies’ tits out to all my friends when they came to stay.
I was fifteen years old before I finally got rid of them. It took seven years of lobbying and my mother still cried as she steamed the paper off my walls before painting it a garish violet, which was the most hideous colour I could get away with. But before my nymphy nemeses were consigned to the dustbin forever, I got to bring my first ever boyfriend home to see the Fairy Pit. Imagine the horror of a teenage boy finally getting the chance to slobber all over his girlfriend in private and finding he must do so under the glassy gaze of a hundred fairies of the fucking forest. After all, nothing says ‘boner killer’ like Fairy Buttercup giving you stink-eye over the top of a toadstool.
But the weirdest thing she ever did happened when I was six. It was Halloween, and my sister and I were in our bunk beds. My mother, under the pretence of going to her aerobics class, donned a cape and a latex mask in the porch and came back upstairs as a special festive treat. Introducing herself as ‘Wanda the Witch’ and scaring the shit out of my three year old sister, she then presented us with a vial of fake blood, a pot of putty she vaguely passed off as some sort of ectoplasm, and a toenail.
The toenail, it transpired, was once attached to my father, but they’d parted company after he broke his foot dropping a jerry can on it several months earlier. My mother, one of nature’s hoarders, kept hold of it in case it turned out to be useful. Which I was suppose it was, if you count small-scale biological warfare against your own offspring as ‘useful’.
…I remember it was purple and crusty, like a flamboyant pork scratching.
You’d think she would have grown out of it by now, but she’s still as barmy for it as ever. She doesn’t get to read The Witch’s Hand to us anymore (though no doubt it’ll be the first thing she digs out if my sister or I ever start popping out larva), but she is still obsessed with the supernatural. She used to love Sabrina the Teenage Witch and the movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which was a bowel-knotting tale of the good old-fashioned kind of child-snatching (i.e. not the new-fangled kind so popular amongst the Jimmy Savile set), but her new favourite, tragically, is Twilight. “I would love to be a vampire,” she told me recently, deadly serious. “I’d just bite all the people I don’t like, and I wouldn’t have to buy any more anti-aging creams. Do you think they really exist?”
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