It’s become a bit of a ritual - coffee and a chinwag with Sue while she’s seeing the kids safe across the road outside the school with her massive lollipop.
Coffee. Crossing. Cars. Kids.
Every afternoon at three-ten precisely. She likes a bit of ritual, does Sue. I get finished up in the kitchens and the kids’ dining hall, wiping jammy fingerprints off Formica, then I take us out a couple of lidded coffees before Cheryl’s bell stops ringing to end their play at the end of the day.
Today is no expection. We’re here fuffing steam off our coffees and I’m telling Sue to brace herself for the first crowd of kids.
“Speaking of which - I meant to ask…” she says, “how’s your little grandson?”
“Which one?” I ask her. There’s five of ‘em now. Four of ‘em not little.
“The little one.” Sue says. “The four year old. Harry, isn’t it?”
I tell her how he’s lovely. At least he was the last time I saw him. Jonty doesn’t bring him up so much since Geoff died.
“That’s awful.” says Sue.
“Yeah, ‘might as well not exist.” I agree. “Obleted.”
There’s chatter and catcalls approaching and so Sue passes me her coffee and smiles down at the kids as she walks out into the middle of the road, standing sideways at the halted, miffed traffic. She beckons to the kids and ushers them across, nodding and smiling at the thanks of parents holding tiny hands.
One of the older kids says something to Sue which turns her smile into a frown though. One of the cocky sodYear Sixes I bet, (that’s ‘Fourth Year Juniors’ in old money when Jonty was coming here). Sue shakes her fist at the culprit before taking back her coffee for an indignant sip.
“‘Cheeky little bugger!”
“What did he say?” I ask her.
“He said ‘Is there Room on Your Broom’?”
“‘Don’t get it.” I frown at her council-issue lollipop. “It’s not a broom it’s a lollipop.”
“I think he was calling me a witch.”
“And you know why, don’t you?”
“That wart with a hair in it you’ve always had?” I shrug, only half joking.
“Don’t you start.” she clearly is miffed about this ‘witch’ thing. “No. It’s that bloody paper boy. Maggie Badlan’s son. You know the Badlans?”
Do I know the Badlans? Their eldest Joe used to bully Jonty something rotten. And the school did nothing about it. I had to take justice into my own hands in the end. They’ve always been a bad lot, have the Badlans.
“I should never have asked him in to pay him for a fortnight’s ‘Star’ bill.” Sue tells me.
“Why, what’s he done?” I ask.
“It’s not what he’s done - it’s what he’s said. After what he’s seen.”
So I ask her what he’s seen and said and she tells me about how he saw her ornamental African handled pot on the mantelpiece, didn’t he, while she was rooting around in her purse for his tenner. And how he’s spread it around the playground, hasn’t he? And ever since then all the local kids have had her down as a witch.
I sip my coffee, confused at this as another gaggle of kiddie pedestrians start snapping at our heels and Sue goes through her lollipop ritual again. Cars. Kids. Crossing. She comes back and takes her coffee from me again like it’s a relay race baton.
“I don’t get it.” I tell her. “So what if the Badlan lad’s seen your pot?”
“Well he’s put it around it’s a cauldron, hasn’t he?”
“But I still don’t get it. It’s got four legs. Cauldrons only have three.”
“That’s what I said. But it was too late.”
The paperboy cauldron episode sparked off the neighbourhood paranoia, apparently. She tells me how she suddenly found herself getting frequent visits from wide-eyed schoolchildren. Usually because they say that they saw a black cat doing its business in her garden.
“So what?” I say. “My cat craps in my garden every day.”
“Well exactly.” says Sue. “Plus if I was really a witch wouldn’t I put a spell on the animal to crap in the neighbour’s garden instead?…”
She seems like she’s going to say more but another crowd of kids has gathered. Coffee. Lollipop. Crossing. Cars. Kids. Back to coffee.
“…And anyway, would a magic cat really need to do its number twos?” she finishes.
I ask her what happened next and she said it went from bad to worse. Tousled mothers with puerile fixations started to point as she swept her front path.
“I wouldn’t mind,” she says, “…but it’s just a normal household broom from ‘B & Q’. Not a twig in sight.”
“So what do they think your lollipop is? A massive wand!?”
She takes another assembled gang across and the usual ritual is interrupted again by another shaken fist from Sue - this time at an idling motorist. When she gets back kerbside I nod at the driver as I pass Sue her coffee.
“What was all that about?”
“The bloody grown-ups are at it too now. He said ‘Where’s your witch’s hat!?’”
“You don’t wear a witch’s hat.”
“I don’t wear any kind of hat. Well…” she takes off her Lollipop Lady hat. “Unless you count this thing. But it’s definitely not black.”
“‘Charcoal grey, I’d say.” I agree. “And high-vis fluorescent lemon, of course.”
“Precisely. Not really witchcraft colours, eh? And what’s more this hat is most unconelike.”
Fewer and fewer kiddie pedestrians are coming out of the school gates for Sue to get across by now. The cars’ lights are turning on along with the odd over-keen lamp-post. The chitter chatter’s quieter and there’s less engine revving and horn parping as we drain our coffee dregs and finish putting the townsfolk’s world to rights.
“What are you gonna do about it?” I ask.
“‘Nothing I can do, is there?”
“‘Just ride it out?”
“Hmm.” she seems deep in thought for a minute. “…But d’you know what, Nell? It’s gone past that now, I reckon. It’s got to the point now where I feel like sitting the whole town down and explaining the situation to them.”
“Explaining what? What situation?”
“Explain that it’s not all ‘Meg and Mog’; “eye of newt and tongue of frog” and “I’m gonna get you Dorothy!”
“What d’you mean?”
She says she means she wants them to understand that there’s more to it than hairy warts and cackling. They need to know - for their own good - that their continual interference is very dangerous indeed.
I’m completely lost at this as final crossing awaits her safe guidance. She crosses to the middle of the road. The traffic stops. The kids giggle. Sue leans over as they cross. She holds out her hand and takes something from a crossing child.
She brings the gifted card back to me.
“Aw, that’s nice. What is it? A ‘thank you’ card.”
Sue opens the card. There’s a scribbled kid’s sketch of a witch on the front - black and green and spidery.
“No.” she says, reading the card aloud. “It says ‘Happy Halloween to our Lollipop Witch Lady’.”
“Well that’s nice. It shows they like you - even if they do think you’re a witch.”
“No. It’s not nice.” she corrects me. “But it is good.”
“How is it good?” I ask.
She’s gone back into the middle of the road - just to spite the drivers it seems as there are no kids left to cross. I can hardly hear her for the traffic but it sounded like her answer was :
“Because it shows that if the worst comes to the worst, at least we have an inexhaustible supply of young black magic fans to use as human sacrifices in the coven!”
My friend Sue and her love of ritual!