What a wretched place. ‘Wretched’ wasn’t a word that tended to occur naturally to Harriet, but there it was, tragically cliché and every bit as ugly as The Cottage itself. Usually she enjoyed snow, but then usually it could be enjoyed in comfort. Wrapped up, with a hot chocolate, watching pale fluttery flakes fall from behind panes of previously underappreciated double glazing. Possibly there was booze involved. She recalled such snows dreamily, from under a duvet as thick as she could buy, but as cold as stone all the same, and she wished she’d remembered to get milk the night before. A hot chocolate might have helped. Then it occurred to her that she had wine, lots of it, and that would do.
She took the duvet with her, staving off the worst of the draughts that seemed to sneak in through every time-bitten and crumbling window frame. The kitchen was the only place that she liked, and that was because of the iron stove. The Cottage was a mess of old fashioned features that had been pitched optimistically in the ad as ‘characterful’ and ‘authentic’, which apparently meant ‘old’ and ‘broken’. But the stove worked, and it turned the room into a warm and cosy nook. She had kept it burning almost constantly.
The walls were an unfortunate shade of mustard, but the hard wooden worktops and sturdy roof beams offset the patchy puke shade for a more rustic country effect. The floor tiles were slate, and they were solid underfoot – much more comforting than the creaky shifting floorboards throughout the rest of the place.
Harriet’s dining table, only big enough for one really, was tucked away in the corner. This was her office, her laptop’s permanent home. A dismal and uninspiring truth.
She threw another log in the burner, picked a red from the expansive assortment of bottles on the counter that she hadn’t bothered to put away, and sat down. A supermarket’s finest screw top select didn’t really call for a glass, she thought to herself, and drank right from the bottle. A suitably miserable drink for a perfectly miserable night.
After a good tipple or two she pulled her computer towards her, the newest and most current piece of tech in the whole place, probably for miles around, and booted up. The piddly weak internet laboured to open her latest equally piddly piece of work, and she stared at the tragically short document. She stared some more, and continued to stare until the steadily blinking cursor seemed to stare back with smug judgement in every wink. Then she sighed, the sort of heaving sigh where for a moment you could swear to have seen a soul leaving the sigher’s body. A good sup of wine brought it back, reluctantly.
Harriet had never had this dream. She recalled bitterly how wonderful her studio flat had been, with modern fixtures and all of the comforts of home. Small but perfect. Her eyes skipped up to the greasy window and watched the ill-defined flurry outside, pouring vague fluffy flakes in an offensively merry ballet. But instead of snow, she was seeing a world recently gone, and could almost smell the homely call of pies in the shop down below.
Her bakery, passed down for three generations, had been her heart. Her mother’s pies had been the talk of the town and then, as she had earned the right to learn the closely kept recipes, so had hers. So what if the town had only been one short ‘Main Street’ filled with local farmers and their kin? Eventually ‘Whittle’s Pies’ had passed into her keeping, and her time as ‘the pie lady’ began.
Harriet had immediately turned the cluttered loft space into a home. Living over the pie shop had suited her, her shapely figure a clear testament to her deep-set love of pastry. She was a dumpy lady, who liked thick knit cardigans and her thick rimmed glasses, thick books and thicker baking tins; all things that made up her thickly contented self. She looked exactly as you’d expect if you were to invent a person to fit the title ‘pie lady’, all except for her strikingly long and brilliant mahogany hair. She wore it up mostly, in messy buns to keep the pies hair free. Today was no exception, although it was perhaps a little greasier than it ought to have been – she had not yet braved the task of cleaning the tub. She wasn’t quite sure if it had always been a disturbing patchy yellow, though she suspected it was white underneath, and she was in no rush to find out.
Baking had been her life before all of this ‘authentic’ glamour, whilst literature had been a hobby. ‘Hattie Whittle’ had once been a moderate writer of whimsical novellas on the side, and life had been good.
Then lockdown came.
The shop was just too small, patronage too niche, and supplements too late. With what little Harriet had managed to scrape together from the sale of the bakery she had found The Cottage. It was an obscure listing, a proclaimed bargain;
“Characterful cottage with traditional fixtures and fittings. Tired but charming. A rare opportunity to live an authentic country lifestyle.”
A load of absolute twaddle. Unfortunately, she had no choice but to live in that twaddle.
Gloomy recollections carried Harriet’s thoughts in endless circles, like an uninspired carrousel. Even the cookie-cutter erotica that had become her sad bread and butter escaped her, as easy if tedious as it usually was. ‘Pennies on the pages read’ paid the bills, but it was not the epic fantasy that she had long dreamed of weaving, and she felt tired and worn thin by the tedium.
After a while, with no idea how long she had been floundering, she gave up. She pulled her laptop shut with a crotchety snap and snatched up her wine to realise that she had, in misery, drained almost half already – this did not make her feel better.
So what would make her feel better about this whole appalling mess? Well, she thought only slightly fuzzily, it would be nice not to have to live out of boxes. But for that she would need somewhere to store her things, and the only somewhere left was the dreaded ‘spare room’.
The listing for The Cottage had also rather optimistically described the place as ‘furnished’. By which they had meant; Has furniture, all very old, all very rickety, and all wedged almost impossibly tightly into a tiny back room that would be best forgotten, if you knew what was best for you.
But with writing proving to be a lost cause, it seemed to Harriet that it might be time to tackle that mess. At least then the night wouldn’t be a complete loss. So, not forgetting the bottle, she gathered up her duvet around her and braved the chill of the living room at an encumbered shuffle.
From the living room she entered the dimly lit hallway, where the floorboards were at their worst and complained the loudest, some even bowed when stepped on. Right at the end was a door, deep green and painted so thickly that it tended to stick in the frame, with an old iron latch that also liked to stick at the most inconvenient of times. Like, say, when you’ve only one free hand because the other is holding both a bottle and your duvet. With another soul expelling sigh (she was getting good at these) Harriet put down the bottle and shelled herself of her protective layer. The chill was not pleasant, but needs must, and she tugged open the stiff door.
The room within was not visible. Furniture was stacked one against the other and in the strangest places. At head height was a rocking chair, backwards and upside down on top of what appeared to be a dilapidated dresser. Between the spokes of its legs was finagled another smaller chair, an old faceless clock, and the ugliest tasselled lamp she had ever seen. Tetris came to mind.
Furniture wrangling was not her idea of a good time, but in the end she made some peculiar and interesting finds; A large wooden locker full of old work boots, just her size, a four poster bed frame with beautiful woodland carvings, the usual strange brass oddments often associated with ‘Grandma’s place’, a whole menagerie of ceramic animal figures and, once she had cleared enough floor space to uncover it, the most beautiful woven rug she had ever seen. Even under a frosting of dust it was still a vibrant cerulean, plastered with entwined stars and moon phase patterns. It was magnificent, and Harriet decided at once that she must restore and keep it.
She began to gather it up with a mind to drag it out, which was no small task, for it was thick and heavy with quality. Then she found the cellar door underneath; a small square hatch with a weighty black iron loop. She dropped the rug and hesitated. No one had mentioned a basement, or a cellar of any kind. It seemed very much the sort of thing that someone ought to have pointed out. Who knew what could be down there? Did she dare even look?
It turned out – Yes, she did. Before she had time to doubt herself she had pottered into the kitchen and rummaged in the junk drawer that every kitchen has. These are usually filled with all sorts of things, but only a few handy ones, like string and the old bulky torch that seems to manifest itself in every household and no one ever quite knows where it came from. The latter she grabbed now and hurried back. It was a battle to pull the thing open, but her pie pot heaving arms were stronger than they looked, and she managed to fling the door aside with a hefty crash. A cloud of rust and dust sprang up and settled on the toes of her slippers. Then… silence.
Harriet spent a little time peering into the small dark space, where just the top of a terribly worn looking set of stairs could be seen. She leaned this way and that, thinking that it might afford her a better view. But it didn’t help. There was only one thing for it.
With the torch flicked on, held guardedly to her chest, she started the slow and creaky descent into the unknown.
It was the sort of dark that breathed, as though it were alive. It ran into every corner as the light swept over, hid in every crevice, and filled the shady nooks like some skittish presence – trying its best to convince you that something else lurked just out of sight. Naturally Harriet’s torch chose that moment to falter and flicker, once her imagination had had just long enough to pick out all manner of evil shapes in the long cast shadows. This is the universal law of torches, shadows and creepy places. She could have used the torch on her phone, safely pocketed under layers of flannel and dressing gown, but this was not in the universal law of torches, shadows and creepy places, and so the thought had never occurred to her – however much it should have, or would have, were she not dealing with a place so heavy with mystery that it conquered all logic. The thing about mysteries is that they tend to lean towards the theatrical, and dependable phone torches do not.
A quick bash with the heel of a palm and the torch sprang back to life, and Harriet remembered that she needed to breathe. Then she looked again. There were rows and rows of shelves and book cases stood at jaunty obstructive angles, doing nothing to lessen the tangle of shadows, and the air was thick with dust that seemed to dance giddily in the torch light. Each shelf was cluttered with indefinable antiquities, covered in thick webs. She dared not think about the spiders responsible, but there were probably many, given how every surface looked as though the previous occupant had employed a lot of very wispy and badly made doyleys for furniture covers.
With a shaky step, and a mouth full of cotton, Harriet braved the last step down onto the mottled stone floor. After that she managed another step, and another, until she found herself creeping with surprising ease amongst bookshelves strewn with obscure things; old tomes, burnt candles turned brittle with age and bottles long since turned cloudy. Then the room opened up.
The many shelves, it turned out, formed a sort of compact maze around a wide ovalish space. At the heart of it all sat a slightly crooked old cauldron. It had once hung from a thick iron frame that had long since given up and lay in pieces on the floor. The thick cast bowl looked about big enough that she could have climbed in if she had wanted to. She didn’t, obviously.
She did sidle closer though, so that she could see the intricacies in the iron work that decorated the dusty thing. It’s rotund sides were, somewhere under the webbing and mire, really quite ornate. Pretty even. But there was … something. Something about the cauldron that called to her. Not that she was overly familiar with cauldrons to know when one called. Maybe this was in fact just a cauldron thing. But she liked this one, in a strange and suspicious way.
From it’s skewed angle she had to bend a little to see inside. There was nothing there, besides more webs, and she wasn’t sure what she had been expecting. But something. The atmosphere was too heavy, too thickly mysterious for there to be nothing, surely? She decided, inexplicably, to wait one moment more, just in-case the cauldron decided to do something spectacular. It didn’t.
“Bother you then.” She muttered in disappointment, somewhat offended and slightly embarrassed by the weight of her expectation.
Harriet set about taking in the rest of the room. Crates and boxes were piled into many of the maze corners, so many that it would take weeks to sort them. But despite the mammoth task, curiosity was beginning to burn inside. She wondered fancifully what other peculiarities there were to be found here, in this strangely enchanting place.
Then she saw it. A box on a strange sill, set into the cobbled wall. At first glance it seemed like nothing special. But then she realised, with a twist of intrigue, that there was not so much as a single string of webbing on the thing. Not a spot of dust or debris, nor so much as a whisper of time past. Before she knew it she had crossed the room and was stood before it in anticipation. Nestled comfortably at eye level the box looked back, beckoning. It was a smooth black; marble, she guessed at the chill of it. The fingers of her torchless hand had not waited for permission to touch the top. It was spotless, deep black with a tiny silver clasp, and no bigger than a shoebox all told. But somehow it seemed to fill the world.
It was silent as she lifted the lid. The hinges moved like butter and seemed to do all of the work for her, as though the opening of the box had been it’s own will first and foremost, and hers second. Harriet’s eyes grew wide behind her thick rimmed spectacles as the torch illuminated the interior, and she was immediately struck by the smell of lavender and incense. The lining glistened, of the richest purple velvet she had ever seen. Two fine lilac ribbons strung on the inside of the lid stopped it from falling back too far, or too hard, and they glittered sweetly in the light. The contents were the most astounding by far though; rows and rows of tiny bottles, as radiant as crystal, separated by velvet dividers to keep each to itself. Each had a fantastic little stopper, though they varied dramatically; from tiny decorative swirls of glass to painted cork and, unusually, a few carved wax figures – one, Harriet noted, was a tiny little cat.
But there was one bottle set apart from the rest. Affixed to the underside of the velvet lid, strapped in place with frayed string cords and some twists of copper wire. The smallest yet, and it’s contents glowed like honey.
Harriet leaned in, squinting, and carefully nudged aside an obstructive piece of string to see the old paper label, which read:
In the weeks to come the local gossip was forever overtaken by talk of the ‘new girl’. “A whiz with an oven,” they said, “pastries to die for! And did you know she writes her own cookbooks too? Reckon she’s pro’lly the finest baker in the world.”
But she lived in The Cottage and folks knew all about that place, where witches had lived one after another as far back as the dark ages. Until the last one had passed away and the place was given to some distant relative, who hadn’t cared enough (or dared) to clear the old place out before selling it off for peanuts.
Still, the girl made bloody good pies, and only good people can make good pies. Right? The old boys in the pub had casually ignored a chap who brought up the fact that witches did, in fact, have a history of being excellent cooks. The stories often included children and sweeties and some greatly exaggerated cannibalism, but they were just stories. And anyway, even if she was a witch, they all agreed that Harriet was too warm and kind to be a bad one. Bad witches were always hook nosed and white haired, mean old crones. She could maybe be a good witch then. The jolly, friendly, helpful kind.
A pie witch.
The Pie Witch of old Boscastle.