Caution: Witch in Progress
(previously published as 'Gertie Gets it Right (eventually)' under a different cover) Chapter One Gertie was a witch. At least, she was supposed to be. As her mother had told her at a very early age, she came from a long line of witches. A fairly crooked line maybe, but a long one all the same. Gertie’s mother was a witch, of course. ‘So is my mother,’ Ma Grimthorpe told her. ‘And her mother and grandmother were before her. So it goes, back through the ages. The Grimthorpes have always been witches.’ So, what was wrong with Gertie? In truth, Gertie had been named Gertrude. She soon got it into her head however that she really didn’t like the rude bit, so she persuaded everyone to leave it out. This was one of her many whims. Unfortunately, poor Gertie had been something of a disappointment since birth. As her eager mother and grandmother had hovered over the new baby, the smiles had left their faces as quick as a flash of lightning. ‘She looks…normal…’ Granny Grimthorpe said in disbelief. ‘Where’s the Grimthorpe wart?’ asked Ma in shock. They all had one, right there in the middle of their rather long chins. (Or in some cases ONE of their rather large, long, chins). To not have a hair or two growing out of it could possibly be forgiven. ‘After all, look at Great Aunt Mildred. She hadn’t a hair in sight,’ Granny reminded Gertrude’s mother. ‘Not on her wart, that is. Actually, she hadn’t much on her head either, come to think of it. But that’s beside the point. Anyway, as I was saying, she proved to be one of the most powerful witches in the family.’ ‘But NO wart?’ Ma added with a sigh. This had never been heard of before. Granny rubbed the end of her wrinkled finger over the baby’s smooth chin. ‘It’s true,’ she croaked, shaking her head in horror. ‘No wart. Not even a pimple. A blackhead would have done for a start. It could have got worse. But nothing.’ ‘I don’t think her nose looks hooked either,’ replied Gertie’s mother, with tears in her eyes. ‘Give it time,’ consoled Granny, with a grimace. ‘It might grow crooked. It’s too early to tell yet.’ ‘I hope so,’ replied the now not so proud mum, looking at the pretty little pink bundle in front of her. ‘I certainly hope so.’ It didn’t. Ma and Granny Grimthorpe loved the baby dearly. After all, it wasn’t her fault she was normal. But still, they lived in hope that one day, soon, Gertie would show signs of being worthy to live in their exclusive village. The witches mixed with normal people, or mere mortals as they sometimes called them, but a happy witch is one surrounded by her own kind. Vile Vale was such a place. Only witches and warlocks lived here. Some ran small shops selling essentials such as food, black cloaks, broomsticks, cauldrons and the like. One enterprising soul had even opened up her own pub, The Cat and Broomstick. ‘To cater for social gatherings and to serve special witches brew,’ she proudly told the villagers. All in all, it was a village where everyone felt they belonged. The girls were all little witches. They acted like little witches. They looked like little witches. Apart from Gertie. Ma Grimthorpe watched the baby closely, day by day, longing to see the slightest sign of her looking like a special baby should. Gertie’s skin problem was awful, and was the first thing that visitors to see the new member of their coven commented on. ‘Oh, I am so sorry,’ Griselda Grott exclaimed. ‘She doesn’t look too good does she? What a healthy colour. Have you tried the usual cures?’ ‘Yes, many times,’ Gertie’s mum replied sadly. ‘I make all her feeds up with carrot juice. I’ve rubbed her little body with the golden dust from our buttercups made into a paste with goat’s milk, too. Nothing seems to work.’ Griselda shook her head in sympathy. ‘Never mind,’ she replied, trying to sound consoling. ‘She’ll grow out of it. It’s nothing a good dose of jaundice won’t cure.’ Gertie didn’t get jaundice. Nor did she turn the becoming shade of yellow that all special babies should be. To the disgust of the village at large, she remained a terrible shade of the palest pink. Shocked stares met her wherever her mother took her out in her special pram. Stares that Gertie’s mum began to meet with anger. ‘Oh, let me see the new arrival!’ the villagers would say, then after the briefest of looks would turn to admire the pram, one of the best money could buy. It was a delightful shade of black, shaped like an oval version of a cauldron but with wheels where the four legs would have been. There was a hood made to look like a spider’s web that could be pulled up to protect the baby if it rained. The finishing touch was the realistic spider that dangled from it to keep baby happy, watching it swing to and fro. Everyone praised Ma Grimthorpe’s bad taste, but not the baby inside the magnificent pram. It was after one such meeting, a quick glance at the baby then open admiration of the pram, that Granny Grimthorpe hissed, ‘Are you sure she’s getting enough of the night air?’ ‘Yes, of course,’ the troubled mother wailed. ‘Every night when it’s clear I sit moon-bathing with her!’ They both shook their heads as they stared at poor Gertie, and wondered if there might be some more spells they hadn’t yet tried. It wasn’t only her skin either. Gertie’s teeth were a worry too. ‘And wouldn’t you just know it,’ Ma complained to Granny, ‘she smiles when anyone looks in her pram. We can’t even keep it a secret she hasn’t any teeth.’ Many special babies were born with a full set of lovely sharp pointed teeth. Others got them after a few weeks. This baby took three months. Then only two popped through in the centre of her lower jaw. In horror, Gertie’s mother gazed at the two, white, milk teeth. Flat topped, straight little things. She believed she had never seen anything so horrible in anyone’s mouth before. It was more than she could take. As Gertie’s mother wailed and rocked herself, she groaned, ‘Oh, what have I done to deserve this? Why should I be cursed to have a baby that looks so normal? Haven’t I been bad all my life?’ she said to the room in general. She thought of tiny pointed fangs showing in a lovely, yellow, grimacing little face; then stared at the chuckling, happy, pink bundle beside her and cried loudly, ‘Oh I can’t bear the shame, I can’t!’ As Gertie grew up, she was never loved any less because of her normality. In fact, maybe she was loved more, because Ma and Granny Grimthorpe were so sorry for her. Still, they watched day by day to see if she would begin to look special. As the first few years of Gertie’s life went by, it became obvious that the bright pale blue eyes and long blonde curly hair would remain. The Grimthorpes gave up hoping for a change of appearance. ‘All her power will be inside,’ said Granny with a nod one day, as she was clicking away knitting a new spider’s web shawl for winter. ‘Yes, that’s what it is. The Great Evil Powers have seen fit to make her LOOK normal, so it will be so much more of a surprise when she shows us how special she really is. You mark my words. You’ll see.’ The idea passed around the village, and wagging tongues discussed the power that Gertie might soon begin to show them. They watched her picking flowers, befriending butterflies, and smiling at everyone. And they waited. Then they waited a bit longer. Then they got tired of waiting and found someone else to talk about. Gertie was a happy and cheerful child. She sometimes wondered why the other witches stared at her in a funny way, especially Grothilde. Grothilde stared at everyone in a strange way though, because one eye looked you in the face while the other seemed to be fixated on something hovering above your head. Still, something told Gertie she was different. It wasn’t just the fact that all the other children and witches were yellow skinned, hook nosed and warty. It was something more. Something that went deeper. ‘Why am I so different, Mummy?’ she asked, but Ma hugged her and said she was destined to be special in her own way. ‘Granny Grimthorpe says so, and she has never been known to be wrong,’ she added. ‘Well, apart from the time she convinced Aunt Satana she could swim right across the river if she put her mind to it. Then, half way across Aunt Satana realised she couldn’t. Still,’ Ma continued with a faraway look in her eyes, ‘no one ever talks about that. Everyone is entitled to one mistake.’ So, Gertie grew up knowing she was different, in a special way. She accepted everything she saw and did as being normal, because it was the only life she knew. She thought nothing of waving their visitors off as they flew over the rooftops on their broomsticks, and sitting out in the moonlight with her mother. They collected herbs and roots together while the dew was still fresh on them, or at exactly the stroke of midnight, or during a storm. Her mother promised one day soon she would explain to Gertie the best times to pick everything. She had already begun her simple education with reading and writing. She taught her how to read spells and curses, and how to write important words like toad, cat, cauldron (that was a hard one), wart, cloak and broomstick. She also began to teach her numbers. ‘After all,’ Ma explained, ‘if a spell requires three drops of bat spit, then that is EXACTLY what is needed. Not two, or four. Four can result in the most horrifying results.’ Gertie knew she was thinking of Grothilde, who had once made the near fatal mistake of looking away with her good eye while adding the final ingredient to a spell. Her other eye was too busy watching a bee buzzing overhead to notice the fourth drop. The explosion that followed had blown Grothilde clean out the window, which was fortunately open at the time, and into the holly bush outside. She had felt so silly about it, especially since someone was passing by as it happened. ‘Nice day in’t it?’ she had called. ‘Just need a bit of holly for my latest spell. Bit temperamental, that’s all.’ The other witches would never have found out the truth if Grothilde’s sister, Mona, had not drunk a little too much witches brew in “The Cat and Broomstick” one night and told her good friend all about it. In complete secrecy, amidst guffaws of hysterical laughter. The good friend naturally went on to tell the rest of the village. It had now become a well known conversation starter, ‘Have you heard about Grothilde and the bat spit?’ It never failed to cause an uproar at any gathering. The only one who didn’t find it funny was Grothilde. She said that on bad days, she could still feel the prickles. Gertie had heard the story told many times, and knew Ma placed great value on teaching her to be absolutely sure about her numbers. She could count her fingers and toes at a very young age. Gertie’s education about important things continued in this way for the first years of her life. Witches and warlocks in general didn’t attend school in any normal sense, as they could learn all the things that mattered in their own villages. No one from the normal world ever pressed the point by trying to make them attend schools, because they were wise enough to know that you never tell a witch what she must, or must not, do. Not if you want to go away with the same head and body you arrive with, that is. The nearest education committee to Vile Vale had long since decided that life was better this way. ‘Can you imagine the disruption there would be if those strange children got into our schools?’ they asked one another. ‘Our little dears would be frightened to death by them,’ they agreed. And so it was, the witches and the normal people lived happily apart, hoping to have as little dealings with each other as possible. Only the most special of the witches’ society ever went away to a school for witches and warlocks. The Academy was for the select few who showed great potential. The Grimthorpes didn’t have much hope for Gertie on that score.