Housing Benefit Hill: Witch Way out of Here?
When Vera talks to you, it's usually to cackle viciously at someone's stroke of ill-luck. You get the feeling that she's wished it upon them. But there can't be anything in this magic lark, or they wouldn't be stuck in this place...
I SHOULD call this place Housing Benefit Hell. Okay, maybe it's not as bad as that, but it certainly seems like purgatory at times. There's an element of degradation here, living - literally - on top of one another; too many people in too small a space, where children kick about in a nest of derelict garages, scattered with broken glass and knackered car-parts, and where broken furniture moulders in the scrubby hedgerow out the back. Almost every family is a Single Parent. This place is on the edge, in more ways than one.
If there are any Christians here I certainly haven't met them. There's little room for forgiveness as Our Father Which Art In Heaven is manifestly ungenerous with the Daily Bread. Those who profess any belief at all - and there's only two - are naturally prone to the lure of blasphemy. Lucifer, after all, was also cast into the depths.
Fred and Vera are self-confessed witches. They call it "The Craft" and invite me to one of their ceremonies. Well, why not? I can't see how it can do any harm.
Fred makes ritual equipment - swords, wands, crowns and the like - as well as finely-crafted silver jewellery. Vera makes the robes, and the two of them spend much of their time collecting poisonous plants from the nearby woods.
Fred is quietly frustrated, Vera aggressively so. Her throaty growl echoes around the close - shouting obscenities at the children and the dogs - and is one of the daily entertainments. When she talks to you, it's usually to cackle viciously at someone's stroke of ill-luck. You get the feeling that she's wished it upon them. But there can't be anything in this magic lark, or they wouldn't be stuck in this place. Or maybe it's that the spells only work when guided by a malevolent spirit.
But at the time I witnessed their ceremony, I was keeping an open mind. I was hoping to cast a spell over my ex-lover.
The Congregation consists of two people: myself, nervously contemplating the possibility that parts of the ritual may be performed "sky-clad" (naked), and a sad young man with the raw, red scales of eczema all over his hands. Was this Divine Punishment, or is he here hoping for a cure? I'm made even more nervous at what any sky-clad developments might reveal.
Theirs is a typically tatty council flat, but it's remarkable how effectively it's transformed. The settee is pushed back. Candles are lit, and one of the sideboards is miraculously converted into an altar. Fred and Vera descend dressed in tight white robes that show the stretch of their paunches. We daren't think of them as Fred and Vera anymore: they are High Priest and Priestess - sorcerers, practitioners of the dark arts.
The ceremony begins. The High Priest inserts a dagger into a chalice of wine, while intoning some ritual formula under his breath. Unfortunately, we are almost immediately interrupted by a knock at the door. Fred is annoyed (do Christian Priests ever suffer such humiliation?) and insists on starting again. He breathes deeply and rolls his eyes heaven-wards as he re-inserts his dagger into the chalice in what, at that moment, looks like peevishness. All the time the two of them indulge in whispered directions as if this is the dress-rehearsal for some greater show. There's certainly a high degree of theatricality about the event.
They are creating a sacred circle in ritual space. Earth, air, fire and water revolve in the form of salt, a smoking censer, a candle and a chalice of wine. The High Priest faces the Four Quarters and calls on their respective Guardians (they all have impressive, if forgettable, demonic names), and then revolves his dagger to create the last barrier in ritual space.
There's another hint of irritation as they've forgotten to bring down a sword: the sad little dagger makes a paltry circle by comparison. The two of them link hands and begin to spin; slowly at first, but with increasing abandon, chanting more and more frantically as the gyration grows wilder. Finally the Priestess orders "Down!", and they both drop, the Priest resting his head on her feet. Fred suffers a head-rush and has to lie in this position for some minutes. Finally he forces himself, panting, to rise. He stands with his little dagger erect (how much better a full-sized sword would have been) while the High Priestess kisses first his feet, then his thighs and then (uh-oh!)... but no, she passes on to his belly, his chest, his lips. For one brief, unnerving moment I'd pictured them taking the phallic symbolism to its logical conclusion.
There were other parts to the ceremony. At one point the High Priestess was on her knees, chanting to a candle flame that was serving for the bonfire they might have used in open space. Oh, the limits of a council house invocation.
It is interesting to note that most - if not all - of today's witches follow a tradition that goes right back to the Thirties; and that the rituals, chants and names are gleaned from such diverse and unrelated sources as Egyptology, Celtic legend and the kabbala. No ancient religion, this. What knowledge there is is entirely book-learned.
FINALLY, the ceremony over, the congregation are invited into the circle to eat corned beef and pickle sandwiches under the protection of the goddess. By this time, numerous cats are happily dragging morsels of marge-flecked corned beef from between slices of bread. Vera tells me that animals are given special privileges on these occasions. Fred uses this as an opportunity to launch into his philosophy. Life is the passenger, he tells us, and we are the vehicles. You can't expect the bus to drive itself.
Vera tells us a very revealing story. Once, on acid, she managed to convince a fellow tripper that the only candle in the room represented his body, while the flame was his immortal soul. Having drawn him into this mysterious reflection, she promptly nipped out the flame. The man screamed, genuinely shaken. When sufficiently recovered, he protested that Vera wasn't playing by the rules. "What rules?" she laughed. "There are no rules."
I left soon after - pleased that we had at least retained our modesty.
I might add, however, that there were no lasting after-effects. I didn't go mad, and I wasn't drawn into the labyrinth of their dreadful plottings. The word "dreadful" is apt here, not in the 17th century sense, but in the modern usage - meaning, simply, "naff". The whole spectacle was ludicrous, not frightening; drab, not evil. The only slightly perverse element came in Vera's numerous references to scourging. But I guess middle-aged people are often in need of a bit of spice to liven up their flagging senses. And who can blame them?
I have purposely not used real names in this piece, and have restrained from identifying the town. I believe I am immune to curses. But you never know....
© 2009 Christopher James Stone