This week’s short story is dedicated to Serena Cairns, who sent me a prompt on Twitter: “Rainwitch, rainwitch, fetch me the magic gooseberry”.
It’s play time. The children dart around the sloped concrete playground, on which is painted the bright but worn lines of various sports pitches used for PE, layered over one another as though jostling for space. They run and scream and play and giggle, the children. Little girls in little grey pinafores and little boys in little grey shorts and shirts, all running and chasing and being magical things. The atmosphere is loud and manic but happy too. That child over there is a dinosaur, that one is a dog. Those over there are playing catch whilst these by here smash conkers. It’s not those children who draw our eye, though. They are being children, doing whatever it is that children do.
No, it’s the other children that we’re interested in. The children who huddle under the rain shelter, even though there is no pitter patter of raindrops on the corrugated roof. It’s those children, away from all the screaming and sniggering and scampering that they can hear in the near distance. The little boys and the little girls who stand clustered in a circle, holding hands, whispering quickly and quietly, chanting with belief and faith.
They whisper words of magic, words of intrigue. It’s these children who capture our attention and we watch, rapt, as they uncover the words that turn their world technicoloured, the words that bring the magic alive and transport them from the drab greyness of the rain shelter and their dull, boring school uniforms to a world beyond what any of them imagined. It’s these children, with their eyes screwed shut with concentration, their little hands sweaty as they clamp onto one another, their little mouths moving almost too fast for the words to make sense. Almost.
“Rainwitch, Rainwitch, fetch me the magic gooseberry,” they whisper, over and over.
“Rainwitch, Rainwitch, fetch me the magic gooseberry,” they say, rising in volume and pitch with each turn.
“Rainwitch, Rainwitch, fetch me the magic gooseberry,” they cry as their chant reaches a crescendo. Their little hands, woven together to become one, bouncing up and down with the rhythm of their speech. Their little eyes burst open and smiles stretch across their little faces.
“Rainwitch, Rainwitch, fetch me the magic gooseberry!” they scream, and pull apart, scattering through the shelter, giggling with excitement as the Rainwitch appears before them – colourful and bright and with just enough warts to justify her title of ‘witch’. And all the while, the other children run and play, unaware of the magical Rainwitch now unfurling in the rain shelter, guarded by the scattered circle of excitable scamps. The children’s little mouths hang open with awe.
“What do you want?” the Rainwitch asks, her voice the gnarled and twisted sound of a decrepit old woman. “Why did you call for me?” she asks, although she already knows.
One brave little boy steps forward, his little legs shaking slightly but his eyes bright with wonder and hope. “P…p…please Mrs Rainwitch, we didn’t mean to d…d…disturb you. P…p…please can you fetch me the magic gooseberry?” The other children hang back, clinging to the edges of the shelter as they watch on.
The Rainwitch hobbles over to the boy, back bent and hand resting heavily on her cane. She towers over him, her face close to the top of his head and she whispers down at him, her rancid breath making his head back away from her whilst his body remains in place. “Magic gooseberry?” she asks as her face twists and turns at him. “What does an ugly little brat like you want with the magic gooseberry?” The boy’s chin wobbles as his bravery finally gives out. A little girl steps forward, taking his place, taking her turn. The boy backs up to the edge of the shelter, as though that is going to protect him, as though he even really needs protection.
“Please ma’am, we just want the magic gooseberry, and we heard that you can help us.” She manages to keep the wobble from her little voice, her chin jutting out with confidence as she tries to charm the witch into helping.
“Oh look!” the witch squeaks with a cackle, her pointy nose pointing now in the girl’s direction. “It’s a girl one this time. Complete with braids to hang on a hook. I could leave you dangling there for days, you know? And then when I’m ready, I could turn you into a chicken and roast you in my oven and eat you all up with a lovely blood gravy.” The Rainwitch grins and looks at the other children, daring another to have a go, but the little girl with the braids is not quite ready to retreat.
“You could do that, of course, Mrs Rainwitch. Or you could help us get the magic gooseberry and then you can go home to your cottage and we’ll never bother you again.”
“Ay,” the Rainwitch says. “You said that yesterday too, but you never leave me alone, you little worms. Tell me, little girl, do you even know what the magic gooseberry does?” The Rainwitch looked at her with her head tilted to the side, urging the child on. The girl’s mouth, hanging open as her eyes dart wildly around her, tells the witch that she doesn’t have a clue.
“I know!” a small voice says from a little body clinging to the wall. “I know,” it repeats.
“Ah, another of the boy ones,” the Rainwitch whispers with delight as she hobbles over to him, trapping him against the wall with no hope of escape. “Tell me then, you little woodlouse, what do you think the magic gooseberry does?” Her lips snarl and her eyelid flickers with a tic. The boy remains steadfast, despite the stench.
“Why, it’s – ” he began as the school bell rang, loud as it drills through their words, their minds, their magic.
“Too slow again, children,” the Rainwitch sniggers. “Maybe tomorrow you’ll get the magic gooseberry…” and with that, she vanishes through the floor returning the rain shelter to its drab greyness once more. The children giggle and sag with a mixture of
relief and disappointment before the bell rings again, hard and thunderous across the playground. They like the Rainwitch, even with her pong and her insults.
The running and dashing of the playground slows, the screaming and giggling quieten. The children scamper from the shelter and up the sloping playground to join the crowd. The chasing stops, the conkers are dropped, and the dinosaur and the dog return to their human form. They stand in lines as required, the children dashing to their places with less excitement than before, their little red faces and sweaty brows now the only reminder of their magical, technicoloured hour.
Their little grey pinafores and their little grey shorts come together and with so many little legs and little arms, it’s hard to tell which child is which. We don’t know, now, where the dinosaur is or what’s happened to the dog. And we can’t tell which children were those who huddled in the rain shelter, chanting for the Rainwitch, begging for the magic gooseberry. But tomorrow will soon be upon us and from where we stand watching, we can see the Rainwitch as she sits in her shelter, waiting patiently for her friends to return.