Sunday 30 August 2009

My day started strangely, driving along a country road with Soviet-era low-rise apartment buildings on one side, and a freshly-mown English meadow on the other. People were milling about, and I set out a series of my photographs in black wooden frames, leaning against some long, dry grass next to a fence.

I got out of the car and walked, down through a large, freshly-dug V-shaped ditch, perhaps ten metres across and five metres deep, to where my parents and my friends Liz and Will were engaged in putting logs onto a trailer attached to a ride-on lawnmower. I gave them a hand loading up the mower, and then offered to drive the logs across the ditch. Starting up the mower seemed a little strange: I had to insert the key into a small incision in Will’s abdomen, and turn. I was slightly squeamish about the experience, flinching as I turned the key and his flesh parted bloodlessly like living rubber. Liz, a trainee medic, mocked my weak stomach. I suppose I deserved it, as my stomach would not be strong enough to support a lawnmower ignition system.

The mower started and I set off, driving it through the enormous ditch (even with the special chevron tyres on, it had some difficulty scrambling out over the loose soil on the far side), and I drove past people looking at my photographs. Something must have happened to the logs, because I drove back to my parents, gathered some more logs and made the journey again. It was on the third repetition that I noticed that something was wrong—my photographs had vanished!

Aghast but strangely unsurprised, I ran from person to person, asking if they’d seen where my pictures had gone. Nobody had seen anything, but I had my suspicions. It was at about this point that the witch arrived.

I’m not quite sure how I knew she was a witch because she looked like a fairly ordinary old woman, but I, like a man imprisoned for stealing the square root of two, had an irrational conviction. It didn’t take long for the nondescript hag to confess to the theft, and she invited me back to her house. One might have imagined I would have been somewhat hesitant to take her up this offer, but in spite of my certainty about her status as supernatural ne’er-do-well I accepted without question, and thanked her for offering to return the items which she had stolen.

We went down a long, straight flight of concrete steps to a dilapidated concrete house, fronted by a decaying wooden conservatory, white paint peeling and roofed with translucent white plastic sheeting. The garden was thick with overgrown undergrowth, as if in homage to more traditional nursery-rhyme witches whose ramshackle premises do not resemble a council house. The witch showed me into her front room, and sat me down on the brown sofa.

The witch evidently complemented her petty theft with a sideline in jewellery sales, and for some reason retrieving my photographs required me to feign interest in the trinkets she was marketing. Most of them were unspectacular, translucent orange stones which looked like a dollops of frozen Tango milk (a failed soft drinks venture if ever there was one, in spite of your knowing that you had been Tangoed being accompanied by a slight reduction in the risk of osteoporosis), but the final gem she handed to me was captivating. It was the size of a dinner plate, and as deep as a small tumbler. The front was a large, pristine, near-circular flat face surrounded by intricately-carved facets. The reverse was less spectacular: it tapered rapidly to the centre, where a thin cone emerged, carved into a spiral like a unicorn’s horn, which felt somehow slightly tacky. It was eerily light in weight; imagine handling a well-polished sponge cake.

‘What do you think it is?’ she asked me.

I looked at it and noted its deep blue shade. ‘Probably a sapphire,’ I said, drawing on the extensive geological expertise I picked up at primary school.

‘Aaahh,’ she said, in the infuriating manner of one who should simply have told you the answer rather than going through a tedious, disparaging proof of their own superiority, followed by somehow telepathically communicating that I should rotate it.

I turned the gem in my hands and, to my astonishment, it changed colour, first becoming colourless when viewed straight on and then, when viewed from above or below, a faint, melancholy yet cosy orange–red, like the dying rays of the Sun refracted through the lukewarm tears of a schoolboy who has lost his favourite orangey-red colouring pencil.

My amazement seemed to satisfy her, and she promised to take me to where she’d hidden my photos. She strode off rather too fast for me to follow into the collapsing conservatory. As I entered, I noted two gorgeous Japanese women in kimono holding machine guns looking out over her porch through a pane of one-way glass. ‘They can’t be cheap,’ I thought to myself, ‘This witch must be pretty security-conscious.’ The geisha guards eyed me with the confident suspicion of a pair of hotties either of whom could snap me like a twig even if I somehow miraculously made it past the hail of machine-gun fire. This casual disdain in spite of the fact that I now seemed to be carrying a stick! With a knife tied to the end!! I am not sure where that came from, or if it is relevant to the story.

The witch had disappeared off into a maze delimited by thick bamboo with gaps just large enough that you could see through to adjacent passages. I walked briskly in the hope of catching her up, but to no avail. I came to a turning; I decided to go right, up some space-age white steps. At the top, I entered a clean, white room. I turned around and saw row upon row of young boys, eyes empty but angry, standing, staring at me. I suddenly understood where all the children from the village had gone, in spite of not having known there was a village, or any missing children, even as I walked up the stairs. In their left hands, each held a white feather with blood dripping from the end. Shit! I ran back down the stairs, only to find my passage blocked by a marching column of girls. They too were armed with deadly, impossibly-sharpened feathers. My only option was to make an implausible leap three metres up and several metres across onto a wooden beam above the passage, which I did. The children weren’t interested in me—they were going to war—and paid me, teetering on my beam, no heed as they marched silently underneath.

It was at about this point that my brain decided that my lie-in had gone on quite long enough, and I awoke with a start. My day then re-began, slightly less strangely, sprawled across my bed, wondering where my girlfriend was.

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