The Witch's List

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Sandy Beech doesn’t believe in witches and the supernatural. However, certain strange events occur which put his skepticism to the test: a burning book, a falling crucifix, a mysterious illness, and a fire in a convent which kills all twelve nuns. On her deathbed, Bernadette, the last surviving nun, warns him to control his lusts and avoid African women. Sandy finds this difficult, since he is attracted to exotic, dark-skinned women and after his hedonistic university exchange year in Paris, marries Rocky from the Ivory Coast. Five years later, childless and with the marriage souring, they decide to visit Rocky’s home country. Sandy is drawn into a world of strange beliefs and practices: he finds out about the Witch’s List – a list of people destined to die, and is attacked by various animals starting with a ferocious dog in Abidjan. He delves further and further into the realm of African witchcraft, but the horrific truth remains obscure… The Witch’s List is the first of a trilogy.


Chapter 1

Witches and Warlocks

 
I didn’t use to believe in witches. Not really. Of course, growing
up in Scotland, there were always stories of witches and wizards,
ghosts and ghouls, monsters and zombies and so on, but as in
most ‘civilized’ western countries, such stories were mainly
regarded as folklore; on a par with pixies and elves. You didn’t
really believe in them, they were just fairy tales. Remember the
stories?
There was one, more ‘serious’ book on witches in our
secondary school library though. And it freaked us all out a bit. It
must have been one of the most browsed texts in there – due to
its filthy pictures of witches performing various ceremonies –
black masses and the like – naked! In most libraries there are
some books with scuddy pictures, classed under erotic literature
or art; even in the children’s section there’s always some big kid
that’s got his hands on the encyclopaedia and invites you over to
show you a picture of the topless, tribal African woman. This one,
‘Witches and Warlocks’, was a non-fiction work, detailing very
graphically, and very sexily we all thought, a range of witchcraft
and black arts practices. It had somehow found its way into Saint
Saviours’ RC (Roman Catholic) school, despite the establishment
being as staunchly Catholic in its syllabus and overall culture as
it comes. It was in the reference section, on the religious books
shelf, and I’m sure none of the teachers knew of its existence,
much less its saucy content. The librarian was a rather dozy
woman in her thirties, with short blond hair; always had her nose
in some novel. I assume it was her that ordered a copy. She must
have done it absent-mindedly, not really checking out its profane
and pornographic content. Or maybe she was some kind of
closest anarchist or rebel. Who knows?
My best friend at the time, Martin Cardosi, always one to lead
me into mischief, showed me the book at one point; we must have
been in second year, aged thirteen, hormones beginning to rage.
“Here, Sandy, come and check this out.” He shoved the big
tome into my hands.
I flipped through it, speechless, mostly just looking at the
shocking pictures but taking in some of the vocabulary: black
mass, pentagram, hex, coven, sect, orgy…
“I’d like to join one of those devilish sects, just to take part in
the orgies,” said Martin, grinning.
“Idiot! You’d probably go to hell.”
After we’d had our fill of the images, Martin put the book
back on the shelf and said, “Don’t forget to touch the Bible after,
just to be on the safe side.”
We both touched the Bible before leaving.
From then on we secretly consulted the book, at least once a
week, hiding behind one of the shelves and ogling at the pictures.
* * *
Saint Saviours’ was a comprehensive school, slap-bang in the
middle of some of the roughest areas of Dundee: Fintry,
Whitfield, Craigie and Douglas; so it had its fair share of
psychos, hard men and general nutters. They had three main
pastimes during the lunch break: playing a gambling game
called pitchy, which involves throwing coins up against the wall,
the winner being the one who gets his coin closest; smoking
round the back of the boilers; and, of course, fighting and
bullying. Martin and I came from the Ferry, one of the better
areas of Dundee. We were bussed in to Saint Saviours’, along
with about forty to fifty other children, because it was the nearest
Catholic School. Hence we were labelled ‘snobs’, ‘toffs’ or ‘poofs’
and were considered good bullying fare for the yobs during the
breaks.
The library was a good place to escape to, to avoid getting
beaten up, but the best place was the Chess Club, because we
could eat our lunch there; and also because we liked playing
chess, I suppose (we were both on the school chess team). It was
run by Mr Fitzsimmons, a very amusing and charismatic
chemistry teacher, but with a very short temper. He was well
known for his angry fits, often reducing strapping lads, a foot
taller than him, to blubbing wrecks just by screaming and
shouting at them. He sometimes seemed as if he was about to
have a nervous breakdown; eventually he did, but years later,
once we’d all left the school. So while the Chess Club was a great
place to hang out, it was wise to be on your best behaviour, since
Fitzy – never call him that to his face – could drop in at any time
to check up on you.
In the winter, when it was very cold, the classrooms got a bit
chilly, even with the heaters turned on full. So Mr Fitzsimmons
used to light up all the Bunsen burners on the workbenches,
which were situated along three walls of the room, as well as the
one on top of his desk, at the front. He left them on the slow,
yellow flame and not the strong, ferocious, blue flame, but it was
dangerous enough leaving unattended teenagers surrounded by
flaming burners. It also created a rather mysterious atmosphere,
like sitting in some pagan temple. I’m sure if some health and
safety inspector had come along, he would have got rapped for it.
But Fitzy was ever the rebel. This was 80s Britain, where teachers
were striking and stopping all extra-curriculum activities in
protest at Thatcher’s budget cuts and pay rise refusals, and his
Chess Club was the one remaining club in the school; all the
others – sports, drama, photography, etc. – had been stopped
after the first year. I think he supported the strikes, but he just
loved chess. He had, after all, coached the famous Paul Motwani,
a previous pupil at the school and huge chess star, who went on
to become Scotland’s first Grand Master.
So one Tuesday lunchtime, during our second year, in the
heart of the cold Scottish winter, we were sitting eating our lunch
and playing chess in the chemistry lab / Chess Club, the Bunsen
burners full ablaze and Martin said, “Watch this!” He went over
to the workbench at the side of the class and moved his hand
through the flame. “See, if you move your hand quite quickly
through the flame, it doesn’t burn.”
We all have a fascination with fire. It must be human nature,
part of our instincts, left over from prehistoric times where fire
meant warmth, protection, hot food, story telling but perhaps
also excitement: sex by the fireside? We’ve all set something on
fire just for the fun of it: a candle, a firework, a match or a whole
box of them all at once, thrilled by the little explosion, the sudden
blaze. “Come on, guys, are you chicken?” Martin ribbed us.
We didn’t need much persuasion, most of the boys and a few
of the girls left their chess games and took turns putting their
hands through the flame, feeling the slight warmth, but moving
fast enough so as not to get burnt. I went to the burner on the
teacher’s desk, standing on a chair so I could reach it. Of course,
just my luck, as I was putting my hand through the flame,
Fitzsimmons came in, took in the scene – and went berserk!
“You, Beech! I can’t believe it!” he shouted, already turning
red.
Most people had backed away from the burners when he
came in, but he’d caught me red-handed, seen me through the
little window on the door before he even came in. “Can’t I even
leave you a few minutes, without you getting up to something?”
he bellowed.
“Sorry, sir,” I said meekly, looking down at my shoes.
“And here was me, just trying to be nice and warm the place
up for you a bit.” He looked around and caught Martin smirking.
“I bet this was your idea wasn’t it, Martin?”
“What? No, sir,” he protested, but he wasn’t fooling anyone.
“Right the pair of you, out! You’re banned for the rest of the
week.”
There wasn’t going to be any discussion, so we gathered up
our things and made for the door. Fitzsimmons went around the
class turning off all the burners. “Get back to your games the rest
of you, and you can freeze for all I care!” He glared at us as we
headed out the door.
“Nice one, Martin,” I said accusatorily to my friend, who’d got
me into deep water once again, or rather, thick ice in this case – it
was one of the coldest days of winter, there was deep snow and
thick sheets of ice everywhere.
The yobs were all having snowball fights and worse – pushing
people to the ground and burying them with snow they kicked
on top of them. Ron Knight, one of the chief psychos, spotted us,
came along and shoved me to the ground and started kicking
snow on me. “Sandy, you poof! Come and play snowballs instead
of that poofy chess.”
One of his mates, Grant Bishop grabbed some sand from a big
bin of the stuff, officially used to help melt the ice, and threw
some in my face. He also stuffed a handful down the back of my
neck. “Hey, the Sandy Beech needs some more sand.”
“You’ve just been checkmated by a Knight and a Bishop,”
joked Martin. He often used his humour in such cases, and by
keeping the lowlifes amused managed to deflect most of their
violence. While the pair of bullies guffawed, Martin grabbed me
up off the ground. “Come on, Sandy.” He led me away and once
we were out of earshot he said, “Let’s head to the library.” He
didn’t want the others to know we were going there, since they’d
just call us ‘swats’ and ‘poofs’ and probably pelt us with more
snow and sand.
We still had about forty-five minutes to kill before
the end of the lunchtime break, so it seemed like a good idea.
The library was very quiet, just a few bookish types, perusing
the shelves or sitting down reading at one of the desks. We
blended in, although I was leaving a little trail of sand from the
stuff Grant had put down my clothes. After aimlessly looking at
a few books in the various sections, we found each other in the
religious section, in front of the shelf with the infamous ‘Witches
and Warlocks’.
Martin took it off the shelf. “May as well have a gander,” he
said.
We looked through it, page by page; no matter how many
times you looked at this bizarre tome, you were still spellbound,
feeling a strange mixture of curiosity, horror and titillation as
you took in the pictures – both drawings and photos. “Do you
think those are actual devil worshippers, taking part in real black
masses, or just models pretending?” asked Martin.
“Don’t know. What, are you thinking of applying for a job as
a model for the next edition?”
He laughed. “Who published this thing anyway?” He found
the answer on one of the pages near the front. “Six-six-six
publishing,” he read aloud. “Geeze, the devil himself! Quick
we’d better touch the Bible before we go.” Lunchtime break was
almost over.
“What do you think would happen if you touched it with the
Bible?” he asked.
“Don’t know. Probably nothing. Try it and see,” I said
flippantly.
“I’ll hold this. You get the Bible.” He was serious.
I rolled my eyes. “Okay, and then let’s get out of here before
the librarian wakes up and nabs us.”
He held the volume of ‘Witches and Warlocks’, and I got the
Bible, a big leather-bound edition, further along the shelf. It had
probably been consecrated by the Bishop, the real Bishop that is,
not Grant Bishop. I touched it onto the perverse, evil tome that
Martin was holding and the pages burst into flames in his hands.
“Ahhh!” He started screaming. We both panicked. He
dropped the flaming book to the floor, and I quickly placed the
Bible – which had escaped unscathed – on top of the shelf, no
time to put it back in its place. Then we both legged it out of the
door.
Luckily, I don’t think the librarian had seen us at all,
engrossed as always in the latest potboiler she was reading. We
ran downstairs and back into the playground, praying that we
wouldn’t be found out, or that we hadn’t set the library on fire.
There were no smoke alarms in those days, but I assumed the
librarian wasn’t that dozy that she couldn’t react to the smell of
smoke and douse a book with the nearest fire extinguisher.
* * *
The first class of the afternoon, Maths, went as usual, but halfway
through the second class, English, there was a note passed round
to all the teachers and everyone was convoked to the hall for an
emergency assembly. When we got there the place was packed;
all the teachers and pupils were present, as was the librarian,
who for once looked emotional and agitated. Martin and I looked
at each other uneasily. He put his index finger to his lips. Of
course, I wasn’t going to say anything. It was a golden, universal
rule we’d learned since primary school; never grass, and
especially never own up to anything if you know what’s good for
you.
Miss Gruffy, the assistant-head led the proceedings. She had a
formidable presence, despite being only about five-foot-two.
Greying hair cut short, icy-clear blue eyes which no one dared
look into for more than an instant, built like a bus – not fat just
solid, matriarchal, I suppose you might say. She’d been a
missionary nun in Africa in the sixties and seventies, no doubt
striking fear into the hearts of any cannibal tribes who dared defy
her. She’d been awarded an MBE no less, before leaving the cloth
and taking on a new mission: trying to keep us lot on the straight
and narrow.
She held up the charred remains of ‘Witches and Warlocks’,
holding it at the extreme corner between her thumb and
forefinger, as if it was some filthy rag; I suppose it was in her
eyes, both literally and figuratively. “Who’s responsible for this?”
she boomed, and then looked round the assembly hall, trying to
detect any sign of someone who might know something. We all
kept our eyes down and remained mute. She let us stew in
silence for a good two minutes, before eventually saying, “Fine.
No one’s going to own up. The library’s closed for the next two
weeks.”
She dramatically dropped the scorched volume into a
wastepaper bin, which had obviously been put up on the stage
beside her for this sole purpose. She looked out at us again and
finally thundered, “God is not mocked!” Clutching the Bible –
I’m sure it was the one I’d discarded previously up in the library,
she glared at us for a few more instants, then strode furiously off
the stage.

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Author

Andrew Cairns

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