China had been back in the Top Lanes for less than three hours, and she was having tea with three women who called themselves witches. This town’s changed, she thought.
This was China’s home town, and she’d known two of these women, a little, when she was young. There was Lettie, who had gone to the same after-school dance lessons as China’s sister: China remembered a five-year-old starlet who tap-danced to Get Happy with perfect jazz-hands, and wore her blonde hair in ringlets. The starlet was nineteen now, and wouldn’t meet China’s eyes through her round glasses. Her hair was a faded lilac, and hung in drooping curtains around her face. She had worn holes in the long sleeves of her black, lace-trimmed cardigan, and while the other women were talking she stuck her thumbs through them to play with the jangling pewter pendants that hung from frayed ribbons around her neck: a pentagram; a zodiac wheel; some sort of bird.
There was Alison, who introduced herself as ‘a university professor, socialist, feminist and witch’, as though this was some sort of strange conference; but China remembered her as Lettie’s frightening mother. Alison’s hair had gone grey, but otherwise she didn’t seem to have changed at all: black dress, black pashmina, sharp nose and collarbones and elbows. If she’d told me she was a witch fifteen years ago, China thought, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised.
But she hadn’t; China had discovered the coven only this afternoon, after she ran into its third member in the Co-op. She’d been stocking up on the things she’d need (kale, proper coffee, sparkling water) for six weeks at her mother’s house, where she was staying to cover the by-election. That’s why she was here. She hardly ever came back.
In the hot drinks aisle she had found herself staring at a woman her own age, who had thick, woolly grey tights and even thicker curly brown hair. Eventually the woman felt the pressure of China’s stare, and looked up, and smiled in recognition.
“Charlie-Ann,” the woman said, and smiled. She had round pink cheeks and perfect, creamy skin.
“Oh — it’s China now,” said China.
“Of course, I’m sorry — I’ve read your articles,” said the woman. “You must be here to cover the by-election?”
“That’s right,” said China. “I’m so sorry, I — ”
“Don’t worry if you don’t remember me. I was Heather Gooding when we were both in student politics, like, a zillion years ago.”
“That’s it. I was trying to place you! Heather.”
“Although actually I’ve changed my name too. It’s Feather.”
China laughed. Heather’s face remained politely blank until China realised Feather was serious.
“I like that,” she said, covering herself, but realising at the same time that she really did. “Light as a feather, stiff as a board. Like in The Craft?”
“Well, funny you should say that,” said Feather, “because I’m a witch now.”
China laughed, again; and Feather said that no, she was serious, she was here buying tea because she had a coven meeting in half an hour, and China laughed again; and Feather said no, really, you should come and meet them, and China had laughed and said sure. It was only when Alison had swept into Feather’s perfectly ordinary kitchen, dragging Lettie in her wake — the two of them looking like a Disney villain and her sidekick — that China realised that these women were all serious.
Through Feather’s kitchen window, China could see the drizzle drifting onto the cobbles from a blank white sky. In the distance, mist settled over Manchester like an army blanket, unrelenting but somehow still comforting. It was the weather you’d expect of an autumn afternoon in the Top Lanes, the weather China had seen on hundreds of afternoons: walking home from school; knocking on doors in local elections, before she’d given all that up.
Feather hadn’t been here then. She was from the South somewhere, some sort of ’shire. On the walk up the hill from the Co-op to this little house, she’d told China that she’d moved here from London just a year ago. This was one of the new ‘in’ places to move to from London, China remembered reading that now. The bleakly stunning views, the house prices, the very doable commute into Manchester if you still had to go into an office.
And yet it was strange to see how well Feather fit in here. She was wearing a burnt orange jumper over some sort of floral tea dress, sturdy but stylish boots over those woolly tights, a cheery smear of jam-coloured lipstick in the middle of her soft, pastry-pale face. You could imagine exchanging confidences with her over paella in the new tapas place in the centre of town; walking with her through the fields; sitting with her here, in the gentle fug of incense smoke that somehow smelt more of church than of Glastonbury, drinking tea from a vintage set.
Alison held her teacup in her claw-like hands and went on at length about her journey into witchcraft; the kinship she’d discovered with the women who had been hanged as witches in Lancashire four hundred years before. When she finally paused for breath, Feather interjected with a belated introduction. “China writes for The Beat,” she said, in a tone that was either intended to convey what a clever girl China was, or to throw her to the wolves.
The expression on Alison’s face as she rounded on China suggested it was the latter. “Oh, you’re a journalist,” she said, in the same tone that one might say “Oh, you’re the woman who stole my credit cards and craps nightly on my lawn”.
“That’s right,” said China, pretending not to notice the hostility glittering in Alison’s eyes. “I’m in town to cover the by-election.” She was about to remind them of the details, because if there was anything she’d learnt in almost twenty years of knocking on people’s doors to talk to them about politics, it was that most people didn’t pay nearly as much attention to politics as politicians and journalists expected them to. Not even when their MP was in the shadow cabinet; not even when he died in a grisly car crash and the papers were wall-to-wall with speculation about whether and how the seat would swing.
But before China could continue, an extraordinary noise rose from Alison’s throat.
“Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha,” she shouted, throaty and mirthless: a cackle. An onlooker might have assumed that Alison had cultivated this dismaying sound to bolster her recently adopted status as a witch; but China remembered it from years ago, though she’d managed to forget it until now. It had usually followed some sort of observation about China’s mother, and what she was wearing.
The small kitchen suddenly felt very hot, and scarlet flooded China’s face, but she sipped her tea and turned a mild, inquiring expression in the direction of this old witch.
“Oh my God,” screeched Alison, “well, we did that! Didn’t we? We did that Blairite fucker in. Didn’t we?” She looked at Feather for confirmation.
China looked at Lettie over her teacup. Lettie’s eyes were wide, and she was biting furiously, insistently at her lower lip. Either mortified or trying hard not to laugh.
China felt a hand on her arm: Feather was trying to get her attention. Feather looked unperturbed, resting her cheek against her other hand and her elbow on the table. She smiled at China, even gave her a reassuring wink. “We were running a campaign to convince the late Mr. Leyland, may he rest in peace, to change his stance on a number of issues. We certainly didn’t intend him to come to any harm.”
China put her teacup down. “What are you saying?”
“We kept him awake,” said Lettie, quiet but clear and unmistakable: the first thing she’d said all afternoon except a whispered ‘hello’.
“Kept him awake?” China repeated. “What, something like the South American protests, with the banging pans?”
“Women — some women, those of us who are especially attuned to our femininity and to our ancestors and to the moon — have weapons at our disposal that men can’t begin to dream of,” Alison said. “What society thinks of as ‘traditional’” — she made quote-marks in the air with her fingers, twisting her mouth into a sour smile to make sure everyone knew what she thought of tradition, and then repeated the performance to make sure everyone had caught it — “‘traditional’ means of political activism are defined by men, and male energy, and people will tell you that those are the only ways to go about things — signing petitions, and going on marches, and having meetings where you have to put your hand up if you want to talk. And they don’t know, you see, what we’re capable of.” She smiled proudly, and tapped her long nose.
China was fairly sure that Alison hadn’t been involved in politics, back when China was still going to meetings and campaign sessions in and around the Top Lanes. While she was listening to Alison, she took a moment to be thankful for that. She might have met some bad people through politics in her teens and twenties, and got into some bad habits — but at least she’d never had to sit through a meeting with Alison Howarth.
“It wasn’t quite like the South American protests,” said Feather, getting up from the table and busying herself at the kitchen counter, “but I suppose we had a similar end goal. Well, it’s the goal of all protests, really: disturbing the peace.”
“If you won’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep,” drawled Lettie. Her voice really was quite grating; but as the only other person in the room who’d been born in the Top Lanes, to China her accent sounded like home.
Feather came back to the table with slices of cake, on plates that matched the cups and saucers. As she put China’s cake in front of her she smiled down at her, and China, looking up, caught a blurry flash of a memory that wouldn’t quite come into focus. One of the bad habits China had got into when she was younger was getting drunk, and doing things she didn’t remember — usually at the sort of party conferences and campaign weekends where she’d met Feather.
“Like I say,” said Feather, interrupting her thoughts, “there were a few issues we raised with Tom Leyland — things where we wanted him to reconsider his stance.”
Alison snorted. “You can say that again!” she said; and she began to recount the list of problems she’d had with the politics of the late Tom Leyland MP, most of which had to do with his attitudes towards current and former leaders of the Labour Party; but as soon as her mouth closed around another forkful of cake, Feather said quickly “Anyway, our campaign tactic was much the same as the cacerolazo protests you mentioned, except that — being witches — we didn’t have to use physical pots and pans. We used a spell. We wrote to Mr. Leyland, asking him to meet us to discuss our concerns; and when he didn’t reply, we cast a spell to keep him awake, indefinitely. We wrote to him again and explained that we had cast this spell as a form of protest, and asked him again to meet us and talk about it; but he didn’t reply to that either. So we kept renewing the spell, and…well, within a fortnight he’d fallen asleep at the wheel, and you know the rest.” Feather drew her hands together and cast her eyes down towards her plate.
“I mean, who gets behind the wheel of a car when they’ve not slept in two weeks?” demanded Alison. “Serves him right.”
The newspapers had gone into some detail about the extent of Leyland’s injuries. China regarded Alison, silhouetted against the rapidly greying white of the kitchen window, until her phone buzzed, loudly, and made them all jump.
“Sorry, it’s my editor,” she said, standing up, suddenly very relieved to have an excuse to get out of there.
“Oh, it’s her editor,” Alison shouted. “It’s her editor, everyone! Isn’t she important?”
“Thanks for the cake, Feather,” China said, putting her coat on. “It was so nice to see you again,” she added, reflecting to herself that five minutes earlier, she would have meant it.
On impulse, on the way out of the kitchen, she put her hand on Lettie’s shoulder for the briefest of moments. To her surprise, Lettie covered it with her own hand, an unreadable little gesture; and then both China and her hand were free, and the door was clattering shut behind her, and she was out of the stifling kitchen and into a bracing spray of rain, kicking up heavy dead leaves and breathing hard.
Her mother’s house was painful, no matter how many times she went back to it: the lights too bright, the TV too loud, her old unhappinesses somehow still too near. China didn’t have a key anymore, that’s how rarely she came home; she knocked, and then knocked louder, and eventually her sister Jasmine let her in, her headphones around her neck.
“Mum’s out,” she said, in place of hello, as China hung up her coat. There were eleven years between them, and they didn’t know each other well.
“Jas…D’you remember Lettie Howarth, from your dance classes?”
“She’s a witch, now.”
Jasmine snorted, already halfway back up the stairs. “‘Course she fucking is.”
In her room, which had barely changed since she’d moved out in an earlier decade, China lay down on her narrow bed, promising herself she wouldn’t fall asleep, at least not until she’d spoken to Kate. She almost never slept during the day anymore. It was one of the things she associated with her Old Life, her Bad Life; one of the things she consciously avoided doing now that she’d Turned Her Life Around. But she always seemed to hit a wall of fatigue when she came back to this house.
She wished, pointlessly, that she wasn’t here. She wanted to be back in London, with her own books and plants around her, and her routine that made her feel like herself: work, gym, cooking, running. Friends who didn’t give her a hard time for not drinking. Sources who didn’t realise she wasn’t drinking, and took her into their confidence after they’d had three gins and she’d had three lime and sodas.
It was inevitable that she’d be sent to cover this. She always got the by-elections, and of course this was her home turf. But being back home made her unhappy. When she was younger it was the poverty and the hopelessness that made her unhappy, and that had made her want to change the world, and so she’d got into politics very young, and for a brief while there she’d been energised and inspired, and then — well. She’d met some bad people, got into some bad habits, and made herself unhappy all over again. She didn’t enjoy being reminded of all that by running into Feather.
She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to imagine going without sleep for two weeks — was it even possible? Not the spell, or whatever nonsense Feather and the Howarths thought they were up to — but could a person really live without sleep for two weeks?
She sat up and reached for her phone to google this, and then remembered her missed call from Kate. She hit Call, staring blankly at the P!nk poster on the wall opposite — actually a page she’d ripped from a magazine eighteen years before.
China told her editor that there was a witches’ coven in the Top Lanes who thought they’d killed Tom Leyland with an insomnia curse. Kate laughed longer and louder than Alison had, but this time China laughed with her.
“But,” said China, firmly, “this is the thing — it was actually sort of chilling, not just ridiculous.”
“Oh, gosh, I bet.”
“Because the way she talked about what they did to him — not the nasty woman but the nice one — ”
“The good witch?”
“Exactly, right, fucking Glinda, this perfectly pleasant, apple-cheeked woman who looks like she should have, like, a baking blog or something. She was calm and smiling and handing round cake while she explained that they threatened an elected representative and tried to torture him. Did torture him, to death, as far as she knows. And the other two are chortling with glee and she’s not, she’s sitting there quietly like she knows the magnitude of what she thinks she’s done. Obviously they’re all delusional, but it’s also quite terrifying.”
Down the phone she heard Kate inhale: a long, slow whistle. China couldn’t tell, but her editor sounded impressed.
“OK,” Kate said. “Don’t spend a lot of time on that angle, but I’d like something on it. Just make sure we’re staying up to date with the by-election bread and butter, yeah? Polls, selections, here’s how the man in the pub is voting. Obviously I don’t literally mean ‘pub’, if that doesn’t work for you.”
“It’s fine. I can be in a pub. But thank-you.”
China hung up, lay back on the bed, hauled her watch in front of her face and moaned. She’d arranged to meet some of her old uni friends in Manchester. She moaned some more as she got up and changed her clothes. She put make-up on, and found herself thinking of Feather’s bright berry lipstick.
She left a note for her mother, called goodbye to Jasmine, got into her car with a travel mug of coffee, drove into the city and walked into the bar already yawning. It was a bar she’d never been to before: these were friends who understood why she wanted to avoid their old haunts.
“There she is,” chorused Matt and Kieran and Hannah: the three friends she knew from her Old Life that she’d stayed vaguely in touch with. She was fairly sure she’d slept with all three of them at one time or another, but had never crushed, insulted or puked on any of them badly enough to burn a bridge. They were already at a table, and by the looks of it Kieran and Hannah were at least two drinks down — Matt always declined to drink in front of China, even though she always insisted it was fine.
“D’you guys remember Heather Gooding?” she asked them, when all the greetings were done, and they’d ordered a round of three Bloody Marys and one Virgin.
They did. “Always struck me as being too nice for politics,” Kieran offered. “Why?”
“She’s a witch now.”
“’Course she fucking is.”
“How funny you should mention her,” said Hannah. “I haven’t thought about her for years and years but I was wondering how she was the other week — you know, after Tom Leyland died. Because they were a bit of an item, weren’t they? Back in the day?”
“Were they?” China tried to remember this. There was something familiar about it, but she couldn’t quite see the edges. Everything from back then was so blurry.
“Oh, yeah,” said Matt. “Quite the scandal, wasn’t it?”
China excused herself to the bathroom, made a note of this information on her phone, and came back to the table.
She stayed with the three of them for the best part of three hours, drinking mocktails and catching up on their news. They asked her questions about herself and she gave boring answers that she was grateful for. She was aware of what her role in this group had been — she was the one who got into amusing scrapes, the one who always came equipped with a funny story at her own expense, about a bad decision she’d made and where it had led her. Now that she was no longer ruining her life on a nightly basis she no longer had much to tell. She was grateful to these three people for wanting her company anyway; and still more grateful for her boring life.
Her last drink of the night was an espresso, to keep her alert for the drive home, and she was still gently buzzing as she knocked on the front door. This time Jasmine let her in almost immediately, returning to the sofa opposite the TV.
“Mum in bed?”
“Yeah,” said Jasmine. “You drunk?”
“Hm.” Jasmine had been seven years old when China moved out. China wondered what she remembered.
Upstairs in her old bed, China looked at her watch with wired eyes and saw that it was almost midnight, and then 00.47, and then 2.04, and then 3.13. She knew that she was away from her usual routine, and pumped full of caffeine and sugar syrups; but the longer she shifted and struggled and still couldn’t sleep, the more dreadfully certain she became that she was also under a curse. Those three witches had been able to tell she didn’t believe them, and so they’d put a spell on her, and she might never sleep again. She’d be awake until she died, like Tom Leyland, and she wouldn’t be able to drive back to London for fear of killing someone else, so she’d have to die up here in the Top Lanes, wide-eyed and miserable.
When morning came it was misty, again, and found China curled in a nest on her mother’s sofa, still sleepless, staring blankly at rolling news. Jasmine came down in her pyjamas at about eight, looking pale and small without make-up. She wordlessly made them both coffee, and then, to China’s surprise, joined her on the sofa, right next to her, resting her head on China’s duvet-padded shoulder.
“I was thinking about when I went to those dance lessons,” Jasmine said, at length, without lifting her head. “Y’know, after you asked about Lettie.”
“Yeah? Do you remember her?”
“A bit. Mostly I just remember how her mum was such a cow.” They laughed, and then Jasmine said “How come you used to take me? Instead of Mum?”
China shifted her cheek against the unfamiliar feel of Jasmine’s hair: brittle but somehow soft. “It was usually Mum who took you,” she corrected, as gently as she could. “I think you remember the times I took you ‘cos it was more unusual. But it was just when she had to work, y’know.”
Jasmine nodded; and they watched half an interview with a government minister before she spoke again.
“How come you changed your name?” she said.
China pinched the bridge of her nose. She’d been through all this with their mother, half a decade earlier, when she’d decided to put everything behind her: the Top Lanes, student politics, booze, the name Charlie-Ann. Her new life had begun so long ago that almost no-one ever asked anymore. Which just showed you how often she and her younger sister talked.
“I needed a fresh start,” she told Jasmine. “There were a few years when I was very unhappy, and then when I worked out how to start being happy again, it was like becoming a new person. So I decided I deserved a new name.”
“So why ‘China’?”
“Because — ” In her exhaustion, China had difficulty framing the thought. “Because of fragility,” she said. “I wanted to remind myself that everything was fragile. Y’know? I had this new life for myself and I didn’t want to take it for granted, because it would be dead easy to break it.”
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Jasmine nodding, her lips pursed. “Deep,” she said, and although China couldn’t be sure, she thought her sister approved.
In the shower, China wearily began to assemble the story, in her head, about the witches who said they’d killed Tom Leyland. She wondered whether it ruined the story if one of the witches was Leyland’s ex-girlfriend. Maybe it was a better story. She realised, with apprehension and a little thrill of something else, that she was going to have to speak to Feather again.
They arranged by text to meet later, and until then China sat at her laptop in her dressing gown, filing listless copy about opinion polls and how this government announcement and that ministerial cock-up were likely to play in this Red Wall seat. At the last minute she dressed, in her usual uniform — jeans, t-shirt, ankle boots, blazer — and added the layers of waterproofing that were always necessary in this grey town, and went out.
It wasn’t a bad morning, actually. The fog had slipped down the hill and lay over the distant city, leaving the Top Lanes feeling as though it were above the clouds. There were patches of blue sky, birds singing. It was grimly cold, but as long as you were well wrapped up and moving quickly, you could almost understand why people wanted to move here.
The other two witches were there again, in Feather’s kitchen, and China took the seat nearest the door and listened to them with a patience born of exhaustion. She asked if she could record them with her phone, because she was too tired to make notes, and she sat calm and still as Alison squawked about this; and then when Alison had finished squawking, she and Lettie left. Wordlessly, listlessly, China held out her card to Lettie as the two witches swept out past her; and Lettie took it. China suspected she would call.
Once they had gone, it was quiet in Feather’s kitchen. On so many other afternoons, with so many other women, this would have been the moment when China would have had to get up and drain her tea and politely excuse herself; but as the two women smiled at each other across the smooth, bleached-looking wood of the kitchen table, there didn’t seem to be any reason to leave.
“How did you sleep?” asked Feather.
China smiled, but her eyes burned as she slowly blinked at the slyly beaming woman opposite. “I think you know,” she said, and her words sounded slurred to her own ears.
Feather ran a hand through her thick hair; to China’s mild surprise, she looked almost ashamed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I could tell you didn’t believe us, and I thought it might be easier for you to see for yourself.”
China only nodded.
“I realised,” Feather said slowly, “yesterday, that…I’m not sure how much you remember, from when we knew each other.”
“Honestly, not a lot.” China smiled again, but Feather was serious.
“That’s what I thought,” she said. “It wasn’t a good time for you.”
“Well, me neither. But I’m sorry for any part I had in…anything that happened to you.”
Too exhausted to be guarded, China licked her finger and picked up cake crumbs from her plate and smiled a weary smile up at Feather. “Why don’t you tell me what happened to me?” she said to her.
Feather stood up, gathering up plates. “I’ll make some more tea,” she said.
They’d met Tom Leyland not long after they’d met each other, Feather explained, once she’d made more tea and the two of them had moved to her front room, curled up on opposite ends of her vintage velvet sofa with their shoes off.
It had been some student political conference or other. Leyland had been the guest speaker, and then he’d joined his young comrades for a night out, impressing them all by putting some money behind the bar and taking his turn at karaoke.
“He was good-looking, wasn’t he,” murmured China, staring into her tea. Leyland had been twenty-five years older than the two of them, but he had good clothes and good cheekbones. And, as Feather explained, as he basked in the glow of his near-perfect rendition of Common People he’d ended up at a table with them both, asking them questions about their opinions and their futures; and then he had gone to the bar and returned with a round of bottled beers for the three of them.
“And that’s all I remember,” said Feather, her hands wrapped around her teacup and her arms wrapped around herself, “until the next morning. Do you remember that? The morning?”
China shook her head. Feather took hold of China’s socked foot — an odd gesture that somehow made perfect sense, radiating comfort without getting into each other’s personal space — as she told China what the two of them had woken up to the next morning, in Tom Leyland’s hotel room. There had been bruises and a little blood, and a gap in their memories, and confusion, and shame.
“Do Alison and Lettie know?” murmured China.
“No. They think what we did to Leyland was just about politics. But really I did it for me.” She shook China’s foot a little. “And for you, although I never thought I’d get to tell you about it.”
China nodded. She was sinking further and further into the velvet sofa. “I’m so tired,” she said.
“Have a little sleep, if you want to,” said Feather.
China’s eyes grew heavier, and heavier, and finally closed; and she sensed Feather getting up from the sofa, and then felt a blanket being gently draped over her, and tucked in a little.
She saw, as if in a dream, Tom Leyland’s amused face that morning in the hotel. She saw, in a series of flashbacks, his steady ascension from the back benches to the shadow cabinet, surviving party leader after party leader. She saw that speech he’d made in the Commons about violence against women.
She saw, as if in a dream, Tom meeting her in a bar in town; chatting about old times. She saw herself ordering one lime soda after another; going to the bar to fetch another round for the two of them. She saw herself waving Tom off, as he got into his car.
On Feather’s sofa she saw all of these things, the real and the imagined, the dreams and the magic, as underneath a hand-knitted blanket she fell finally, deeply, deliciously asleep.