The balustrade was chest-high, delicate, and fantastically wrought, while along the rail were ranged at short intervals little figures of grotesque design and exquisite workmanship. HP Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1933).
The Edinburgh suburbs south of the Meadows have a Gothicism all of their own. The late Victorians’ rather fantastical conception of the middle class as being just an even larger version of the aristocracy has here produced whole estates which are made up of granite palaces and mansions. Tourists seem not to have discovered these suburbs, which is surprising since they amount to one of the most atmospheric regions of Edinburgh. On dark nights, I wrap drunkenness and cigarette smoke around me like a snug cloak, and venture out to aimlessly patrol these streets, spellbound by their mystery and loneliness.
At an address on Dick Place, a particularly shady suburban lane, there is a cottage which belongs to a family of witches. The railings outside the front garden are intertwined with a litter of strange figures and trinkets, all of them of a grotesque design. Last week I emailed Ellen Stewart, an associate of our website and a practising witch, to inquire about these items. First, however, I will provide her general estimation of the household:
“I don’t know them personally, I’m afraid, Mr Tycienski, but I know of them. The mother is the witch, but she is not one of any standing. She’s the sort of person who thinks that Nature is a respectable entity which can be safely invited into the house for elevenses. Her magic involves candles, a lot of candles, and herbs, a lot of herbs. You are never going to get anywhere with candles and herbs. If you imagine the supernatural as being spread out like a dark lake, she is paddling on the edges, enrapt in the curlings of little waves, while I am diving down, down, to the depths.
“She does possess some dark ability, but I gather that it’s not first hand. Her father had struck a canny contract with the black man and one of its terms had stipulated that his progeny had to inherit a portion of his powers. The granddaughter is probably very vulnerable because she is not yet aware of her supernatural status.”
I attached various photographs of the trinkets to the email and these are Ellen’s responses.
The Three Spoons.
“Yes, the grandfather once visited the black man when they were in the middle of negotiating the transfer of powers, and the black man promised to show the grandfather a great city which was kept underneath Calton Hill. So in the dead of night the grandfather met the black man at an obscure point on the north side of the hill. With Leith at his feet, the black man tore away armfuls of briars and brambles to reveal a dank stone lid which was pressed down into the earth.
“When he lifted the lid, they were presented with a deep shaft and a metal ladder. The grandfather dutifully followed the black man down the ladder. The only thing that he really recalls about this is the cold – the air inside the shaft was piercingly cool, and the metal rungs of the ladder were so cold that they stung when the grandfather touched them. But by this stage he was competent enough to know not to make any complaints in the hearing of the black man.
“After about half an hour’s descent, they reached a floor and walked out into a city, the like of which the grandfather had never seen before. The air was thick with fumes and stifling heat; the dense clouds above the city flickered with the orange glows of unseen fires. An atmosphere of exhilaration had engulfed the streets and everybody, of all ages, was running, chasing to see something which was being dragged or paraded into the square ahead. The black man remarked that it was just politics. Some notorious character had arrived in the city this morning and he was being publicly disembowelled.
“At this, the grandfather felt apprehensive, because he too had just arrived in the city, but the black man chuckled that it was time to fill their bellies rather than rip them out. They had had a long descent. The black man led the grandfather to a large cafeteria above the offices where he apparently worked. There were dinnerladies serving helpings of food from metal trays and a choice between a stodgy-looking lasagne and a slimy-looking spinach curry. The grandfather opted for the lasagne. They drank warm water out of glasses with fingerprints all over them. The grandfather thought that he would like to have a souvenir from the strange city and so, on a pretext of going to the counter to get some more water, he pocketed these three spoons.
“One summer afternoon, when the witch was a little girl, she was sitting on the lawn of her garden and bossing about her dolls. Suddenly an emerald green grasshopper landed on the blanket beside her, as if it had been flicked by hidden hands in the bushes. “Good afternoon, my dear, how do you do?” the grasshopper exclaimed heartily.
“To the little girl, the grasshopper was almost amazingly handsome and fresh. This dainty, half-humanoid figure looked far more like a fairy than the watery little winged boys who capered through the pages of her picture books. The grasshopper was perfectly tailored, squeezed as he was into his emerald jacket and its dripping lace trim. He regaled the little girl with his astonishing wit and cheerfulness, and she fell in love with him faster than he could cut one of his pinched little jumps. Finally, he bowed low and when he came up again he was holding a tiny winking diamond in his hand. “Marry me, my dear, and come away with me!” he cried.
“Unfortunately, at just that minute the house’s two black cats were let out into the garden for the afternoon and they ran up to greet the little girl. Upon spying the grasshopper, the foremost cat immediately forgot about the little girl and an exploratory paw had shot forward to snuff out the grasshopper. The little girl caught a farewell glimpse of mangled wings and broken legs.
“The grasshopper model was bought in Toys ‘R’ Us, I believe, but it nonetheless stands here in eternal remembrance of the witch’s lost love.
“Several years ago, the witch was invited to a large, busy garden party in the south of Edinburgh. It was immensely hot inside the gazebo where most of the partygoers had crowded to keep cool, and so the witch ventured out to stand on the terrace in the sun. She wanted to disappear somewhere discreet, to perform an incantation which would freckle the party with rain. There was a ten minute queue for the toilet, however, and once inside lighting the required candles would set the fire alarms pealing.
“Luckily, there were not many people at the very end of the garden and plenty of lonely corners. The witch at last decided that the best place to hide would be in plain sight, at the very end of a long grass verge where she would look like a tiny, inscrutable figure to the other partygoers. She here completed her spell and the garden at once darkened. Fat raindrops were now falling amongst the trembling plants and the heat of the afternoon shuddered and dipped.
“Once inside again, the witch was accosted by the daughter of the house, a tall, tomboyish figure who always looked inexplicably upset. She was, the witch had heard, modelling for Burberry’s spring campaign. “I know what you are,” the model told the witch immediately. “I was watching from the window in the kitchen.”
“The witch was not frightened by this gangly girl and she met her with a face which demanded, so what?
“Suddenly the model was pleading. “I need you to help me. Please? You have to.”
“It turned out that the model was embroiled in a dispute with a woman who used to work for her as a “personal assistant,” a dumpy little Romanian lady who maintained that she was owed several hundred pounds worth of unpaid wages. The model had bodged her sacking. She thought that if she ignored the Romanian, the Romanian would recognise her powerlessness and quietly move on. Instead, she found that it was impossible to ignore the Romanian.
“First had come the conviction that there was somebody skulking about in the corridors of the house, periodically stopping outside the model’s room to listen. One night, when her parents were down in London and she was alone in the house, the model had awoken to see her bedroom door handle swivelling noiselessly. When, with a gentle bulge, the door had registered pressure from the other side, the model had screamed so loudly that for a second she had believed that she was all on fire. Next, the attacks on her clothing had started. There was a rapid infestation of moths in her room and holes dotted her clothes, often a single tiny hole in one dress, but visible enough to render it unwearable out of the house. Those cardigans which were not shrunken or expanded in the wash were unexpectedly singed by the iron.
“The witch listened to this story for a while, before finally silencing the model. No, she could not use her magic against another witch. It was unheard of.
“The model pleaded and, in her distress, she seemed to be ungluing. Her voice became shaky and her eyes damp. She wanted to banish this Romanian witch from her life; she longed to not have to think about this woman ever again.
“The witch then reflected that whilst she could take no hostile or punitive action against the Romanian, she could still counter her magic by blessing the model. A sequence of good luck was bound to cancel out the bad.
“This ceremony needed no candles and the pair was able to perform it in the bathroom, once it was free. It was a polite party and nobody pounded on the doors during the ten minutes that the bathroom was occupied.
“In the ensuing weeks, the model acquired a spate of modelling contracts. These took her out of the UK, to Paris and New York. On a complimentary holiday to Los Angeles, she met a handsome young pop star, himself a multi-millionaire, and she became his girlfriend and then his fiancée. All of the glossy magazines agreed that theirs was the perfect, fairytale romance.
“The Romanian witch was left fuming after this. Her plague of tiny moths now trailed about completely unheeded. Irons malfunctioned without remark.
“The model sent the witch who blessed her this beautiful brooch as a gift. It is encrusted with jewels of immeasurable value, which have been prized from the crowns and thrones of various bygone empires.”
Unfortunately, Ellen’s email peters out after this, but she promised to send me a second instalment once she has another free minute. Nobody sits down to spend all afternoon composing a letter these days. Can you guess the stories behind these other grotesque and exquisite objects?