I was scared. Barely eight years old and the most junior of the gang. My heart beat faster and my palms were sweaty. It was my turn to run up the path to the witch's house and bang on the door. The others goaded me on.
"Go on, Billy. Go an' give the knocker a whack."
"Give the old witch a fright, Bill."
They were nudging and pushing me, especially my brother, Ted, who took particular delight in teasing me. I carefully crept through the gate, and scampered up to the front door. I lifted the knocker and let it fall. Then I ran for my life back out to the street. All the others had disappeared from view. Some had run off. The braver ones including Ted, were hidden just out of sight. Nothing happened. Luckily she must have been out or didn't hear. At least I'd done it. Next time it would be Johnny Brooker's turn.
The street gang had been tormenting old May Cobbett for years. She was a recluse. Which to small boys meant she was weird, a witch. It didn't help that the house she lived in was tall and dark and overhung with trees. It was old Victorian villa, with a slate roof and elaborate chimney stacks. An eerie brick house covered in ivy, it grew right up to the eaves and invaded the gutters. The trees in the garden were pine and holly and yew, all dark and shadowy. It was was a sombre fearful place. Rank grass grew over everything leaving the narrowest of paths to the front door. We rarely saw her, but when we did it confirmed our wildest suspicions. She was a short, skinny old woman with her back bent over. She only wore old fashioned dark clothes and frequently had a scarf tied around her head. She said little to anyone. Those adults that did bid her a good morning, got little more than a grunt in return.
All the back gardens in our street led down to a meadow which was also our playground. We boys spent a lot of our time there and in the copse beyond. In Summer, we would climb trees and look out for imaginary enemy ships or tanks approaching. In autumn, we would collect horse chestnuts and take part in the battle of the conkers. In winter, the woods became quiet, sad places with bare trees and the ground, damp underfoot. The wind would cut through thin jumpers, smart the face and bring reluctant tears to boy's eyes.
It was through this meadow, that in Summertime, we were able to get to the Cobbett garden from the back. There was only a three wire fence on rotting timber posts that was no barrier to us ruffians. That was the easy part. At the bottom of the garden was a dense clump of tall stinging nettles. Past the nettles the garden itself opened up into a wonderland of new scents and sights. We were transformed by our imagination to be early explorers, discovering new territory in darkest African jungles. The pines that were so menacing, seen from the front of the house, became a marvellous sylvan glen, with a deep carpet of needles. It was an exquisite sensation, as we walked with silence underfoot and the whisper of the breeze in the branches overhead. Closer to the house a rose arbour had gone wild. The roses had crept, year after year, further away from its original stake and had flowed with waves of white floribunda blooms all around the garden. The air was full of the scents of summer. The sounds of insects humming and garden birds singing made me feel that we had violated something very precious.
Hidden in that garden I saw a movement at the back of the house. The others retreated quickly, backing out of that strange garden, returning to our the familiar territory of copse and meadow. They were unwilling to confront the witch. I alone was left, mesmerised by the sight of old May Cobbett. She had come out of the house. She wore a flowery apron and sat on an old painted rocking chair by the back door. As she rocked she cast a few crumbs from her lap in a sweeping movement in front of her. Not far from her, picking and pecking on the ground were chaffinches and bluetits, a Robin would dart in now and then, and holding his ground would look right up at her, with his head cocked. When the crumbs were gone, she called out. "That's all my lovelies." and the birds fluttered away into the bushes. The Robin alone remained close by, first on a post, then to the gutter, than back to the post again. Then to my amazement the old lady began to sing. Her voice was thin and shrill. She tunelessly voiced an old nursery rhyme.
"We'll o'er the water and o'er the sea,
We'll o'er the water to Charlie,
Come weal come woe, well gather and go,
And live or die with Charlie."
As I crouched there listening, I felt ashamed. This woman who fed the birds and sang to herself was not a witch at all. She got up from her chair and went indoors. I left that garden too, never to tease May Cobbett again, in fact she died the following winter.
Years later I took my fiancee, Glenda, to show her off to my Gran who lived only a street away from our old house. Gran gave us a cup of tea and a slice of cake. I talked about the old times and when our family lived close by. I mentioned old May Cobbett; I even told her about seeing her in the garden.
"Well I never," said Gran. "Poor old May, she got so bitter and twisted, she never had a good word to say to anyone."
"Was she always like that, Gran?"
"Oh. Goodness me no. She was such a pretty little thing. We both went to Fisher Street School."
"Well, what happened?"
"It's all account of the war." Gran went on. "She was barely seventeen when she was courted by young Charlie Knott. He had just joined up. She was so proud to have a boyfriend in uniform." Gran looked across to Glenda and smiled.
"He went to the front of course...and he never came back to her."
Glenda by this time had tears in her eyes. She squeezed my hand.
"Oh. Gran that's terrible. So that's why she turned so weird then?"
"Well you could say that," said Gran. "But what really made her upset, was that he did come back, but not to her. She just couldn't accept that, not after waiting for him all those years."
My mind went back to that summer day in my childhood. I had seen her in an unguarded moment. She had shown me that she was human too. In her misery she had turned to the creatures that she could trust, who would do her no harm. And she sang for her lost love.