As Well a Panther As a Besom by Clayton Lister

Our Granny Wallop was right. I couldn’t have disputed the point. More partial to milk and cheese than either home-butchered game or home-slaughtered fowl I was. Just the same, Gertrude the goat’s swollen udders were a sight, let alone warm sensation between the fingers, altogether too reminiscent of our mother’s lactations for my liking.

I’d do what I could to get out of milking her — short of decapitating the beast, thank you, Jake. And I most certainly did not want its head in our bed. In fright, I fairly took the roof off.

‘T’aint Gerty!’ Jake chortled.

He’d been knelt out of sight at the foot of the bed filling our shared pee-pot. A feat he managed every night unfailingly. But it was not his face that had peered over the footboard at me.

‘Well, who is it then?’ I said.

Skull in hand still, he scrabbled up into bed. ‘Lazza.’

My brother was adjusting to life at Wallop’s Roost somewhat better than I. Back home in Leeds, his ghoulish tendencies had laid latent, comparatively. Out here in the sticks, under Granny Wallop’s tutelage, fair to say, they were flourishing.

I could not recall any living Lazza or Larry. But there was the sheep’s head broth we’d had for tea earlier in the week. True to form, its preparation had captured Jake’s imagination.

‘By gow, Jake,’ I said, reclaiming my rightful portion of our shared blanket. He’d drawn it from me by raising his knees into a shelf, and now gazed, moony, into his skull’s empty eye sockets.

Curious despite myself, I asked, ‘’Ow did thee get it so clean?’ I knew he and Granny Wallop had savoured a boiled eyeball apiece. I wished I didn’t but I did.


‘Tha own, Ah hope!’

‘Nay . . .’

Now I was worried. ‘Whose then?’

You’d have thought me intruding into some deeply private communion. But he’d only noticed a piece of something organic that remained. I knew because he reached into an eye socket and picked at it.

‘Oh, an’ denture tablets.’ He was still on my first question.

‘Well, does our Granny Wallop knaw?’ I knew Mother’s teeth were her own.

‘Oh, aye. Bought ’em ’specially. Said if Ah’m good she’ll do us brock’s head, an’all.’

I shouldn’t have been surprised.

‘An’ a fox’s. Ah don’t even have to be good t’get fox’s. Just help catch crafty bastard. We’re startin’ a collection. Aren’t we, Laz? Baa . . . Aye, Jake.’ He opened his bedside table drawer, and pulled out a rabbit’s skull. ‘Nyer . . . What’s up, Doc?’

My reaction wasn’t quite as dramatic as it was the last time Bugs and I had met. Meaning, I didn’t throw up. ‘Put it back in’t drawer,’ I said calmly if with feeling. ‘Put ’em both away.’

Jake did not. He pulled out a hen’s skull too. He arranged all three on his bedside table, and settled down.

‘Jake,’ I said in time. I’d no doubt he was awake. Our bedroom window was poky but sky outside light enough. In the gloaming I could see his open eyes shining. ‘Our Granny Wallop,’ I said — I felt it only fair to warn him — ‘Ah think, she’s a witch.’

Was that a smile I could make out, just? And if so, was it of complacency or complicity?

‘Even me mam says so,’ I said, which wasn’t untrue.

Jake was prone to spells of introspection. It might be said fairly that his life so far had been one long spell of introspection. But less so of late. As Mother had observed, Granny Wallop was bringing the lad out of himself. I wasn’t at all sure she was deserving of thanks for this. Although right now, I wished he would speak.

‘S’posin’ she only starts with animal heads, ’n’ moves on to bairns?’

Still nothing.


He turned his back, I fancy to gaze lovingly upon his nascent assemblage.

‘What d’yer think?’

‘Cool,’ he said.

Time passed.

‘Jake,’ I said, ‘does thee not miss home?’ But this time, he would not admit to being awake.

Darkness closed in. I heard Granny Wallop’s footfalls on the landing, her bedroom door close. At some point, through the adjoining wall I heard baby Clifford stir. There was some comfort in that, strangely. At any rate, it was better than the sound of my own internal soft machinery. Most disconcertingly the silent nights of Wallops Roost magnified all that mysterious hullaballoo.

Who’d have guessed it — that, wakeful, I’d miss the racket of other kids running up and down our ginnel? And their mothers hollering for them. Dads crashing home through dustbins at all hours, slamming doors.


But in the way of a neighbourhood there was so much I missed. Daft things really, surprising even me. The drone of the electric milkfloat and chime of clinking bottles, saying, ‘Get up! Get up! Wake Mother, else be late for school.’ On a Wednesday, the unholy clamour of the dustcart digesting all our estate’s detritus. Even the smell of its hydraulically produced belches that we’d carry to school with us on our clothes. It was my first vocation, dustman. I liked the back-of-the-throat bite of the tarmac those grubby fellows in luminous tabards ladled out of mixers into pot holes too. These were my sensations. Not squidgy titted goats, the smell of chicken shite and sound of bleeding silence.

But most of all I pined for home itself. Our own little two-up-two-down with its faded pillar box-red doorstep and window ledges and dirty yellow brickwork so reassuringly like every other in the terrace. Our high-walled concrete yard that was happily devoid of all animal life and death. At home we had television for entertainment, albeit black and white. We had a bath, electricity and indoor khazi.


Oh, but I envied Jake his gift of sleep. It also irked me — almost as much as his habit of hogging the pee pot. First time he’d done it, to make room for mine I slung his water out of the window into the courtyard and nearly died of fright. ‘Aw, thee bugger! Theur slart usen piss!’ How was I to know Granny Wallop was priming her snickles by moonlight? ‘Ivver do ’at agen,’ she said, ‘Ah’ll ’ang thee arse-uppards in t’shed till ripe wi’ mauks!’

Since that night, I’d held tight until daylight rather than brave the darkness of the stairs, yard and privy. I’d never had to go the whole night long, though.

‘Jake! Ohhh . . .’

He’d filled that pot. He ought to be the one to empty it. Or at least come with me on this midnight dark odyssey he’d made necessary. But even torchlight shone full in his face made no impression. Nor shaking. While Lazza, Bugs and Chicken Licken looked on smirking Jake just smacked his lips and rolled over.

Stepping out of our bedroom, for menacing shadows cast, torchlight made an impression on me all right. Looking down that steep flight of stairs I hung back. Yet I daren’t knock on Mother’s door. Across the landing Granny Wallop might hear. But what I would do, I’d lift the latch on Mother’s door. I’d ease it open.

‘Wha’s up, Ned?’ she hissed out of pitch-blackness.

‘Ah want lavvy,’ I said.

‘S’go. Theur’ve got torch. Wha’s problem?’

‘Ah want thee t’come.’

‘An’ wake baby?’ she said. ‘Don’t be s’soft. Away wi’ thee. Go on. An’ shut door be’ind thee.’

So I did. I’d no choice. I braved those stairs and that hallway. In the scullery, I will admit, I made some pretence of irritability at Doggy Ned’s attentions. But as cold and wet-nosed as they were, in truth I was highly appreciative. It was company at any rate. I donned my overcoat and wellies, crossed the yard to the privy. I didn’t even shut the door but allowed Ned in with me.

So, if that fearful of the night, you’ll ask, what possessed me to flee Wallop’s Roost? Well, homesickness would have underlaid resolution, obviously. No doubt Granny Wallop’s complete seduction of Jake into the dark arts played its part. Bolstering pride at that first mission accomplished, bladder emptied, maybe. But I could not have believed I had a hope of making it all the way back to Leeds on foot, surely? Alone.

It was a statement, as bold as could be made. I DO NOT LIKE IT HERE, MOTHER. And a plea. Let’s go home, please. If she knew I’d left Roost and heard no return, what choice would she have but to follow?

It wasn’t my intention that Doggy Ned also follow. I managed once to push the scullery door all the way to, but I was on the inside, he on the out — quite the opposite of my purpose. I relented therefore, taking, as I convinced myself, pity on the poor beast. After all, it was obvious that Granny Wallop bore little more love for Doggy Ned than she did me, Boy Ned. Passing the shed around the side of Wallops Roost his brief skirmish under the door with Gertie was a reminder of how he’d less love for that blessed goat than I. That was another point in his favour.

A full moon hung low and heavy. On the forecourt I turned my torch off. I’d never remarked moonlight before. Leeds by night was bathed in light, but fluorescently. What a genuine wonder were moonshadows. And stars. Leeds didn’t have as many stars. I fancied the stillness of the open night a great deal more than I did night-time contained by Roost.

And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t walked this road to the village before. I’d done so with Mother and baby Clifford, so knew to expect a church before the first few cottages, set back as they were, almost as far off the road. It was civilisation of sorts. Further on, houses would edge forward, cosying up into something like a terrace. In the village proper the Post Office-cum-grocer’s where Mother had bought my torch waited, I tried to believe welcomingly.

But the deeper I considered our one previous incursion actually the greater pause for thought it gave me. Mother’s ostensible astonishment at finding that quaint little shop’s proprietress alive still — ‘Behind counter in exact same sniffy pose,’ she said, as when she’d last been in — had not endeared her. And Tom the butcher across the road had been no more appreciative of Mother’s opening observation about him. ‘Ah see theur’ve not grown back thi pleasure finger, Tom Allinson.’

Whatever a pleasure finger was, Tom had pointedly ignored the comment, instead gruffly asking of me, ‘And oo’s this?’ ‘Thee mind tha own business!’ Mother said. Nodding at baby Clifford in Mother’s arms, ‘No son of bairn’s father,’ he said. ‘Theur’ve no need t’tell me ’at.’ ‘Ah’ve no need t’tell thee owt, Tom Allinson!’ Could my mother not hold a conversation with anyone without a row kicking off? This wasn’t the first time I’d wondered. As we left — no purchase made — ‘Or t’other’s feyther!’ Tom threw out after us. ‘Dooan’t think Ah dooan’t knaw thee, Jenny Wallop!’

It was probably no bad thing I’d find the village sleeping as I passed through. Although any such reasoning soon proved academic. Because before I could make it as far as the village’s outskirts, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a distant low rumble. Despite the clear sky, at first I took it to be thunder — and very shortly after found myself wishing it was. The growl drew closer, loudening. The lane was yet to broaden, the high drystone walls on either side end. I’d no means to hide or escape except to run. And run I did.

The cackling of a witch in full flight would have terrified me no more. For I knew that our Granny Wallop, as well as a besom, owned a Panther Model 120 motorcycle and sidecar. Jake made the discovery. I was balanced on a stepladder hanging Gertie’s stinking cheesecloth-wrapped curds by the garage’s crossbeams at the time, so for once was spared blame at least. Jake received a right rare roasting. I had warned against throwing back that tarp and hauling himself into the saddle. Not that a roasting had stopped him begging a spin almost daily since then. I couldn’t have been less fussed, me. And I was no keener now.

I set off at a slow trot, soon quickening to a flat out sprint that in no time had quite left my accomplice Doggy Ned behind. Who, in a blue moon, would have figured on a churchyard providing sanctuary? Let it be a measure of my fear. Waking-dead folk reaching out of the ground to pull a boy down by his ankles? The thought did not enter my head. Panther gaining, I could only hope hallowed ground offered some protection against witches, besom-mounted or motorcycle-. I ducked through that church gate and fairly threw myself behind the biggest headstone I could make out.

What I had not figured on was the betrayal of Doggy Ned. He caught up before Granny Wallop, but could I draw him off the road? She might have had no more love for that old mutt than she had for Boy Ned. He’d so little sense, what did he care? He must have recognised that Panther’s throaty roar, and thought, Ee, good, Ah’ve a lambastin’ comin’!

His commotion notwithstanding, Granny Wallop passed the gate. For all of a moment I thought myself safe. But she slowed, u-turned, returned, cut the engine. As it cooled, the machinery ticked a tense and tinny decrescendo. I knew she’d dismounted by the creak of suspension springs and leather saddle. Doggy Ned’s nails skittering on tarmac also, as he bounced his usual stiff-legged greeting.

No yelp followed as expected, but a sound far more ominous. Namely, Granny Wallop’s approaching footfalls and enquiry of him, ‘Wheeare is ee, Ned?’ If hyperventilation didn’t give me away, my pounding heart would. Lit by the Panther’s headlamp that she’d left on and directed purposely I watched her pass from where I crouched. ‘Ned!’ she cried out over the headstones, ‘Wheeare are thee?’ By God, what a pair of lungs she’d on her. But what a sight she made more fearsome than the sound! If I’d reason to be frightened before, what had I now? She wore not a black cape and tall pointy hat, but crash helmet, goggles, bikers’ boots and flannel nightdress.

With her back to me I stood half a chance of melting deeper into darkness. But Doggy Ned, who’d known all along where I’d hidden, now was pleased to see me. And I disliked his lapping tongue even at the best of times. On my face, never.

‘Ned Wallop?’ Granny Wallop said. ‘Is ’at thee?’

‘Ned Wallop which?’ I whimpered. And, do you know, I do believe that that was the first time she had considered the offending circumstance of our shared name.

‘Both,’ she said at length. ‘Comme on aht.’

I’ll admit her tone had softened. I stepped out on to the path in full beam of the Panther.

‘Lewk at thee!’ she said. ‘Wellies ’n’ pyjamas.’ I didn’t like to say, Look at thee back. ‘Wheeare does tha think ta bahn?’

I didn’t answer her question either. And, as it happened, anything more Granny Wallop herself had to say, it seemed she lacked words for. Doggy Ned already leading the way, she only gestured me wearily toward the Panther’s sidecar.

It was a curious feeling that came over me as we climbed Wallops Hill back to Roost. Not fear, not regret, but a bone-deep sadness. And, although just moments before, for pumping adrenalin, I’d hardly ever felt more alive, tiredness too, amounting almost to exhaustion.

Mother was up waiting. Of course it had been madness to think she’d retrieve me when she had Granny Wallop to run for her. Or ride, as was. By the flickering light of a hurricane lamp she paced the parlour floor in her nightdress. Excusable in the dead of night, a nightdress, but since the birth of baby Clifford she rarely bothered dressing. I didn’t like that. I found it depressing.

‘What d’yer think theur playin’ at! ’ was her welcome. ‘Runnin’ off in middle o’ night. Come here.’

I could see she was angry. But need must have skewed judgement. I thought I was stepping forward for a cuddle, not a clout.

‘Easy, Jen,’ I heard Granny Wallop advise through the ringing in my ear.

‘Ee knaws better!’

In his pyjamas and no dressing-gown, Jake squeezed between the doorway and Granny Wallop just then. ‘’Ave thee been in motorcycle sidecar?’ he asked.

He knew already, of course. His reaction, though, to my nod of confirmation stunned us all. Jake — Jake, mind — burst into tears. Head back, ‘Ah wanted t’come!’ he yowled, and even started stamping his bare feet. We’d not seen anything like it ever, not from Jake. ‘Ah want a ride! Ah want a ride!’

‘Shut tha cake’ole!’ Granny Wallop boomed down at him.

It was the shock that stunned him into silence.

Although silence was not a response sufficient for Granny Wallop. In its leather motorcycle boot with buckles, she stamped her foot. ‘Aboon wi’ thee!’ Jake didn’t need telling twice. She couldn’t have flown him upstairs quicker. Although our bedroom door slammed shut behind him, the sparks flying from her eyes soon abated. I’d never imagined Granny Wallop could appear self-conscious but she did. ‘Reight,’ she said. ‘Reight, Ah’ll, ah . . . leave thee to it, then. Shall Ah?’

Once she had departed, Mother set her lamp down by Granny Wallop’s hearthside throne-like wingback chair she’d settled in. ‘Oh, come ’ere,’ she said. She tucked her feet under her to keep them off the cold stone floor and held her arms out. ‘Ah’ll not bray thee agen.’

It wasn’t the prospect of a braying that worried me. Her nipples were leaking. Even in that poor light I could see stains spreading on the bib of her nightdress. In shadow on the other side of the hearth, I perched on the parlour’s only other chair. It was a hardback brought in from the scullery.

‘Ah knaw thee don’t like it ’ere,’ she said.

‘I don’t.’

‘Ah knaw. But Ah got news for thee.’

I brightened. ‘Are we goin’ ’ome?’

‘Nay!’ she said, irritated. ‘Not ’less thee fancy takin’ on bailiffs. Does thee? Reight. Think on then. We’re stayin’ put.’

I said nothing.

‘Ee, don’t gi’ us tha tremblin’ lip.’

I wasn’t. I thought I was remarkably composed, considering. Now that the chase was over and here I was back at Roost, I was more concerned by the discomfort of my unsocked feet in wellies. But I need say something. ‘What, never goin’ ’ome, yer mean?’

‘Start tha blutherin’,’ she said. ‘Ah’m callin’ Granny Wallop dahn. Thee try us, Ned Wallop. Just thee try.’

I wasn’t anywhere close to crying. I wasn’t happy. I was anything but happy, but I certainly wasn’t about to bluther.

I stood up. ‘Ah’ll see thee in’t mornin’,’ I said.

It was she who was on the verge of tears. I could see that as clearly as I could the stains on her nightdress — and, frankly, I fancied the company of Jake’s gruesome menagerie more than I did our woebegone Mother’s.

I said again, ‘Ah’ll sithee in morning.’

Clayton Lister lives in Northumberland, England. This story is from his collection, The Cracked Objective Lens; he also has a novel living in his laptop, Tom Thumb's Chunky Blues. Both await re-housing to somewhere grander.