If You Go Rooting (or Fare Thee Well, Ned) by Clayton Lister

Not unreasonably, I believe, I’d thought that if I had an ally at Wallops Roost it was my mother. But having so violently expressed her feelings about my friendship with Julie Allinson, it now seemed she wanted as little to do with her first-born as maternally possible. Guilt played some part — I’ll credit her with that much conscience — though knowing Mother, self-pity the greater.

If we’d been back home in Leeds what would have happened was, just the same as did, she’d have locked herself in her bedroom, but only until remorse, else hunger, drove me to apologise for having provoked her in the first place.

Here at Roost my little brother Jake and I had our Granny Wallop to feed and water us. And of Mother’s periodic bluthering that would drown out even baby Clifford’s continual mewling, ‘Eee . . .’ the old woman would roll her eyes at the ceiling, ‘Let ’er stew. Not tha problem.’

Although in fairness to our Granny Wallop, even before Mother’s assault on me I had remarked how over the weeks the chores she set me had developed a biased toward fruit and veg. As opposed to livestock, I mean. Livestock, deadstock. At Roost, thankfully, there was always something to pick and pare or shell, stew or pickle and bottle as well as slaughter and butcher — and sinisterly prize the remains. By which I allude to the grisly practices of my brother Jake. He lacking the finesse required — or maybe he just liked to hear Gertie the goat bleat and see her kick, and our Granny Wallop had grown wise to it — milking might have remained my responsibility. But with Mother out of the way, Granny Wallop even excused me from eating meat. ‘Nooa point in puttin’ it on’t plate if theur onnly goin’ t’prod it ’rahnd plate,’ she’d say.

But crowning all, as far as I was concerned, as far as the old woman troubled herself I was perfectly entitled to see as much of Julie Allinson as I wanted, Mother be damned. I saw her daily. We’d roam for miles. We trekked further upriver than Julie had ever ventured before — and she’d been fishing those waters since old enough to warm a maggot in her mouth. We discovered a waterfall and bridge that allowed for our return on the river’s opposite side, only along a ridge in places so narrow we had to make a pact. Hold hands and not let go no matter what. Either one of us might have had to face the other’s granny without them otherwise, and we neither of us fancied that. So both for one and one for both it was. What heroes of exploration we were.

But as well as those high airy peaks there were deep dark secret places we made our haunts too, caves and copses inviting intimacy and confidences. It was by one such beck, eerily chilled by a steep bank on either side and shade of densely tangled thicket, that I confessed to Julie my old fear of my own granny.

‘A witch?’ she gurgled throatily. ‘There’s no such thing.’

Although that gurgle stirred something warm inside of me, I’ll admit I was a mite offended. ‘Is!’ I said.

Just at this point of the beck, water frothing white with the violence of its passage cascaded down shelves of rock to eddy in a basin, dizzyingly. It was quite entrancing.

‘They used t’drown ’em,’ I said. I knew they did. I’d heard it someplace. ‘Wi’ hands tied behind their backs. An’ they’d burn ’em.’ An infinitely more effectual method, I thought, burning.

‘Oh,’ Julie said. ‘Reight. When wor this then?’

‘The olden days.’ I didn’t say it but thought, When else?

‘S’they live forever, do they, witches?’

I believed it not infeasible, but detected a hint of condescension in our Julie’s tone. I often did. ‘Ah were only sayin’,’ I explained, ‘that Ah used t’think she were a witch. Ah didn’t know better cos Ah were younger.’

She had a smile to accompany that tone, and she gave it now. ‘Lookee ’ere, an’ listen up. They used t’sling women in water t’see if they were witches, reight? Float, an’ they were. Sink, and they weren’t. Those who were they’d burn at stake.’

‘Ah know that.’

‘Well, not much of a trial, is it, death either way?’

She’d missed my point entirely. ‘But those they threw in’t water might have sneaked a blade,’ I said, ‘cut their ropes underwater an’ swam away, hid in caves or disguised theirselves. Anything. That’s all Ah’m sayin’. Some would’ve survived.’

‘An’ lived all this time?’

She was doing it on purpose. Unable to contain my irritation, I said, ‘Well, they might’ve had baby witches, mightn’t they? Wi’ wizards or summat.’

‘Oh, reight. Reight. Swum away, though? Not flown?’

‘Aw, shurrup!’ I said.

And she did for a short while, but a short while only. A blackbird, thinking the clearing his, burst through the foliage. Tail up, he cried out in complaint at the deception. When he’d shot off again, ‘So,’ Julie continued, ‘if Granny Wallop were a witch, by tha reckonin’, would ’at make tha mother un, too?’

My two black eyes had bothered Julie greatly. I’d really no intention of ever telling her why Mother had given them me by thumping my nose. Anyway, the reason proper, I couldn’t have. She didn’t want me seeing Julie because . . . well, who could tell? Not herself probably. She was that unknowable, Mother. But Julie had wheedled out of me what she could.

‘Aye,’ I said, ‘an’ me a wizard. An’ if thee don’t leave me be, Ah’ll turn thee int’ t’toad. S’think on.’

She reached out her bare foot, wet still from its cooling in the whirlpool, and poked me with her toe. I tried to ignore her, but on the slab of rock I sat there was no room to move away.

‘What witches really were,’ she said, and I thought, ‘Oh, here we go!’ ‘was women who mixed up herbs an’ whatnot for ailments.’

I thought of Granny Wallop’s homemade medicine she’d administered for treatment of my cold, ointments she’d rubbed into Jake’s bumps and grazes, kicks and bites, potions for Mother too, to help her sleep. ‘S’there yer go,’ I said. ‘Granny Wallop t’tee.’

‘Aye,’ Julie said. ‘’Appen theur reight. But if she is a witch, she’s a white un. In fact, Ah believe ’at black witches like theur talkin’ abaht, if there ever was such a thing, only came about because the gooduns were tret s’bad. ’Appen,’ she said, ‘thee should ask tha Granny Wallop.’


I did not. Of course I didn’t. No matter how you look at it, which denomination of witch she is just isn’t a subject easily raised with one’s own grandmother. Although, as evidenced very soon after that conversation with Julie, productive dialogue in difficult circumstances with my granny was not a problem for everyone.

It was the old woman’s daily habit to polish off her breakfast frummenty with her finger. True to say, it stretched my imagination to think that even a black witch had a genuine liking for such glop. Or, indeed, could have done anything with it other than fasten a sole to uppers. I had wondered if it wasn’t my leftovers she’d used to mend my shoes with. But bowl immaculately wiped, ‘So,’ she smacked her lips with quite unusual anticipation of the day. ‘Thee an’ me t’bahn diggin’ f’burdock roots this morn’.’

‘Eh?’ I said. The way she’d spoken, you’d have thought I had foreknowledge, when actually I’d planned on meeting up with Julie. I was hoping for a backy to the next village that we might lead their idiot around its green with an old ten-bob-note tied to a length of fishing line. She’d been promising all week.

But I was curious. Not least because not only was Jake excluded from her plans, he himself had been primed, clearly. Sullenly, from over his own bowl of shoe-glue, ‘My turn tomorrow,’ he informed me, elaborating as sulkily, ‘Won’t be room in sidecar.’ I hadn’t even asked.

We were going in the Panther, and Jake not? Burdock roots must be exceptionally large, I thought. Even if Doggy Ned were allowed to come — which I knew he wouldn’t be, Granny Wallop having retired him from my company away from Roost — there’d be room for Jake, surely?

What was still more curious, at the bottom of the hill we did not motor past that bare-bronze-limbed figure basking on the church wall. No, we pulled up alongside. She jumped down, and not only scrabbled into the sidecar, saying, ‘’Ow do?’ as if expected, she opened the door as if no knack required. Meaning, obviously, she was familiar with the mechanism.

‘We’re off t’pick roots f’dandelion ’n’ burdock drink,’ I told her.

‘Well, what a coincidence,’ she said, ‘Me an’all. Bit early in’t year, but never mind, eh?’ She wrinkled her strawberry nose up at me, rapped on the driver-side window and off we phutted through the village, over hill, down dale.

Of course, we needn’t have travelled further than Granny Wallop’s hen paddock really. Granted, on the way we did stop off at Settle for the apparently vital ingredient of anise. Even if Grannies Flintoff and Wallop were on speaking terms, I’m not sure the former would have stocked anise in the village Post Office-cum-general store. But ingredient gathering was not the trip’s prime objective, was it? I knew that.

I did wonder how they’d planned the day, given that even Granny Wallop wouldn’t have encouraged Julie to visit Roost with Mother present. And she’d no telephone, Granny Wallop. She hadn’t electricity. But to ask would have taken the sparkle out off the gesture and spoiled the magic. ‘Enjoy the day for what it is, Ned lad,’ I thought. And did, very much. Up to a point.

Once at our riverside destination, I was quite capable of picking out a dandelion. Armed with her Swiss Army knife, Julie knew what to look for in the way of burdock. Some of those plants would have filled the sidecar. Lucky for us we only needed roots. Mind, she was right in respect of it being too early in the season. The hard ground did not relinquish them willingly. Granny Wallop, off grubbing for I presumed ingredients to other potions, ‘Don’t look such a wicked witch now, does she?’ Julie asked.

By this time we ourselves were taking a break from rooting, sitting on those larger stones by the river’s rocky edge. Granny Wallop had remained on the sward and replaced her crash helmet and goggles with a straw boater. I wouldn’t say it complimented her motorcycle boots. But then neither did her heavy plaid skirt and flowery blouse. And never mind the parties of hikers stopping to stare dubiously at her poking around.

I said, ‘If she’s plannin’ on makin’ owt outta cowpats, Ah’m not s’sure. Who would other than a witch?’

Julie said, ‘Ee, theur so pernickety. Has-ta never tried un lightly toasted o’er open fire?’

I might have been less knowledgeable than she about witches and suchlike, but was wising up to our Julie. I said, ‘Oh, Ah like ’em well enough. It’s just Ah’m ’llergic. Did Ah not tell thee?’

I always knew when I’d spoken well by the way Julie cut her eyes at me — admiringly in her peevishness.

At length, she said, ‘Does tha mother know she’s brought us aht today?’

I should have known the question would arise at some point. Julie might never have called Mother a two-bit tart. She mightn’t have cared that Jake and I each had a different father neither of us knew — baby Clifford too now — but she did have such a perverse fascination, and would not let it lie. Why had Mother reacted so angrily to our being friends? Why why why why . . .? I didn’t know. I didn’t care.

‘No,’ I said, ‘she doesn’t. ‘Does tha dad?’

No . . .’ You’d have thought her talking to someone likely to fall head-over-heels in pursuit of a ten-bob-note. ‘But my dad hasn’t said Ah’m not t’see thee, has he? Only ’at tha mother’s trouble best avoided.’

I suppose I should have known better. But it always seemed that whilst my mother could do no right, Julie’s dad could do no wrong. And, anyway, didn’t she know it takes two to tango?

‘Oh, reight. Reight,’ I said. ‘But if ’at’s so, why does he keep pitchin’ up at Roost?’

There was no trace of begrudging respect in the way she cut her eyes at me this time. ‘On deliveries?’ She tried to say it with conviction.

‘Hmmm . . .’ I said, ‘Maybe,’ casually picking up a pebble. ‘But Ah don’t think so. He comes in’t evenin’s.’ I weighed that pebble, as if with practised expertise. ‘Reckon Ah could throw this all way t’other side?’

‘What evenin’s?’ she said.

‘Saturdees. How much does thee bet Ah can’t?’ I stood, tried, and watched my missile fall short with a small clack! into the burbling shallows on the opposite bank. I was very disappointed.

‘Every Saturdee?’

‘Not every, no.’

I don’t believe I’d ever known Julie decline the opportunity to better me physically. ‘Which then?’ she said.

Hmm . . . Last,’ I said.


‘Un before.’

‘But Saturdee,’ she said, ‘is his night aht wi’ lads.’ She was most assured on that point.

‘Well,’ I said, and by my tone you’d have now thought Julie the one likely to fall for a ten-bob-note, ‘and my mam.’

I’ll not pretend. I knew full well the conclusion I was leading her to. And I am not proud of my motive. But at just that moment, Granny Wallop, having finished her inspection of those cowpats — or whatevers — started making her way over. And Julie seeking authentication of my story was the last thing I wanted. Not because Granny Wallop couldn’t have offered it, mind. But because I only knew about those trysts myself having lain awake that first time wondering why she’d set up on the landing. When I heard her steal downstairs I sneaked up to take a peek out the window. Tom had parked a good distance down the lane. If he and Mother didn’t want Granny Wallop knowing they were courting, I understood I’d best not be the one to break the news.

But before Granny Wallop made it quite into earshot, I had a question for Julie. With no ulterior motive, I’d actually been meaning to ask for some time. I only did so now because reminded. ‘Oh!’ I said. ‘What’s a pleasure finger?’

She looked up from where she had remained seated on the rocky ground all this while. ‘Ah don’t know. What is yer pleasure finger?’

‘It’s not a riddle,’ I said.

It wasn’t often that I found Julie at a loss for words. She just blinked.

‘Well, anyroad, whatever it is,’ I said, ‘tha dad’s missin’ his.’

I’d not banked on Granny Wallop for elucidation. Though when Julie asked, I was glad I was on — I should say, quick on — my feet. To judge by her change of expression, if Granny Wallop could have reached she’d have made a greater mess of my face than Mother had. Instead, she snapped, ‘What’ve thee bin larnin’ ’er?’

‘Nowt!’ I said.

She took a lengthy moment to measure the truth of my claim. ‘Weel, jist thee mek sure thee dooan’t,’ she said. ‘Narn, s’hooam tahme.’

I wouldn’t have dared ask a week ago but she’d properly piqued my curiosity now. ‘What is it, tho’?’ I blurted.

‘Ask thi mother!’ she said.

Ask my mother? It might have been she who gave me the phrase pleasure finger, I’d have felt safer asking Granny Wallop which denomination of witchery she subscribed to. Though not only for fear of Mother’s five fingers bunched into a knotty fist. I no longer trusted myself. Thank you very much, categorically I wished to be in possession of no more knowledge that might further jeopardise mine and Julie’s friendship than I was already. Cruel I may have been in flaunting my worldly acceptance of my mother’s and her father’s liaisons. But I was under no illusions. Julie had turned my life around — even to the point that I’d started looking forward to my new school. She mightn’t have blamed me for Mother and Tom. Just the same, her preoccupation with them distanced her from me. What if come term-time, she was so remote as to be clean out of sight?

Though I needn’t have worried. Or not on that account, anyway.

The morning I went looking for Julie to share the fruits of our labours — I should say root juice of our labours — I knew Mother had received a letter in the post. Over frummenty, hoping for enlightenment, Granny Wallop had shown me the envelope. At the time, I could only return her mystification. Yet rather than bid Jake take it up to her, she’d propped that letter up against the breadbin. Fair point being, if Mother was expecting anything, she was quite capable of venturing downstairs herself.

I found Julie in the churchyard, seated against her mother’s headstone. This struck me as being far more portentous than that letter, I’m bound to say. It was where she came to be alone when feeling down. I had a similar spot back home in Leeds behind the bins in our ginnel. Although, speaking for myself, secretly, discovery had always been something hoped for. Someone bearing succour in a stone flagon would have fitted the bill perfectly. Julie, I suspected — I feared — would rather I passed by.

‘Thought thee might fancy some o’ this,’ I offered tentatively. ‘Ah made it last night wi’ Granny Wallop.’

‘Bully for you.’

Behind Julie’s head, the epitaph read, Miriam Allinson Died 1963 Beloved wife of Thomas and mother of Julie. As Julie had pointed out, Julie aged not yet two, it might also have said, now to be moithered all her days by toffee-nosed grandmother. My Granny Wallop had told Julie straight, apparently, if she’d been her mother’s mam she’d not have entrusted her to any hospital’s care. Murdering doctors be damned.

I said, ‘Good stuff, this bandelion and durbock’ — an intentional spoonerism that provoked not so much as a despairing roll of the eyes.

Well, I was parched even if Julie wasn’t. A stone flagon’s a heavy vessel to carry all the way down Wallops Hill. Having done so, too heavy to raise to one’s lips easily, I found. Juice dripping off my chin and down my chest, she might at least have called me a daft apeth.

Instead, she said, ‘Ah asked him.’ And did I not like the sound of that.

‘Oh, aye?’

She said, ‘Ah said to him, Ah said, “What reight does ’at woman have t’be askin’ after thi pleasure finger?”’

I thought, Ee . . . let it lie, lass, can’t thee? It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in sight. We might have been making hay, taunting rival villages’ idiots. ‘And?’ I asked.

‘He said it weren’t a question for a daughter t’be askin’ her father.’

I gathered I ought to be reading something into this that I was not. I said, ‘What else did he say?’

Julie barely bothered to disguise her contempt of my obtuseness. Though she answered at length, ‘He said t’be careful where we went wi’ each other.’ Then added ominously, ‘Tha’s thee ’n’ me, Ned. Thee ’n’ me.’

‘Y’mean, like too high up on fells or close t’river?’

Eee. . .’ she said. ‘Gi’ us a swig.’

With the flagon itself resting along the back of her forearm and one finger threaded through the tiny handle, Julie quaffed deeply. Oh, so that’s how you were supposed to do it!

‘Mother had a letter in t’post this mornin’,’ I said — not so irrelevantly. It was true I hadn’t exactly leapt to my opinion on its provenance, but since breakfast I had given that mysterious missive my full consideration.

‘And?’ Julie said.

‘Reckon it might be from tha dad.’

It was Julie’s turn then to give herself an accidental sousing. ‘Why?

‘Who else?’ I said. ‘’Appen, he’s tellin’ her it’s alreight our playin’ together.’

I’d reckoned on cheering Julie up. Exasperated, she said, ‘Even if that were so, why would he not just tell her? Since they see so much of each other anyroad.’

‘Not so much,’ I said, smarting a mite. ‘It’s like when Dawn Doherty brung her tortoise into school. Aye. Jake thought it were a football. Mrs Doherty wrote a letter to Mother, demandin’ a new un.’

Julie closed her eyes. I’d like to say the sun was in them. But at this time of morning her mother’s grave lay in the shade of a giant yew tree. More likely, she was counting to ten.

I believed further evidence required, so told her, ‘An’ Miss Kerry.’

‘And who,’ Julie said with strained patience, ‘might Miss Kerry be?’

‘My old teacher.’

‘Theur old teacher? Wrote t’tha mother abaht Jake bootin’ Dawn Doherty’s tortoise into touch? Ah don’t understand. Why didn’t Jake’s teacher write it?’

I sighed. I was getting exasperated now. ‘Miss Kerry wrote about summat else. Ah’m just sayin’.’ Although I truly wished I hadn’t.

‘Why did Miss Kerry write?’

‘Oh, it don’t matter,’ I said. ‘It were a long time ago, anyroad. Point is —’

‘Tell us!’ Julie so hated not knowing every little thing.

‘Ah were only little,’ I said. Even raising the subject, what was I thinking? I hated being reminded. Moving to The Dales should have been my chance to forget. But I knew there’d be no resisting. Not now. ‘Ah kept wettin’ mesself,’ I told her. ‘Ah couldn’t help it.’

Well at least that made her smile — first time today. I was delighted. You can imagine.

‘Thee won’t tell no one, will thee?’ I pled. ‘Will thee, tho?’ She was shaking her head no, but what if she did? At school! My new school. ‘It were Mother’s fault,’ I went on, digging myself deeper. ‘She wouldn’t buy me new shorts. Or wash ’em. Just kept dryin’ ’em on’t fireguard, so Miss Kerry . . .’ ‘Aw, don’t look at me like that, Julie!’ That’s what I wanted to say now. I’d rather she was smiling condescendingly than looking at me oh-so horrified and full of pity. ‘It’s just,’ I said, ‘what grown-ups do, write letters. It is!’ She tried to interrupt, but I wouldn’t have it. ‘Good letters, too.’

‘Ned!’ she said again.

‘Like Social Services, t’say theur not goin’ t’take thee away an’ put thee in an home, after all — ’


‘We’ve had that un twice now.’

‘Hold up. Lewk,’ Julie said. ‘Lewk. Ah don’t know abaht any o’ that. OK? All Ah’m sayin’ is, Ah’m just not sure my dad would’ve —’ But she never finished her sentence because from somewhere close by a creaking sound like a heavy door swinging on stiff hinges snatched her attention away. Another noise followed straight on, this one like a sack of spuds slumping. ‘What were ’at?’

Given that I’d remained standing all this while, I peered over Miriam Allinson’s headstone. ‘It’s Ned,’ I said.

‘Ah thought he weren’t s’posed t’come aht wi’ thee n’more.’

He wasn’t. ‘He musta followed me, anyway.’

Julie scrabbled on all fours around the headstone. ‘Yer mean thee didn’t shut the scullery door behind thee!’

‘Ah did!’ I claimed, though knew I couldn’t have. Hands full with that stone flagon, I might have thought I had.

He’d likely lie down wherever, Doggy Ned, though not like this. A fly buzzed him, he didn’t even snap. It seemed all his energy went into imploring us with his one upward-facing eye, Do something! And then he started fitting.

‘Ah don’t think he’s very well,’ I said.

‘Ee, Ned the vet’nary! Gi’ ’at lad a biscuit!’

I thought that rather mean of Julie. But before Doggy Ned had finished leg-spinning and blowing bubbles, a good amount of blood mixed with saliva because he’d chewed his tongue to pieces, she was begging me to make him stop. And within a minute of his stopping there was no doubting he was dead.
If I’d been alone, I would have been terrified. But Julie’s grief was such that I daren’t voice my fear of copping the blame. I’d never imagined Julie could cry. She buried her face in Doggy Ned’s greasy neck and sobbed like a baby. I waited for her to finish, of course, but I needed to know. ‘What’ll we do?’ I said.

Julie wiped her eyes and nose dry on the back of her hand, and sniffed, ‘Carry him.’

‘Home?’ I said. ‘Is thee sure?’ Without assurance of Mother’s compliance, I wasn’t so confident of putting Tom Allinson’s directive actually to the test. It was only presumed, after all. I should say, hoped. But Julie had spoken so decisively I knew there’d be no arguing.

By god but walking a dead fat black Labrador is tiring work — even for two, one holding its hind-legs, the other its fore-. Rigor mortis will not set in, but its body will sag. We dropped him, we dragged him. We tried rolling him up that hill. Julie even flagged down a rare passing motor car. The driver slowed, but soon sped up again. I for one couldn’t say I blamed him.

By the time we were bundling Ned through Roost’s scullery door, it’s a wonder we ourselves weren’t fitting. Jake had met us outside, bug-eyed, drop-jawed, and followed us in. It was the clamour we made instructing him to clear chairs out of our way and swinging Ned — ‘Un-two-three, hup! Oops . . .! An’ agen’ — on to her farmhouse table that brought Granny Wallop bustling in from the hallway.

She drew breath deeply. ‘Ee by . . .’

‘Ned’s dead!’ Julie announced with a wail.

I refrained from reaching for the barrel and offering biscuit.

‘Ah can see ’at,’ Granny Wallop said.

‘Can we skin skull?’ Jake asked. ‘F’collection?’

I thought Julie was going to smash Jake’s skull in. He seemed only dimly to appreciate the danger he was in. That or cared nothing for his own safety. As far as Jake was concerned, he’d a right to lift Ned’s eyelid too, look into his eye, and would exercise it. It was Granny Wallop who saved him. Jake said nothing, though squirmed and scowled a fair protest at his manhandling to a safe distance.

For my part, I was thankful simply that in her account of what had happened Julie chose not to implicate me. Grateful too that Granny Wallop — indeed if she had deduced my culpability — was too intent for now at least on comforting Julie to make anything of that. ‘Ee wor owd, duck,’ she said. ‘It ’appens.’ Julie’s eyes welling up afresh, ‘Comme on now. Less o’ tha’.’ She gave her shoulder a squeeze.
But Julie could not keep from fondling the loose pelt around Ned’s neck.

‘We’ll lay ’im in’t paddock,’ Granny Wallop then announced, ‘anent Jakey.’ We all started. ‘Nay, Jake the ’og.’ I fancied the clarification was more for my sake than boy Jake’s. It was me she addressed. ‘Tha mother’s, afooare tha tahme.’ She certainly barely noticed Jake skulking out of the scullery into the hallway.

Julie noticed. ‘Ee,’ she sighed, ‘a pig. Tha mother’s a one.’

With a slow nod, Granny Wallop concurred.

None of us had reckoned on Jake fetching Mother herself — in dressing gown, of course, though without the squawking attachment of baby Clifford, thankfully. He’d obviously told her about Doggy Ned. However, Ned’s demise confirmed she’d little actually to say on the matter. As feared, it was Julie who claimed her greater interest. Not that she had anything actually to say about her either. For Julie’s part she’d not crack first and speak but hold her hostile gaze. She’d go one better. She’d stare my mother down.

It was then that Mother’s eyes alighted on her letter by the breadbin. At the gasp it elicited, Julie and I exchanged glances. Granny Wallop was no less curious. To judge by Mother’s anticipation, you’d have thought that envelope contained exam results. She steeled herself, and only then tore in. The wait, while she read, was agonising. But at last, she whooped and pressed the letter to her breast. ‘It’s Harry,’ she said, and my heart sank.

‘Oo’s ’Arry?’ Granny Wallop asked.

Mother presumably in a reverie of nostalgia for late night slanging matches, kicks and blows sometimes, I answered for her. ‘Baby Clifford’s daddy.’

‘An’ what were first Clifford,’ Julie grumbled, ‘pet bullock?’

Mother held her eye now. I thought, ‘By gad, hair’s goin’ t’fly now. Hair, teeth . . .’

Granny Wallop warned, ‘Easy, Jen.’

The silence was anything but easy. But Mother broke it. Looking at Julie, though speaking to everyone bar her, ‘We’re off home,’ she said.

‘Hooray!’ Jake punched the air.

Mother drew him to her. ‘Harry’s come good. He’s ’avin’ us.’

I looked from Mother to Granny Wallop to Julie. Again it was Julie who spoke up, though not on my behalf — or hers. ‘An’ what,’ she said, ‘o’ my father theur’ve bin leadin’ on?’

Granny Wallop groaned.

Mother laughed cruelly. ‘Tha father? Tha father ’ad ’is chance years ago! Yes. Oh! Surprised?’ she said, edging around the table toward Julie. ‘An’ shall Ah tell thee summat else abaht tha lovin’ father — an’ tha good chum little Neddy ’ere?’

Julie now advancing to meet Mother, Granny Wallop stepped between them. ‘Jenny Wallop!’ she said, rising from a growl almost to a roar over those four short syllables. She was short herself, Granny Wallop, but as deep as she was wide, and, when her eyes flamed as they did now, formidable incarnate. I don’t think even Mother fancied her chances, not against her and Julie.

‘Thee want t’open tha peepers, my girl,’ she settled for telling Julie. ‘Thee an’ all!’ she then turned on me, the softer target.

Although I was right back at her. ‘Ah don’t want t’go home!’ It did surprise her. It surprised me.

‘Ah do,’ Jake piped up — as surprisingly, with some timidity.

She actually chucked him under the chin. Mother, affectionate! ‘Well, we are, my darlin’,’ she said — and then to me, more forcefully, ‘So! ’Oliday’s o’er. Go pack bags.’

‘Julie,’ Granny Wallop said over her shoulder, firmly but tenderly too, ‘bes’ git thee hooam, lass.’

For all her ballsiness, Julie was not about to defy Granny Wallop. Doggy Ned’s coat, she gave one last ruffle. Before she could properly tear herself away, she hugged him, never mind he stunk. Me she merely nodded goodbye — like, Sithee tomorrow. Sithee tomorrow? But she wouldn’t! Not if we were going home. Not if we were packing our bags.

Before making her own exit, Mother also gave a nod in my direction. ‘Think on!’ hers said, ‘An’ less o’ tha nonsense!’ Jake followed.

Alone, just the two of us — three including Doggy Ned — Granny Wallop sighed. ‘Eee . . .’ she said, ‘Ohh . . . Neddy Wallop, wha’ a t’-do.’ I wasn’t sure which of us she said that to. But then she said, ‘Tek a load off.’

She pulled out a chair for me — same end of the table as Doggy Ned’s head. When she left the scullery to fetch something from the cupboard under the stairs, I closed Ned’s eye that Jake had left open. I wasn’t easy doing it, but felt I should.

The bottle Granny Wallop returned with was shorter than the one containing parsnip pop I’d borrowed some time back, broader but slimmer and slightly bowed. Granny Wallop placed it with some unnecessary force, I thought, on the table between us. Its liquid content was clear.

I hadn’t known I would confess. Maybe it was sensing I might not have the opportunity again that gave the prompt. I said, ‘Yer know, Ah thought when we first came, thee were a witch.’

She seemed not so much offended as a tad surprised. In fact, after some consideration on her part, I’d have to say satisfied. She unscrewed the lid from the bottle and again placed the bottle between us, open now. An offering or a challenge? I wasn’t entirely sure.

‘What is it?’ I said.

Granny Wallop sighed, as if only now offended. Again she picked up that bottle, examined it against the sunlight that streamed through that tiny scullery window — so unlike the stormy day of our arrival — and took a deep hit. It made her gasp and smack her lips. ‘Magic,’ she said, ‘potion. ’Elp thee forgit all tha woes. Ee, lad, theur go’n’ t’need it.’

Happen I would.

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.