Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Roya dumps her items on the till one after the other. Bang – red garage paint – bang – bolt cutters – bang – paint brushes. The cashier eyes her. Behind him, the clock on the wall clicks closer to ten.
“Bit of late night decorating?” he says dryly.
“No. Just got some really weird kinks,” Roya says, in the same tone.
While the cashier tallies up the cost, she ducks to the side and grabs a metal ladder.
“This as well,” she says, clonking it onto the till.
It comes to twenty-whatever quid, and she dumps a handful of notes in the cashier’s palm without counting them. She gathers her purchases up into her arms, the ladder banging against her knees.
“Your change,” the cashier says, holding it out.
“What am I, a bloody octopus?” Roya says, juggling the bolt cutters and brushes around. “Keep it.”
She blunders out of the shop, ladder clanking against the shelves, the handle of the paint can cutting into her palm. The pavement is a blur of white – Josh’s got the fog lights on, the pillock. She hears a door open, shut, then feels hands taking the bolt cutters from her.
“Got everything?” Josh asks.
They load it into the boot and climb back into the front – Josh driving, because he wants to feel useful, and Roya with her boots on the dashboard. As he pulls away from the curb, Roya scrabbles in her coat pocket for a crushed packet of cigs. She smokes one. Then another.
Roya breathed on the car window, drawing a smiley face in the fogged glass. With one grimy fingernail, she added curly hair, a stalk neck and big, blotchy freckles.
“Look, Mummy. I drew you,” she said.
“That’s nice, lovie,” her mother said.
She didn’t take her eyes off the road. Her hands were white around the steering wheel and she wasn’t smiling like the window portrait was. There was a flush down her neck onto her chest, like there always was when she’d had her wine. Sometimes, Roya imagined it came from the liquid itself, darkly staining the underside of her skin like water soaking into a napkin.
Roya breathed on another patch of the window, carving out the swirly line of a snake.
“Look at this one,” Roya said, jabbing her finger at it. “It’s Uncle Kyle.”
Her mother looked. Her eyes widened. She pushed Roya in the shoulder, knocking her sideways.
“You think that’s funny, do you?” she snapped. “Wipe it off. Off!”
Roya scrubbed it away with her fist, her stomach tightening. She huddled down in her seat, her gaze blurring on the portrait of her mother. Its eyes had started to run.
‘…and I think it’s actually a lot bigger than the whole question of the transformation penalty. What these protesters are asking – what they’re really asking, I think – is whether it’s okay, in our day and age, to still incorporate witching practices in our legal system. Other countries – even European countries, with their own chequered histories – think it…embarrassing, frankly, that a technological power like the UK—’
Roya reaches out and slaps the radio off.
“Hey!” Josh says. “I was listening to that.”
Roya doesn’t respond. She lights her fourth cigarette, sweeping her eyes over the passing houses – they’re getting fancier now, all sprawling bushes and picketed fences. Every time they round a corner, the ladder clatters in the boot.
“It wouldn’t hurt you to take an interest,” Josh says. “It’s not all rallies and marches, is it? You’ve got to know what the rest of them are thinking too.”
“You assume I give a shit,” Roya says.
“I assume nothing, Miss Sulkyface. But long term, you’ve got to get people debating, haven’t you? Being civilised, having a discussion—”
A phone rings. Not Josh’s obnoxious Duran Duran-blaring Samsung – it’s Roya’s tinny old flip phone, muffled by the folds of her coat. She pulls it out and looks at the screen. She keeps looking.
“Traditionally, you’re supposed to answer them when they make that noise,” Josh says.
“Shut up,” Roya says, then snaps it closed.
She stuffs it back into her pocket and leans her head on the window. The glass rattles against her skull.
As her mother swung the car into a free space on the curb, it bumped the Toyota in front, jolting Roya back into her seat. Her mother muttered a bad word under her breath, then kept muttering them as she climbed out of the car. She bundled Roya out with pincer fingers.
“Come on, come on, love,” she said, digging her nails in. “You’re the sporty one - quicker than that.”
The sun had sunk almost to the skyline, spreading its sunset tongue over the street and leaving the air sticky with warmth. Roya clasped her mother’s sweaty hand, letting her drag her into the shade of a littered alleyway. The air was cooler here, but heavy with the syrupy stink of dustbins.
“I’m hungry,” Roya said, while her mother unscrewed a flask and swigged it. Across the street, a neon sign flared. “It says pizza there. Can we get pizza, Mummy? I want the pineapple one.”
“We’ve no cash.”
“I could just have a weeny tiny slice, couldn’t I? That wouldn’t cost—”
“I just said we’ve no cash, didn’t I?”
Roya pressed her lips together, looking at her mother’s tight, furrowed forehead. It always looked like that nowadays – even when she fell asleep on the sofa, the lines held like creases in old linen. Roya had tried smoothing them out with her fingers, but her mother had woken up and swatted at her.
“Right,” her mother said, crouching down and taking Roya’s shoulders. Her eyes were a little unsteady. “Listen to me. We’re going to go to caff, you and me, and you’re going to help me with something really important—”
“Are we getting your job back?” Roya blurted. “I bet I could cry and make them all really sorry for me and then they’d feel bad and—”
Her mother shook her slightly. “No, listen. You’re going to—all I want you to do is to keep it zipped, and to stick right next to me, and do exactly what I say. Can you do that?”
Roya nodded and mimed zipping her lips, hoping it would make her mother laugh. But she was already straightening up, hand tight around Roya’s wrist, pulling her through the long shadows and orange sunlight, frowning at nothing.
They pass Spivey’s house from the front, eyeing the vast, dark windows and pale bricks, the high walls and sprawling garden. Roya sits up a little. Josh lets out a low whistle.
“My my,” he says. “They pay them well, these justice ministers.”
“Bit plain,” Roya says. Then, pointedly: “Could do with a lick of paint.”
Josh snorts, then veers the car around the corner and parks it half-on the curb, swinging dangerously close to some twat’s Mercedes. When they climb out, the air is laden with insect-scrapings and, beneath that, a deep, roiling silence. As they unload the boot, every bump and knock is too loud.
They skirt around the back of the house. High walls enclose the garden, moonlight sucking the colour from the bricks. Eventually, they give way to a small, black gate. Overgrown bushes swell out from between the bars – nobody’s used this path for years, Roya guesses – and a chain lock loops twice around the latch, but the bolt cutters do their job. The gate keens as Roya pulls it open. She tosses the cutters into a bush.
“Can’t believe I’m doing this,” Josh whispers. “You’re a bad influence.”
“It’s a valuable life skill, breaking and entering,” Roya says.
And then there’s a push into slippery, snarling leaves. Twigs snatch at Roya’s hair, hooking into her mouth like talons, but she ducks and tears and pushes, her nose full of the smell of soil. The paintbrushes dig into her armpit. Behind her, the ladder rattles as Josh heaves it through the undergrowth.
She’s plotted the route. Mr George Spivey likes to have his garden wild, so the bushes ramble all the way around the high walls like a tunnel system. Through the mess of leaves, the house looms closer, sheer and white as a cliff face. Her eyes scan the windows. It’s a sticky night, so one of them must be—
She finds two open. Curtains ripple behind one – a bedroom window, undoubtedly. The other is smaller, the pane blurred – a bathroom window, probably left ajar by accident. It’ll be a squeeze, especially with her fat arse, but it’s not like she’s spoilt for options.
“You’re certain there isn’t any-?” Josh bats a cobweb out of his face. “I don’t know, witchy security? Courtesy of the lovely Mrs Spivey, I mean.”
“Bit outdated,” Roya says.
She ducks out of the bushes and scrambles across the lawn to the back door, which is thrown into shadow by the high walls. The bathroom window lies directly above. Josh’s footsteps patter after, slowly, so the ladder doesn’t rattle.
They fumble to stretch it open, swearing and squabbling in whispers. Eventually Josh sets it against the wall, holding it firm. Roya hangs the paint from her elbow, secures the brushes under her armpit, and places her foot on the first rung. Then the next. Then the next.
At the seventh, dizziness sweeps through her, but she keeps her eyes ahead. Keeps moving her feet, her hands, her feet, her hands. Eventually, her fingers find the window ledge. She puts the paint and brushes through first, setting them down like ornaments.
Then she heaves herself up and through.
Roya’s mum had owned a key to the caff once, but she must have lost it with the job. She said they had to go through a window just this once. They looped around to the dirty backstreet behind the café, where a big blocky machine stuck out from the wall, whirring and heaving hot air.
“What’s that for?” Roya asked.
Then she remembered she was supposed to be being quiet, so she stuffed her fingers in her mouth. When she talked too much at school, Mrs Godfrey always tutted and said that the town witch ought to turn her into a bunny – because she didn’t half rabbit on.
“I’d like to be a rabbit,” Roya said now, around her fingers. “Do witches ever make you into animals for good things, Mummy? Or just when you’re bad?”
Her mother was wrestling with the window, trying to force it more than halfway up, and didn’t answer. She didn’t like talking about witches, not since everything with Uncle Kyle. She wasn’t like the people you saw on the television who threw pig bladders at the big government house in London, or marched in vast crowds that moved like the sea. But they’d passed the town witch when they were walking down to Spar just last week and her mother had said a rude word under her breath.
She muttered a rude word now, pulling her hands from the window. She’d shimmied it up by about a foot or so. Roya could see a cramped office space beyond, a table heaped with papers, coffee cups, and a sun-bleached photo of a wrinkly man and his wrinkly wife.
“We’ll just have to put up with it,” her mother sniffed. “Come on. Squeeze through.”
Something twisted, slowly, in Roya’s stomach, as if someone was playing cat’s cradle with her insides. “Is it okay?”
Her mother frowned. “Is what okay?”
“Going in here,” Roya said, pulling at her shirt hem. “It looks like somebody’s room.”
Her mother didn’t quite meet her eyes. “You said you’d do what I said, didn’t you?”
So she did. She wriggled through the gap like a seal, paint cracking on the window frame beneath her, the window catch digging into her belly. With a push from her mother, she collapsed onto the floor in the room, panting, her limbs a mad sprawl. The air tasted of cigars.
Her mother climbed through after her, then pinned her hands on Roya’s shoulders.
“Right, my love, what I want you to – look at me – what I want you to do is go through that door-” she pointed at it “-and stand in the corridor outside. And I want you to keep an eye out for anybody coming this way. If somebody comes up and asks you what you’re hanging about for, say something – say something really loudly, so I hear it. Say ‘I got lost looking for the toilets’. Can you do that?”
Roya brushed her fringe out of her eyes. “But that’s lying.”
Her mother swallowed. “Only a bit. And it’s not- it’s not bad lying.” She moved her hand over Roya’s face, her touch warm and sweaty. “We’ve got to help your auntie, haven’t we?”
Roya didn’t understand how any of it fitted. She thought of Auntie Kris, with her narrow face and her bald head and the pill bottles all over her bathroom, and of Uncle Kyle and his slowly shifting coils, and then of where she was now – this office, in the old café, with its cigar smell and stuffy heat. Her thoughts grated together. But her mother’s eyes were on hers, molten with pleading.
Roya's hand closed around the doorknob.