Five-minute memoir: Annabel Markova recalls the day her mum cast a spell on her

A knotty legal dispute is resolved in the unlikeliest of ways for the author

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

My mother spent 45 years in a remote part of west Dorset where everyone knew of local people, men as well as women, who claimed to solve problems in mysterious, unorthodox ways. They were usually paid, not always in money; and they seemed more respected than feared.

I don't know what caused my mother – a sophisticated woman who, though country bred, had lived and worked in London – to decide she was a witch, too. She only helped friends and claimed some success: for example, enabling a couple to buy the house of their dreams after all previous attempts had failed. On the other hand, none of her spells to bring back disaffected lovers seemed to work. As a young person, I dismissed magic as a joke.

Years later, I found myself in a deeply stressful situation caused by a legal dispute that had spiralled out of control. It had already cost far more than I could afford and there seemed no end.

"I think I should do a spell," my mother mused after I had told her the latest development. I had hoped to escape my problem for a weekend, but I couldn't; and I was so desperate by then that I would have tried anything. And so it was decided one summer evening in Dorset that magic should be harnessed to try to resolve the situation.

We were lucky that the moon was waxing, my mother observed, because this meant any spell would be at its most potent. We would have to wait until dark, though. Three teenaged girls were staying, too, and they were thrilled by the prospect of witchcraft.

We were all feeling quite bold by the time we ventured out, though I remember some nervous giggling when we noticed my mother was carrying a deer's skull. We were sternly warned that it was crucial to believe.

Being in that part of west Dorset at night is a magical experience in itself. It's so quiet that you can pick up the scream of a rabbit far away in the woods just before a predator cuts off its life; and so free of artificial light that the darkness is absolute.

But on that night, clouds were streaming across the sky and there was only an occasional wafer of moon. None of us had brought torches. It was as if we needed to pretend we were back in the superstitious past to give magic a chance.

We stumbled over tussocks and through potholes to the place where she carried out her spells. She explained that it was naturally mystical, being a circle of elder saplings enclosing a secret spring. Part of her ritual involved setting down the deer's skull so water could bubble up through its eye sockets. My mother told us that she'd learnt all this as a child from an old countrywoman who had boasted of being a witch. Magic survived, she said, when secrets passed from one generation to the next. It was almost as if she was seizing the chance to teach those young girls to become witches, too.

But by now the rest of us were terrified. The darkness seemed thick with menace. Then one of the teenagers remembered the awful story of The Monkey's Paw and suggested that any spell would have to be phrased extremely carefully so there could be no room for malicious misinterpretation.

The black shape of my mother stepped inside the magic circle and sank to the ground. She began to whisper but we all shrieked "Don't!". She hesitated and in that moment we managed to pull her away. The wind rattled the leaves and I fancied it sounded like someone in a temper who has been thwarted.

The next morning dawned peaceful and bright and the events of the previous night seemed ridiculous. Even so, I felt happier than I had for months. Perhaps, I reflected, real magic lies in the soothing power of those we trust.

"It probably wouldn't have worked anyway," I remarked to my mother as the two of us sat in the garden over breakfast.

"But something happened last night," she protested. "The force was there. Surely you felt it?"

"Hysteria," I said. "But I know you were trying to help."

At that moment we heard the telephone start to ring inside the house.

The call was for me. It was from a friend who apologised for interrupting the weekend but explained that the evening before, he had quite by chance met a man who had let slip a piece of hitherto unknown information pertaining to my problem that might, he suggested, be extremely useful.

As it turned out, that information saved me.

Annabel Markova's ninth novel, 'The Family Thief', is out now, published by Blackfriars Books