London Folklore: Coven, SW9
Uma still isn’t sure about the coven, but cheap dim-sum, ley lines, and cash in hand are three things that are hard to argue with for a young woman. She takes a few evening shifts when they‘re going, but tries to avoid the drama associated with her co-workers. It is all arranged in a group chat-she mutes the chat unless she is looking for cash, as the rest of the witches ramble on about everything. She likes the money but there are only so many pictures of Moira’s cat and messages about middle-aged women’s problems that she cares to hear. Uma is the youngest witch in the coven by a decade at least, and is painfully aware of that fact.
She sits in the noodle restaurant and drinks jasmine tea and doesn’t read her book, but lets her mind drift and the power of the ley lines wash over her, intangible and ethereal. Her eyes linger on the interior of Brixton market, on the melange of people buying overpriced hipster food or ‘ethnic’ produce in bulk. The Swamp, the coven call it, a fond thought to a time when a witch would live in an isolated hut, out on the dank reeds and ever changing paths of abandoned mire (you want an isolated hut in Brixton? Come on mate, pull the other one- it’s a room in a shared flat if you’re lucky). Catherine the old white lady who ran the books said she had tracked down records of a witch who lived here a thousand years ago. “There have been witches as long as there have been women”, she said. When she told Uma this, Uma smiled politely, and did not believe her. You couldn’t trust these crazy old people.
It had been raining outside when Uma arrived, but the side paths of Brixton market are without season. She sits and she watches and she waits, and the old Chinese woman who runs the restaurant brings her some prawn crackers. Uma occasionally taps her fingers in an arcane rhythm, trying to predict who her next caller will be based on the last shift-
– A man who has lost his wedding ring
– A woman seeking vengeance
– A woman seeking a lover
– A man seeking his child
She doesn’t see a pattern, so she just drinks tepid tea and waits.
When the pot of tea is almost gone the first customer of the night arrives, checks the torn piece of paper in his hand, paces awkwardly, and doesn’t come in. He is not fat, but his clothes are too tight and it makes him look fat. He is sweating and russet. Uma breathes deeply, and then gives him a friendly wave. He enters the shop and stammers- “I’m looking for, for, well-“
“Coven, SW9,” Uma says. “Come upstairs.”
She stands and heads up the stairs without waiting for a response and they go through the usual-
In the tiny upstairs room, they sit across from each other on plastic chairs over a plastic table covered in a cheap black tablecloth, and Uma answers with strained patience and tries to look witchy. This is not so easy. Witches are meant to be green skinned, bewarted. Long of nose and loud of cackle. Uma is twenty-three, has an undercut and Chelsea boots on. Her clothes are the standard vintage store amalgam one would expect of student.
After a few minutes of patient discourse the man finally calms and accepts that he is here talking to a genuine representative of the SW9 Coven.
“Look. This is silly really, it’s my wife-“
Uma has to work very hard not to roll her eyes and starts mentally cataloguing plant based aphrodisiacs.
“-I…I think she’s a witch.”
The man twitches, and produces a wad of notes wrapped in a rubber band that he places deliberately on the table. They sit very quietly for a long moment.
“A witch,” he says, “I, well, I think she’s a bloody witch! Look, I found all these books. Wicca, Goddesses. My kitchen cupboard is full of bloody sage! Candles in every drawer, and she hasn’t had a haircut in months…”
Uma looks at the man opposite her, at his too tight shirt and his receding hairline, at his watery eyes and patches of stubble. She sees him.
“What is it you want from the coven?”
The man taps the money and sighs and then looks around the room, as if realising the ridiculousness of his situation. A girl dressed like a shit barista who claims to be a witch, in the upstairs room of a noodle restaurant. The air smells of sweet and spice. He shakes his head a few times and then leans forward.
“Look,” he says, “what I need is for her…not to be a witch. I mean. What you get up to, that is your deal, I don’t give a shit. But I need her to stop fucking about with candles and herbs. I need her to do the ironing and support me, the way I bloody well support her! I need you to show her she isn’t a real witch, or take away her…interest. I don’t care. I’ve tried everything I can think of and she insists on it, so now I’m fighting fire with fire.”
Uma nods and nods and doesn’t break eye contact, but reaches one hand into her pocket.
“Do you know what it is you ask?” She says, and she keeps her voice purposefully low. She learned this in GCSE drama; if you want someone to listen then speak quietly and purposefully.
Uma leans forward and produces a thin stick from her pocket.
“They killed us by the thousand, you know”
He shifts uncomfortably.
“They burned us. They drowned a woman in the Thames, you know that? Right by London Bridge! Hanged ten people in Pendleton, shit, everywhere you look- tortured and barbarised and raped and desecrated since time immemorial.”
Uma raises out of her seat and seems to tower over the man, despite her diminutive height. She jabs the stick toward him when he tries to speak.
“You don’t speak! They nailed our joints with cold iron spikes so our bodies wouldn’t rise. They tied our thumbs to our feet and threw us in the water. All of this; all of this for being a witch, a fucking witch? They weren’t witches. They were women. You think your wife is a witch because she hasn’t cut her hair and has bought some candles?”
Uma prods the man in the chest with her stick and he freezes still, utterly motionless. His eyes are unblinking and unmoving, his mouth half open.
“Your wife wasn’t a witch, and most of those women were not witches- but I am.”
Uma begins to laugh and she slaps the man once, twice, thrice. She picks up the money and pockets it and then sits back at her seat and looks at the ceiling. When she speaks, her voice is higher, colder, mocking.
-I could let you suffocate, fat man
-I could introduce my rat to your mouth, and let him find a new nest, stupid man
– I could turn your cock to spiders and your eyes to slugs, arrogant man
She continues for a long time in this vein, minutes, and then snaps her fingers and the man can move, can breathe. He gasps and collapses, clutching the table.
“Go now,” Uma says, “go and buy your wife something nice, and take her out to dinner, and if you don’t, then…all of the above.”
Downstairs outside the noodle restaurant a teenage girl in a Ramones t-shirt clutches a pamphlet, and is almost knocked to the ground as a sweating businessman sprints from the restaurant. She watches him run through the market and out of sight, and then turns back to the shop. There is a woman there, with a cool haircut and Chelsea boots and a pierced nose. The woman waves, and the girl waves back, and they both smile.