London is full of witches. That’s what Lorraine told me in her yellow kitchen, puffing away at a pungent cigarette.
She was my new landlady and we were ‘getting to know each other’ via a gallon of tea and some dry current cake which I didn’t feel I could politely refuse. I had asked her what she did, because she had mentioned her ‘work’ – otherwise I would have assumed she was retired.
At first I thought that she was joking, keeping my expression neutral and responses simple (“oh”, “really”, “of course”) as she talked proudly about her expertise in the field.
“Reputation is key,” she informed me seriously. “Word gets around. Everyone knows I’m the best in South-East London. I don’t need a flashy website to lure in the customers. My clients talk. They tell their friends. That’s what I hear all the time.”
“What sort of things do you do for them?” I asked tentatively.
“Oh, mostly the usual; helping people to have a bit of a natter with their dearly departed; reading palms, cards, leaves or runes as required; sometimes a spot of healing, to soothe an ache modern medicine can’t reach. By and large people want the same sort of things. Occasionally I get asked to brew a love potion, but punters are mostly more realistic these days.”
“I see,” I said, washing down some claggy crumbs with a mouthful of tepid tea.
I felt reassured; Lorraine was clearly a pedlar of horoscopes and the pretence of talking with the dead. She might be something of a charlatan, preying on the gullible and grieving, but at least she didn’t sound as though she truly believed herself to be a witch.
I should state for the record that I don’t believe in powers, fate-lines, tarot-reading, necromancy and the like. Or even god, which was always a sore point for my parents. Mum always wanted me to go to church with them, even when I explained calmly and politely that I simply could not conceive of someone actually creating the universe.
“Come six times a year,” she pleaded, writing them down for me in the calendar. “It doesn’t matter if you believe. Just sit quietly with us and look respectable.”
Looking respectable involved wearing a tie and shaving. Dad would polish my shoes. “So nice to see you,” all the old ladies would coo – and I’d feel this terrible urge to pull my trousers down or develop sudden Tourette’s.
I never really did feel respectable – but it was almost impossible not to be, living with mum and dad. They were far too nice and kind for me to ever fully express the degree to which I felt unlike them. I couldn’t bear to hurt their feelings, so I played along.
The move to London happened very suddenly. I applied for the job almost on a whim and was surprised to get an interview. I made a day trip of it, visiting the Tate Modern and walking along the Thames through the throngs of tourists. The city felt big and vibrant, full of people and ideas and adventures. I knew there was no way I would get the job , and perhaps that fore-knowledge worked to my advantage; knowing I wouldn’t get it, I wasn’t nervous at all, so I was able to be fully focused on answering their questions, and to ask my own excited questions of the smiling panel.
They offered me the job and wanted me to start right away. In a state of shock, I passively agreed to start on Monday, which gave me all of three days to find somewhere to live.
I suppose it was rather naïve of me to have been quite so taken aback by the cost of living in the Metropolis. I knew perfectly well that London was expensive, they were always talking about it on the news, but it still took my breath away when I started exploring my options, which could best be described as ‘limited’.
I set up a meeting at the big shared house. The sparkly girl I spoke to on Skype, Phoebe, warned me that the room was really tiny, confirmed by the online photos, but that there was plenty of communal space where ‘everyone hangs out’. They were all creative types, artists and musicians and whatnot. “I’m making us sound horribly hipster-ish,” Phoebe lamented, “but honestly, we’re a really friendly, non-pretentious bunch.” They all cooked meals for each other and went to gigs and things. It sounded interesting. I worried that they wouldn’t find me interesting.
There was another option of a miniscule studio apartment above a dodgy-looking pub on a main road. The photos weren’t promising, but the rent was surprisingly cheap and I thought perhaps I’d enjoy the freedom of living by myself. Or would I be terribly lonely? It was worth checking out, anyhow.
And then there was Lorraine. Her ad caught my eye and I found myself ringing her to arrange an appointment. A part of my brain wondered why I was considering lodging with a mature lady, further away from transport links than I had intended, when this was my chance to explore the promise of London and my own waning youth. Another part argued that the rent was the best I’d seen.
Lorraine was the only one able to do a morning viewing, so she was first on my list. The rather long walk from the station was improved by glorious sunshine. Around the station was a strange mixture of kebab shops and dingy off-licences and smart-looking cafes and bars, but Lorraine’s house was several turns away, along roads that became increasingly crammed with trees. It all felt a bit sub-urban. Lorraine’s house had a high hedge out front, a little iron-gate onto a crazy-paving that snaked to the front door, a big, solid wooden job painted red with stained-glass windows. The bell produced a classic two-tone bing-bong.
She appeared, a vision of turquoise in a billowing silky blouse, contrasting with her enormous hair, perhaps dyed red at one time but now faded to orange, piled up in an extravagant bird’s nest. She smiled with tombstone teeth and beckoned me in. Entering the house was somehow like walking onto the set on an old-fashioned sit-com; everything was very purposefully homely but with a glossy veneer that made it feel not-quite real.
The kitchen was the exception. It was clearly well-used and lived in, slightly battered but cared for, filled with the smell of recent baking. We came to it last, after Lorraine had shown me the room on offer – the back bedroom upstairs, a good size, overlooking the neat garden – a thoroughly clean bathroom, back downstairs to a chintzy back reception room and pristine front room, which Lorraine explained was only used for certain of her customers who were particularly particular. “I’m more at home in the kitchen, myself.”
She sat me down and made me tea.
“Now, you seem like a nice enough young man,” she said invitingly.
I found myself talking, candidly and easily, telling her things I would never have usually divulged. It all poured out of my mouth in an unfiltered stream as she sat opposite me, nodding encouragingly, frowning slightly with concentration. I told her that I wished I’d gone to art school; how much I regretted staying at home during my studies rather than moving away, despite how much more it would have cost; that mum and dad knew, they must know, that I was gay, but we were all too embarrassed to talk about it because it would mean acknowledging that people have sex.
“Judge ye not, love,” Lorraine smiled, patting my hand soothingly. “Takes all sorts to make a world.”
“I don’t know why I told you all that,” I admitted.
“I’m good at getting people to open up,” she said. “It’s one of my skills. I had to make sure you’d be suitable before offering you the room. Now, it’s a good room and a very fair rent. I’ll tell you why. Since my husband passed, I like to have someone else in the house, a physical presence, you know. I’ve got Hercules, but it’s not quite the same thing. It’s a token rent, really, because I’m not doing it so much for the money – I do well enough with my clients – as for a bit of company.”
“Oh, right,” I said.
Living with Lorraine, I thought, was probably not a good idea. She wanted companionship. I would feel honour-bound to hang out with her. I would forgo the wild nights out and instead sit amongst the chintz sipping cocoa…
I wondered how long I had to stay and drink tea before I could make my excuses.
A black lump flew into my lap. It was an incredibly heavy cat. He was not a handsome feline. He was a lumbering bruiser who had lived at least eight lives. He looked up at me beseechingly with imploring lemon-yellow eyes, and I fell instantly in love with him. I stroked his mass of fur and he settled clumsily onto me, emitting an alarmingly loud, low thrumming purr like old machinery much in need of oiling.
Lorraine smiled with satisfaction. She extracted a cigarette from an ornate silver box and lit it with a flourish.
“Hercules is my final test,” she announced. “He’s a very discerning judge of character. He’s taken to you instantly. So that settles it. You’re moving in.”