I didn’t use to believe in witches. Not really. Of course, growing up in Scotland, there were always stories of witches and wizards, ghosts and ghouls, monsters and zombies and so on, but as in most ‘civilized’ western countries, such stories were mainly regarded as folklore; on a par with pixies and elves. You didn’t really believe in them, they were just fairy tales. Remember the stories?
There was one, more ‘serious’ book on witches in our secondary school library though. And it freaked us all out a bit. It must have been one of the most browsed texts in there – due to its filthy pictures of witches performing various ceremonies – black masses and the like – naked! In most libraries there are some books with scuddy pictures, classed under erotic literature or art; even in the children’s section there’s always some big kid that’s got his hands on the encyclopaedia and invites you over to show you a picture of the topless, tribal African woman. This one, ‘Witches and Warlocks’, was a non-fiction work, detailing very graphically, and very sexily we all thought, a range of witchcraft and black arts practices. It had somehow found its way into Saint Saviours’ RC (Roman Catholic) school, despite the establishment being as staunchly Catholic in its syllabus and overall culture as it comes. It was in the reference section, on the religious books shelf, and I’m sure none of the teachers knew of its existence, much less its saucy content. The librarian was a rather dozy woman in her thirties, with short blond hair; always had her nose in some novel. I assume it was her that ordered a copy. She must have done it absent-mindedly, not really checking out its profane and pornographic content. Or maybe she was some kind of closest anarchist or rebel. Who knows?
“Here, Sandy, come and check this out.” He shoved the big tome into my hands.
I flipped through it, speechless, mostly just looking at the shocking pictures but taking in some of the vocabulary: black mass, pentagram, hex, coven, sect, orgy…
“I’d like to join one of those devilish sects, just to take part in the orgies,” said Martin, grinning.
“Idiot! You’d probably go to hell.”
After we’d had our fill of the images, Martin put the book back on the shelf and said, “Don’t forget to touch the Bible after, just to be on the safe side.”
We both touched the Bible before leaving.
From then on we secretly consulted the book, at least once a week, hiding behind one of the shelves and ogling at the pictures.
* * *
Saint Saviours’ was a comprehensive school, slap-bang in the middle of some of the roughest areas of Dundee: Fintry, Whitfield, Craigie and Douglas; so it had its fair share of psychos, hard men and general nutters. They had three main pastimes during the lunch break: playing a gambling game called pitchy, which involves throwing coins up against the wall, the winner being the one who gets his coin closest; smoking round the back of the boilers; and, of course, fighting and bullying. Martin and I came from the Ferry, one of the better areas of Dundee. We were bussed in to Saint Saviours’, along with about forty to fifty other children, because it was the nearest Catholic School. Hence we were labelled ‘snobs’, ‘toffs’ or ‘poofs’ and were considered good bullying fare for the yobs during the breaks.
The library was a good place to escape to, to avoid getting beaten up, but the best place was the Chess Club, because we could eat our lunch there; and also because we liked playing chess, I suppose (we were both on the school chess team). It was run by Mr Fitzsimmons, a very amusing and charismatic chemistry teacher, but with a very short temper. He was well known for his angry fits, often reducing strapping lads, a foot taller than him, to blubbing wrecks just by screaming and shouting at them. He sometimes seemed as if he was about to have a nervous breakdown; eventually he did, but years later, once we’d all left the school. So while the Chess Club was a great place to hang out, it was wise to be on your best behaviour, since Fitzy – never call him that to his face – could drop in at any time to check up on you.
In the winter, when it was very cold, the classrooms got a bit chilly, even with the heaters turned on full. So Mr Fitzsimmons used to light up all the Bunsen burners on the workbenches, which were situated along three walls of the room, as well as the one on top of his desk, at the front. He left them on the slow, yellow flame and not the strong, ferocious, blue flame, but it was dangerous enough leaving unattended teenagers surrounded by flaming burners. It also created a rather mysterious atmosphere, like sitting in some pagan temple. I’m sure if some health and safety inspector had come along, he would have got rapped for it. But Fitzy was ever the rebel. This was 80s Britain, where teachers were striking and stopping all extra-curriculum activities in protest at Thatcher’s budget cuts and pay rise refusals, and his Chess Club was the one remaining club in the school; all the others – sports, drama, photography, etc. – had been stopped after the first year. I think he supported the strikes, but he just loved chess. He had, after all, coached the famous Paul Motwani, a previous pupil at the school and huge chess star, who went on to become Scotland’s first Grand Master.
So one Tuesday lunchtime, during our second year, in the heart of the cold Scottish winter, we were sitting eating our lunch and playing chess in the chemistry lab / Chess Club, the Bunsen burners full ablaze and Martin said, “Watch this!” He went over to the workbench at the side of the class and moved his hand through the flame. “See, if you move your hand quite quickly through the flame, it doesn’t burn.”
We all have a fascination with fire. It must be human nature, part of our instincts, left over from prehistoric times where fire meant warmth, protection, hot food, story telling but perhaps also excitement: sex by the fireside? We’ve all set something on fire just for the fun of it: a candle, a firework, a match or a whole box of them all at once, thrilled by the little explosion, the sudden blaze. “Come on, guys, are you chicken?” Martin ribbed us.
We didn’t need much persuasion, most of the boys and a few of the girls left their chess games and took turns putting their hands through the flame, feeling the slight warmth, but moving fast enough so as not to get burnt. I went to the burner on the teacher’s desk, standing on a chair so I could reach it. Of course, just my luck, as I was putting my hand through the flame, Fitzsimmons came in, took in the scene – and went berserk!
“You, Beech! I can’t believe it!” he shouted, already turning red.
Most people had backed away from the burners when he came in, but he’d caught me red-handed, seen me through the little window on the door before he even came in. “Can’t I even leave you a few minutes, without you getting up to something?” he bellowed.
“Sorry, sir,” I said meekly, looking down at my shoes.
“And here was me, just trying to be nice and warm the place up for you a bit.” He looked around and caught Martin smirking. “I bet this was your idea wasn’t it, Martin?”
“What? No, sir,” he protested, but he wasn’t fooling anyone.
“Right the pair of you, out! You’re banned for the rest of the week.”
There wasn’t going to be any discussion, so we gathered up our things and made for the door. Fitzsimmons went around the class turning off all the burners. “Get back to your games the rest of you, and you can freeze for all I care!” He glared at us as we headed out the door.
“Nice one, Martin,” I said accusatorily to my friend, who’d got me into deep water once again, or rather, thick ice in this case – it was one of the coldest days of winter, there was deep snow and thick sheets of ice everywhere.
The yobs were all having snowball fights and worse – pushing people to the ground and burying them with snow they kicked on top of them. Ron Knight, one of the chief psychos, spotted us, came along and shoved me to the ground and started kicking snow on me. “Sandy, you poof! Come and play snowballs instead of that poofy chess.”
One of his mates, Grant Bishop grabbed some sand from a big bin of the stuff, officially used to help melt the ice, and threw some in my face. He also stuffed a handful down the back of my neck. “Hey, the Sandy Beech needs some more sand.”
“You’ve just been checkmated by a Knight and a Bishop,” joked Martin. He often used his humour in such cases, and by keeping the lowlifes amused managed to deflect most of their violence. While the pair of bullies guffawed, Martin grabbed me up off the ground. “Come on, Sandy.” He led me away and once we were out of earshot he said, “Let’s head to the library.” He didn’t want the others to know we were going there, since they’d just call us ‘swats’ and ‘poofs’ and probably pelt us with more snow and sand. We still had about forty-five minutes to kill before the end of the lunchtime break, so it seemed like a good idea.
The library was very quiet, just a few bookish types, perusing the shelves or sitting down reading at one of the desks. We blended in, although I was leaving a little trail of sand from the stuff Grant had put down my clothes. After aimlessly looking at a few books in the various sections, we found each other in the religious section, in front of the shelf with the infamous ‘Witches and Warlocks’.
Martin took it off the shelf. “May as well have a gander,” he said.
We looked through it, page by page; no matter how many times you looked at this bizarre tome, you were still spellbound, feeling a strange mixture of curiosity, horror and titillation as you took in the pictures – both drawings and photos. “Do you think those are actual devil worshippers, taking part in real black masses, or just models pretending?” asked Martin.
“Don’t know. What, are you thinking of applying for a job as a model for the next edition?”
He laughed. “Who published this thing anyway?” He found the answer on one of the pages near the front. “Six-six-six publishing,” he read aloud. “Geeze, the devil himself! Quick we’d better touch the Bible before we go.” Lunchtime break was almost over.
“What do you think would happen if you touched it with the Bible?” he asked.
“Don’t know. Probably nothing. Try it and see,” I said flippantly.
“I’ll hold this. You get the Bible.” He was serious.
I rolled my eyes. “Okay, and then let’s get out of here before the librarian wakes up and nabs us.”
He held the volume of ‘Witches and Warlocks’, and I got the Bible, a big leather-bound edition, further along the shelf. It had probably been consecrated by the Bishop, the real Bishop that is, not Grant Bishop. I touched it onto the perverse, evil tome that Martin was holding and the pages burst into flames in his hands.
“Ahhh!” He started screaming. We both panicked. He dropped the flaming book to the floor, and I quickly placed the Bible – which had escaped unscathed – on top of the shelf, no time to put it back in its place. Then we both legged it out of the door.
Luckily, I don’t think the librarian had seen us at all, engrossed as always in the latest potboiler she was reading. We ran downstairs and back into the playground, praying that we wouldn’t be found out, or that we hadn’t set the library on fire. There were no smoke alarms in those days, but I assumed the librarian wasn’t that dozy that she couldn’t react to the smell of smoke and douse a book with the nearest fire extinguisher.
* * *
The first class of the afternoon, Maths, went as usual, but halfway through the second class, English, there was a note passed round to all the teachers and everyone was convoked to the hall for an emergency assembly. When we got there the place was packed; all the teachers and pupils were present, as was the librarian, who for once looked emotional and agitated. Martin and I looked at each other uneasily. He put his index finger to his lips. Of course, I wasn’t going to say anything. It was a golden, universal rule we’d learned since primary school; never grass, and especially never own up to anything if you know what’s good for you.
Miss Gruffy, the assistant-head led the proceedings. She had a formidable presence, despite being only about five-foot-two. Greying hair cut short, icy-clear blue eyes which no one dared look into for more than an instant, built like a bus – not fat just solid, matriarchal, I suppose you might say. She’d been a missionary nun in Africa in the sixties and seventies, no doubt striking fear into the hearts of any cannibal tribes who dared defy her. She’d been awarded an MBE no less, before leaving the cloth and taking on a new mission: trying to keep us lot on the straight and narrow.
She held up the charred remains of ‘Witches and Warlocks’, holding it at the extreme corner between her thumb and forefinger, as if it was some filthy rag; I suppose it was in her eyes, both literally and figuratively. “Who’s responsible for this?” she boomed, and then looked round the assembly hall, trying to detect any sign of someone who might know something. We all kept our eyes down and remained mute. She let us stew in silence for a good two minutes, before eventually saying, “Fine. No one’s going to own up. The library’s closed for the next two weeks.”
She dramatically dropped the scorched volume into a wastepaper bin, which had obviously been put up on the stage beside her for this sole purpose. She looked out at us again and finally thundered, “God is not mocked!” Clutching the Bible – I’m sure it was the one I’d discarded previously up in the library, she glared at us for a few more instants, then strode furiously off the stage.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish