In 1939 David was born, the sixth and last of Alex’s brothers and sisters, and soon afterward war broke out. Alex, with most of the other children in Manchester, was evacuated to the country to escape air raids. It was a wrench leaving his parents, and his sisters and brothers, who were sent to separate foster homes, but most of all he hated leaving his grandmother.
‘Remember your vows,’ she told him sternly. ‘Keep your mouth shut and your honor clean. And don’t be afraid.’ She tried to comfort the white-faced boy. ‘You’ll have a good time in the country; there’s a lovely home waiting for you, and luxury like you’ve never seen before.’
The children were farmed out willy-nilly to families that had spare bedrooms, some in cottages, others in mansions. Alex was given board in the luxurious home of a cotton-mill owner in Great Harwood, in the heart of the Lancashire witch country, famous in the sixteenth century for witchhunts and executions. Uncle Louie was a man in his middle forties, the father of a baby daughter, Gillian. His Queen Anne
house stood on the foothills of Pendle Hill and it was a palace house that filled the eyes of Alex. Tea was served on a silver service by maids,
suits of armor stood in niches in the entrance hall, and, best of all his bedroom overlooked the slopes of Pendle Hill. Uncle Louie warmed to the solemn little boy and took him on walks all over the hills, teaching him the wood-lore of the countryside.
Auntie Alice was not so amiable; daughter of a miner, she had worked hard to. come up in the world and she found nothing engaging about this boy from the city who reminded her of her own beginnings. She looked after his physical needs but the antipathy was mutual and Alex steered clear of her.
Before long he was enrolled in the Boy Scout troop led by his foster uncle. In the fields and woods, Alex saw for the first time living examples of the plants in his grandmother’s book. They were happy days, for Uncle Louie was delighted with his small disciple.
One autumn day Alex was taken on a picnic to the top of Pendle Hill, a local beauty spot. Although it was sunny, he shivered as he stood on the bare hillside. Emanations of previous ages chilled him to the bone; the breeze moaned in his heart and he longed to be alone that he might try to understand .its meaning. Uncle Louie knew none of this.
‘Look at the view, lad.’ He pointed out the misty expanse of Lancashire round there. ‘Folks say that witches used to come up here and worship heathen gods, but some folks say anything.’
One by one the long-dead witches flickered across Alex’s consciousness, indistinct, but with the symbols of their witch hood clearly defined: the horns-sign of the fertility cult the broomsticks, the raised athames, He knew he would never be satisfied until he had conjured them up in a circle to hear what they had to tell him.
Unable to practice his witchcraft properly, for Gran had explained time and time again that only a third-grade witch could work in a circle, and then With at least one companion, Alex had to observe the full-moon rites at his bedroom window. His athame had been left at his grandmother’s, but he went through the motions, wishing himself back in Manchester in spite of the affection he felt for Uncle Louie.
It came as a shock. when the latter told him one morning that he was to be confirmed, but when he protested his objections were overruled.
‘I’ve written to your parents,’ Uncle Louie said. ‘Your mother told me you were baptized into the Church of England. She’ll be glad if you’re confirmed.’
The ceremony took place in St Hubert’s Church at Great Harwood and Alex prayed throughout it, apologizing to Jesus Christ and assuring Him that no blasphemy was intended. He did not need to placate his witch god, feeling sure that he would understand.
Afterward, he put the whole episode behind him and roamed the countryside testing his witch knowledge. He found the wild herbs used for potions in the very places described in witch-records; ‘beside fast running water’, ‘beneath the mossy side of stones’, ‘where two streams meet. He would have much to tell his grandmother.
The months he spent with his Uncle Louie were among the happiest of his childhood, free as they were from the problems of poverty, but he badly wanted to visit his grandmother. The matter resolved itself in June 1940 when his parents sent word for him to come home. He was just fourteen and his schooldays were over; it was time to go to work.
Back home in Manchester, this time in Cornbrook Street, Old Trafford, where his mother had moved so that she could take in boarders, Alex found a job with a carpenter that left him free to spend every evening with his grandmother. She made him study harder than ever. ‘I’ve so much to teach you. We mustn’t waste time,’ she told him.
Alex was puzzled; time was the one thing he had plenty of. ‘What’s the hurry? I’m not going away again.’
She looked at him and shook her head; time enough later for him to know the reasons. Now she must press on with his training.
When they were not working together within the magic circle, she would tell him all the tales that had been passed from witch to witch through the ages. The true religion, she explained, was the love of life and the love of the giver of life. Man must love woman, woman man, and both must love the god that made them. The main tenet of the cult was the belief in fertility. This was something with which Alex, as
one of a large family was all too familiar, and he regarded it as a mixed blessing. Now he heard that in olden times people without children were as nothing-it was the offspring that gave them a stake in the future-and he learned of the first fertility rites held by white witches on May eve and November eve when, after honoring their god, they feasted, drank and made love. The last was never performed communally, for that was considered obscene and a perversion of the witch law, but nevertheless white witches were reviled for their ‘orgies’ just as hysterically as black witches.
There was so much for Alex to learn, and all of it by heart, that he sometimes protested; he was still growing and, with the continuous air raids, was getting very little sleep at night. In addition, his father was drinking heavily and the domestic tension was beginning to get Alex down. Once he asked if he could have a break from his apprenticeship. ‘I am a witch already, so why do I need to know so much more?’
His grandmother explained that he was still only a first-grade witch and totally unprepared to handle the power he would develop in the second or third grade. Furthermore, he would not be able to initiate another witch until he himself had reached the higher grade
Alex seized the opportunity to question his grandmother on the one subject she always avoided; living witches. Once again she refused to be drawn. ‘What you don’t know, can’t hurt,’ was her reply and Alex had to hide his frustration until another day.
At about this time other images began appearing in the crystal. An especially terrifying one was of a man’s arm being dragged through a giant wringing machine. Another portrayed the death of someone Alex loved.
‘What do they mean?’ he asked, but his grandmother could not tell him.
‘You must interpret your own visions,’ she explained, ‘I can only teach you to raise them. But they never lie, even though you may not always interpret the time factor correctly.’
‘But who is going to die?’ he persisted. ‘And why can’t we make a circle and work to keep them alive?’
At this, the old lady put away her mending and looked at him sternly. ‘We have the powers of vision and of bringing spirits to help us, but never imagine that we have the power of God. Witchcraft is based on natural laws so that everyone must die when their time comes. With that, we cannot interfere.’
That December another of Alex’s early visions was fulfilled. The air raid came soon after dark and before long it was obvious that this was no ordinary attack. Wave after wave of bombers droned over the city, dropping both incendiary and high-explosive bombs. For hour after hour, there was no respite. Huddled in the cellar with his parents, and with his brothers and sisters who had come home for Christmas, Alex
worried about his grandmother. Could she be the loved one who would die, and would this be the night of her death? Bombs were landing all around and bits of plaster kept showering down on them as the foundations of the house shook.
About midnight he asked to go upstairs to get something to eat. He ran to the top of the house to look out, and there he saw the scene that had haunted his childhood, that had appeared in his grandmother’s crystal the very first time he used it. Illuminated by the glare of a thousand fires, the jagged edge of a bombed house cut across the skyline, and in front of it, a small group of people was being shepherded to
safety by an air-raid warden. Children were crying; one had a makeshift bandage around her head. Then from above came the whistling of a. stick of falling bombs: the terrified group cringed in unison and was dispersed amongst the rubble.
Alex returned to the cellar, shaken by the truth of his prophecy but relieved that he had been a witness, not a victim. Looking into the future began to lose its charm, for the vision had been more frightening than reality. Nevertheless, he persisted in trying to see whose death was foretold. The three people he loved most were his grandmother, his mother, and his sister Joan; if only he could have assured himself It was
none of them he would have rested easy.
His grandmother survived the Blitz, but the carpenter for whom he worked had his premises destroyed and Alex had to find another job. He was engaged by a firm of manufacturing chemists-and now another vision came true. After working in the laboratories for a while, he was transferred to the plant making adhesive plaster. There, dominating the workshop, was the gigantic calendar that had appeared like a wringing machine in the crystal. Alex dreaded approaching it, convinced that it was his own arm he had seen mangled, but it was his job to stand behind it guiding the material. Day after frightening day he took up his position until, at last, he heard the expected screams: he ran round to the front of the machine in time to see his companion’s arm being fed between the rollers.
By this time Alex had begun to be intereste~ in girls; his grandmother, noticing this development, decided he was ready for the second-and third-grade initiations. She had already taught him at length about sex, self-control, and the ways witches have of harnessing impulses so that the sex force can be used positively towards creating power. ‘Implosion’ was the term she used, the antithesis of masturbation.
On the night of the initiation ceremony, she laid out a new robe she had made for Alex. They both bathed themselves before entering the circle. By the light of two candles on the altar-a draught-board table on which the regalia was arranged -she lay down on the floor and drew the boy to her until their bare bodies touched. Then they were united. There were no gestures of affection or passion; it was strictly a ritual an? Alex did not feel the slightest .repugnance at losing his virginity to a woman of seventy-four. Afterward, she opened a bottle of wine and, in his new robes, Alex poured a libation to the moon goddess and drank to his future as a witch.
Before many months had passed Mary Bibby died. Her daughter went to dispose of her possessions and was mildly surprised at the odd collection of antiques she found in the old chest. Alex begged to have them as mementos and his mother agreed. Aware of the boy’s desolation at his grandmother’s death, she hoped the sword, the crystal, the brass bowls, and the censer would comfort him, but refused to
let him keep the iron cauldron-or coal-scuttle as she called it. There was nothing else to suggest that Gran had been a witch. Alex had burnt her Book of Shadows immediately after her death and had chopped up her broomstick which had been carved with phallic symbols.
So much of his life had been spent studying witchcraft with his grandmother that Alex was now at a loose end. When he tried to work magic to bring her back if only for a moment, he met with total failure. There were few occasions for him to be alone, for he shared a bedroom with his three brothers and there was usually one of them trailing after him. Even his clairvoyance deserted him, and he began to think that
it had never really existed but had been projected on him by his grandmother. Had it all been made up, all she had told him about witchcraft and supernatural powers? He read and reread his Book of Shadows and decided that no uneducated woman could have written such prose nor expressed such philosophy.
As he recovered from his initial grief he began to accept that he was helpless until such times as he could find another witch to work with if there were any still alive. Alone he dared not conjure up spirits or call down the power from the moon, knowing that witch law proscribes individual work. Little use to reason that his gran had been doing just that when he had first discovered her as a witch. Alex was very young still, and very unsure of himself, All he could do .was watch and wait until someone gave the sign that he would surely recognize.