When you are 5 years old life doesn’t get much better than having a witch for your best friend. I had such a chum. In hindsight she probably wasn’t a witch at all yet she looked and acted like one and when you are small determining subject matter and reaching a conclusion is the easiest of things. My witch was called Mrs Cutler.
She was a very old widowed lady riddled with debilitating arthritis who lived next door to us. My parents must have been really quite hard up for a spell as Mum (albeit quite beneath her, with her false snobbery and all that) went out and got a cleaning job. For a few mornings each week she went up to one of the big Georgian houses that adorned the posh area that was (and still is today) Richmond Hill, to skivvy for a rich German lady.
I was left in the charge of ‘Cutler’ as she was known to one and all. Boy was she ugly! Face like an archetypical witch with a hooked nose and a mouth adorned with just a couple of blackened teeth. Her hair was thinning – that is to say she was more bald than hirsute. The old dear’s complexion was not unlike a coal miner at the end of his shift. On reflection I don’t think she was familiar with soap, let alone moisturiser. She chewed tobacco, was chair-bound and skinny as a rake. Apart from her ankle bones that is. These were swollen up like medicine balls and probably just as heavy. The smell in her soot-ridden, gas-lit house was rank – a sort of boiled egg mixed with pigeon poo. Cutler herself smelt of pee. She was the first old person smelling of pee I had ever known, although in the years to come I concluded that all really old people chuck up a bit. At first take she made you feel sick what with the smell and with her being challenged on the looks front, plus her living in such squalid conditions. However was she fun to be around.
Her little back garden, the same size as ours (they were all a similar size in our road) was given over to chickens. As Cutler couldn’t walk at all her son, a big fat bloke whose name I cannot recall would visit and feed the chickens for her. Sometimes when I was in Cutler’s charge the son would come bounding – insofar as a fat bloke can – in from the garden holding a live chicken by the neck. He’d hand it to Cutler who would duly wring its neck in front of me. Then she’d chop off the feet and let me play with them. I was sworn to secrecy and never told my mother about this. Cutler showed me how to pull the loose tendons emanating from the feet so as to make the chickens toes curl. Oddly none of this frightened me at all as it was all so matter of fact. This was what Cutler did. She was really kind as well. Kindness, in the eyes of a child comes in all shapes and sizes. When you are an isolated only child shrouded in the kindness of material gifts of parents and being loved without maternal human touch (my mother had an all-consuming germ phobia) just about any expression of real life affection was fine by me. Cutler’s form of kindness was uncomplicated. Simple gifts, like dipping her claw like mitts into her apron pocket (she always wore a grungy old one) and presenting me with sticky unwrapped humbugs and blackjack sweets of dubious hygiene my mother would never have countenanced were a particular joy. The fact that Cutler’s gift of such sweets felt illicit made them more luscious than any of the germ-free varieties my Mum would present me with. Also, Cutler by showing ongoing interest in me, positively encouraged me to believe I could actually do things I perhaps should not have been doing – and importantly, get away with it was a kindness in itself. I think that, to her, I was a project – a little being to nurture in ways the clinical approach of my mother simply couldn’t best. Cutler was far from being the dim witted old bag many, I feel sure, perceived her to be. Given my mother’s weird quirks, my lack of any form of physical contact with her and Cutler’s X-rated animal dissections it is remarkable I didn’t grow up to be a mass murderer really!
Cutler made up great games and stories to keep me amused during my time in her charge. I remember one day she dug out her purse and gave me an old penny – not like the little one penny pieces we have now, but a great big one as they were in previous times.
“Let’s see what we can do with this,” she said, brimming with devilment.
Then moving her bum from chair to chair (she had lots of chairs and used them to get about the place) so as to get to her little kitchen at the back she lit a gas ring and held the penny over the flame with tongs until it was heated red-hot. Now, Cutler’s front door was always open wide – burglary wasn’t the problem it is now – and, telling me to hold the tongs tight so as not to drop the said penny she sent me out the front to have me place the coin in the centre of the wide pavement there. She told me to take care no one saw me place the coin down. I duly carried out her instructions to the letter then returned to her side, us both now peering down the hallway.
“No one saw you then?”
“No Cutler, there was no one out there anyway.”
We didn’t have to wait long before ‘Milko’ the milk delivery man (such simple times) came along to collect his money for the week. Well, ‘Milko’ got a bit more than he bargained for. Spotting the penny on the ground before him he did what anyone would have, and bent over to pick it up. Mind you he didn’t hold it very long. In fact he dropped it before he got back upright.
“Oh my, my, my, my. Oh dear”.
Cutler smiled as sweetly as any Macbethian witch could do to greet ‘Milko’ as he entered. He looked a bit pissed off.
Cutler had a thing about pennies. Another time she had me glue one to the pavement outside just so we could watch people try and pick it up as they passed the house. Ludicrous really but to me it was the best time. I was only 5 years old and I was doing things which would have horrified my mother. The only thing even approaching excitement in my life at that time was Cutler. I cannot remember but I presume I must have been disinfected each time Mum collected me from good old Cutler. Also, Mum must have been really broke to take on a job that meant she would have to leave me in the care of the most germ ridden, albeit lovely, old bag in Christendom!
I can’t remember when and how Cutler died. One day she was there, the next nothing. I can remember my Mum saying to Dad, “Now she’s gone the place will have to be fumigated Jim,” and ‘Jim’ agreeing that that would be for the best.
Even now, when I shut my eyes, I can see the coalman walking down Cutler’s hall, sack over his shoulder, face blackened by coal dust highlighting the whites of his eyes and the pinkness of his mouth and tongue, saying, “Alright luv, where d’you want it this week?” and Cutler saying, “Oh, just chuck some in the hearth and throw the rest in the bunker out the back.”
“It’ll make a bit of a bloody mess if I just empty some out on the hearth won’t it? Haven’t you got a bucket?” Then, he looks about the place with its antique gas lighting, its carpeting of dubious origins, its pictureless peeling walls that felt like sticky boiled sweets to the touch and, just shrugging, as he set about his task. I still remember the day I must have had a fever or something when Mum left me tucked up in my own bed whilst she went off skivvying. So as to ensure I was safe during the period she was at work she had Cutler park herself in her own hallway and tap tunes on the wall with the end of her then redundant walking cane. My duty was to tap back, using the end of an old Bakelite model of a Wellington bomber, the next verse of the same tune thus confirming my wellbeing. The problem was that the only tune we could both ‘tap to’ was Colonel Bogie so it all got a bit boring after a couple of hours. Still it was really kind of the old dear to take time out for me like that.
The only kindness I have been able to return is to have her engraved in my memory and to think of her from time to time.