There is a cottage by the woods, right on the edge of town. They say a witch lives there. They say her cauldron stirs itself. They say… a lot of things. They said Santa was real. And the Easter Bunny. If you want to know the truth, you have to go see for yourself.
Seven-year-old Helen wants to know. She leaves her friends behind at the rickety kissing-gate at the end of their cul-de-sac and walks up the grassy hill to the cottage and the woods.
As she walks, the sounds of town vanish. No more cars, no more shrieks from her friends playing tag. Just birdsong and the rustling of leaves in the trees.
She reaches up and knocks on the door.
A woman answers it. She’s old–but in the way that all adults are old, not in the way that Helen’s Great-Grandma is old. She invites Helen in and offers her a glass of milk.
Helen isn’t sure whether you should accept drinks from a witch. Or maybe that’s fairies. But the woman seems nice, so she says yes. The kitchen has wooden beams and a big table in the centre, with bowls and bundles of herbs scattered across it.
The woman asks her why she came.
“To find out if you are a witch like they said. And if your cauldron stirs itself. But I don’t believe that. It’s just silly.”
“Take a look for yourself. What do you think?”
Helen has a good look around. There is an open fire, with a small cauldron hanging over it–or at least she assumes that the metal bucket thing is a cauldron. She’s never seen one before. And the spoon is going round and round on its own.
“It does stir itself!”
Helen crinkles her brow. What does the woman mean? But she looks, tilting her head and squinting and there… She can just make out a faint, blurred human-ish shape.
“What is that?”
“I think you mean who, dear. That’s Albert. He helps me out around the cottage. He likes to be useful.”
The gauzy almost-there shape waves and Helen waves back. It’s only polite after all.
“Why can’t I see him properly?”
“I’m afraid he’s dead, dear. That’s his ghost you’re seeing.”
“Oh. You are a witch then, if you have a ghost working for you.”
“If that’s the criteria, then I guess I am.” The woman laughs.
Helen drinks her milk and the woman goes back to chopping herbs, reciting the names as she selects them.
When Helen finishes the glass, she leaves. But she’s not quite the same. She is inclined, more than ever, to believe her own eyes over what “they say.”
And it’s not the last time she visits the witch.
Helen stood at the old kissing-gate, a letter clutched in one hand. Over ten years, since she last stood here and looked up the hill to the cottage by the woods. It hadn’t changed a bit.
Funny that, when everything else had changed so much. Especially her.
She’d almost forgotten the cottage existed, and the witch, until the letter from the solicitor arrived on her doormat.
She’d nearly thrown it away as some poor phishing attempt. Who would have left her any kind of bequest–much less a cottage? And she’d never heard of Mrs. Maybury in her life.
But the law firm was reputable so she’d called them, to let them know someone was using their name, and it had turned out to be real. The cottage by the woods on the edge of Horsham was hers, on the condition that she live there for one full year.
It had been a phone call from her mum that made her decide to accept.
“Hello, dear,” her mum trilled. “Just calling to check the details of your graduation ceremony. First master’s degree in the family!” A squeal had reached down the phone and Helen winced as she pushed the receiver away from her ear. “And how are the job applications going?”
Helen sighed. “Not great, Mum. I’ve had another two rejections.”
“Not even an interview?” her mum asked. “Oh, Helen.”
“But I’ve applied for a post-grad position,” Helen said quickly, trying to push away her mother’s disappointment. “With a full scholarship! You know I didn’t get on too well in my gap year job. Maybe academia is a better fit.”
“Maybe, dear. But where are you going to live? Doesn’t your lease end in a few weeks? You’d better move home with me and Paul until you get on your feet.”
Helen grimaced. The thought of moving back in with her mother and step-father made her stomach twist. She couldn’t do it. Not after five years living on her own. Her mother would suffocate her.
“There is another option, mum,” she said. “There’s a cottage, just outside Horsham–where we lived when you and dad… when I was younger. I can move there for a bit, until I get the post-grad place.”
“All right, dear. If you think that’s best.” And then her mum had segued into the latest gossip from her Women’s Institute group.
But that had been the moment when Helen had decided to accept the bequest. Even if the one-year condition was odd, it was still better than moving back home.
A brief meeting with the lawyers a week later and she had the keys, and an address.
The sat-nav got her safely to Horsham, which had grown swollen with new build houses and a massive supermarket since she’d last visited. Even the town-centre was unrecognisable when she drove through–all shiny new shopfronts and new pedestrianised zone.
As she got closer though, the sat-nav failed her, and she spent half an hour driving around half-familiar streets until she finally found the cul-de-sac she’d grown up in and the gate, and the field, and the wood. She parked her car by the curb and climbed out, breathing in the fresh country air.
As unlikely as it seemed, having grown like some sort of urban tumour, Horsham had never spread in this direction. The meadow and the wood were as large and unspoiled as ever, with the cottage nestled under the welcoming arms of the trees and bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun.
With one last glance at the letter, Helen pushed through the gate and made her way slowly up the hill to the cottage door.
The kitchen door was exactly as she remembered: sky-blue paint peeling around the edges and slightly warped so that she had to lift as well as push to open it.
“Hello,” she called, feeling foolish, and yet she couldn’t imagine the kitchen without the witch in it.
Only silence answered her, and Helen stepped inside.
The kitchen was clean and bright, floor recently mopped and surfaces gleaming. Someone–presumably the witch herself, as the lawyers said they had never visited the cottage–had cleaned every inch and laid out the full inventory on the long wooden kitchen table that took up most of the room. Pots and pans and spoons, a teapot, bundles of herbs–everything that belonged to the kitchen laid out for Helen’s inspection and, at one end, two folders with peeling labels and one white envelope.
Helen chewed her lip as her eyes roamed the neat piles. A sturdy pot with a handle to hang it over an open fire caught her eye. A cauldron, she’d called it once. A long wooden spoon rested in the empty pot, waiting for someone to stir its contents.
“Albert?” she called. “Are you there, Albert?”
But there was no reply.
Helen squared her jaw. It seemed she was on her own. Nothing for it, but a nice cup of tea. Then, she could relax and settle in properly.
She dug out the electric kettle and a mug from the pile of crockery, and set the water to boil. A further search found a half-full caddy of tea bags; although there was no milk. She’d need to go into town tomorrow for supplies.
At last, with a cup of tea in hand, Helen sat down to look at the folders and the letter.
The folders were old, cracked ring-binders, handwritten labels curling up at the edges. On one, someone had carefully written ‘recipes,’ and on the other ‘garden.’ The letter was addressed to Helen.
She stared at the envelope for a while as it lay on the table.
Helen couldn’t quite say how, but something was telling her, some ancient instinct residing in her gut, that once she opened the letter, there would be no going back.
But she couldn’t resist it forever. Half-empty mug of tea cooling beside her, Helen reached out and tore open the envelope, tipping the letter out into one hand and unfolding it.
Dearest Helen, it said.
If you are reading this, you have accepted my conditions and you have come to live in the cottage. I hope you will be as happy here as I was.
Everything you need is here. And if something is missing, you only have to ask. The cottage will provide.
People will come to you for help. They will come with desires and wishes and dreams. But what we do is not about dreams. Learn to see through what they want to what they need. That is where the magic lies. Not in what we do, but how we see.
Remember, need not want.
P.S. start with the garden. Soil never lies.
Helen sank back into her chair, the letter dropping onto the table before her. Need, not want. She had heard those words before, many years ago.
Fourteen-year-old Helen sits in the witch’s kitchen, a glass of lemonade clasped in her hands, legs swinging under her–not yet tall enough to reach the ground from the high stool on which she perches.
“I don’t want to leave,” she says, voice nearing a whine. “It’s not fair.”
The witch smiles at her, but it’s a sad smile, not reaching her eyes. “Life’s not fair, darling. You know that.”
Helen pouts. “But you’re a witch! Can’t you make my parents fall back in love again, or just forget about getting divorced. They don’t have to like each other. I just want us all to stay living here, together.”
“No, you don’t want that.” The witch shakes her head. “You don’t know what you’re asking for.”
“I know that I don’t want to move away and live with my mum and her stupid new boyfriend!” Helen slams the base of her lemonade glass on the table.
“I’ll miss you too. And so will Albert. But you must go.” The witch stands and picks up a cloth to wipe the spilt lemonade from the table.
Helen flushes. It’s worse somehow to have the witch clean up after her calmly than it would have been to be rebuked for her display of temper.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t mean to get mad.”
The witch just smiles.
“Are you sure you can’t make it so we can stay?” Helen pleads.
“I can,” the witch admits. “The question is whether I should.”
“Of course, you should.” Helen frowns. She can’t understand why the witch wouldn’t use her powers to do what they both want. She doesn’t want to move away, not when there’s so much still to learn.
The witch hums, a tuneless sound. Her gaze flicks to the corner where Albert stands or sits perhaps–Helen can’t tell.
“You’re right, my love. As always.” The witch nods once, a decisive movement, and turns back to Helen. “There is one key thing you must know, if you wish to be a witch yourself one day. People will come to you because they want something. You must look through their wants, and discover what it is that they need.”
Helen’s brow furrows again as she thinks. “You mean, they’re different?”
“Yes, very often, they are.”
“But I need to stay here, so I can see you.” A tear gathers in Helen’s eye. “I don’t want to say goodbye.”
“I know, my darling, but it is what it must be. I can give you one last gift–the gift of forgetting. You will not miss me, because you will not remember me. Not until it is time.” The sad smile is back on the witch’s face and tears gather in her eyes, too.
Helen knows that there will be no forgetting for the witch, and that is perhaps the harder fate. She holds still as the witch presses a kiss to her forehead.
“Remember, my darling,” the witch whispers in her ear, “need, not want.”
And Helen remembers nothing more.
The next morning, Helen rose early, feeling restless despite the dreams and memories that had chased themselves through her head all night. The clearest had been of a kitten, grey as smoke, that had washed its paws in a patch of sunlight, its amber eyes locked with Helen’s and full of cunning.
But even that faded as she made her way downstairs to the kitchen and put the kettle on. Grateful for her own foresight of putting everything away the night before, and of bringing a loaf of bread with her the previous day, Helen sat at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, a slice of bread, and some bramble jam she had found.
Remembering the witch’s letter, she also placed the ‘garden’ folder on the table and started to flick through it as she ate.
Along with instructions for taking care of the plants already established, Helen found a schedule of activities and harvest times for the vegetable patch and a long bibliography of further reading. She raised her eyebrows at the handwritten note at the bottom of the page that suggested she visit the local library.
“I’m certainly not buying all those,” she muttered to herself. “Not with my overdraft.”
She flicked back to the timetable and list of daily tasks. “I guess I’d better do my chores before I go into town.” She snorted. Less than twenty-four hours and she was already talking to herself.
The sky looked grey through the kitchen window as she washed up, specks of rain on the glass, but by the time she made it outside, the sun was peeking through the clouds.
Helen took the folder with her, matching the growing plants to the diagrams the witch had left her, then settled down to weed between the rows of vegetables that grew in raised beds running from the kitchen window down to the low hedge surrounding the cottage.
On the other side of the path, surrounding the living room with colour, was the flower garden, but she didn’t dare touch that yet, not sure what was meant to be there, and what was not. At least with the vegetables, if something was growing in between the rows, it probably wasn’t meant to be there.
“Definitely need to get those books,” she said, wiping sweat from her forehead with the back of one hand.
An odd chirruping noise brought her head around. What was that?
It repeated, and Helen followed it on hands and knees into the shade of some tall early rhubarb–well, she thought it was probably rhubarb. Might be leeks. Something tall, anyway.
Something moved and she froze.
“Prrp?” A small grey kitten tilted its head as it stared at her, one paw hanging in the air where it had been washing itself and stopped to inspect Helen.
A relieved laugh pulled itself out of her chest. “Hello, little one,” she whispered. “You startled me!”
The kitten stood and trotted over to her, rubbing its cheek against hers.
Helen sat back on her heels, picking up the small bundle of grey fluff and cradling it to her chest. The kitten immediately started to purr.
“How did you get in here?” she asked it. “Have you run away from home?”
The kitten had no collar and seemed quite content to stay in her arms.
Helen stood and carried it back into the kitchen. “Let’s find you something to drink and somewhere safe to sleep,” she said. “I’m afraid there’s no food in the house, but I’m going out in a bit. You can stay here with me until your owner comes looking for you.”
She settled the drowsing kitten in a box with an old blanket, and set out a saucer of water and some newspaper for it.
The kitten blinked at her and its amber eyes caught the light coming through the kitchen window.
Helen gasped. “I dreamt about you,” she murmured. “I’m sure I did.” She shook her head. “Never mind, I should get going.”
Leaving the sleeping kitten behind, Helen left the cottage and headed down the hill. As she walked, the sun slid behind a cloud and she shivered, grateful for the shelter of her car as the first drops of rain hit the windshield.
Horsham Library was almost exactly as she remembered it. New posters on the wall, and perhaps a new coat of paint somewhere along the way, but otherwise nothing had changed. It even smelt the same–dust and old books, and that institutional smell of cheap floor polish you only got in council buildings and boarding schools.
She walked up to the front desk, the list of gardening books and the lawyer’s letter clutched in one hand, wondering how she was going to register with no proof of address.
The librarian smiled warmly at her. She was an older woman, twinset and pearls and a helmet of immaculately blow-dried hair, but her face was open and friendly. “Hello, dear. How can I help you?”
“Hi,” Helen said, chewing one lip. “Er, I want to register to use the library but I only just moved here. I don’t have proof of address, but I do have this.” She proffered the lawyer’s letter.
The librarian took it, scanning the contents with a swift eye. “Ah, you must be Helen,” she said, her smile widening further, eyes crinkling at the edges. “I’ve been expecting you. No need to register, you’re already set up. Here’s your card.” She fished around under the desk and brought out a blue barcoded card with Helen’s full name on the front.
“How?” Helen asked, but her question was waved away.
“Mrs. Maybury has told me all about you, and I expect you’re here for some books.” The librarian’s eyes twinkled. “I helped her put the lists together. Which have you brought today?”
“I thought I’d start with the garden,” Helen replied, unable to avoid the question, but struggling to follow what was going on.
“Excellent choice. Come with me.” The librarian click-clacked her way across the scuffed parquet floor on heeled court shoes. “We’ll start you off with just a couple of them.” She pulled book after book from the shelves, until Helen had five large hardbacks clutched in her arms.
She followed the librarian back to the desk where they were rapidly scanned and issued.
“There you are, dear. Enjoy! And we’ll see you again next week.” The librarian offered her another smile and then turned away to greet a different customer.
“Er, yes, next week,” Helen muttered, still confused. But as she took the books and turned to go, a thought struck her and she paused.
“Excuse me,” she asked when the librarian was free again. “Do you know where I can buy some kitten food?”
“Of course, dear,” the librarian replied, and gave her directions to the pet store.
An hour or so later, Helen stumbled up the hill, a big pile of books under one arm, and several bags of groceries, kitten food, toys, and cat litter clutched in her other hand.
“Can I help you with that?”
The voice startled her, and she dropped one of the bags, swearing.
“Sorry.” The owner of the voice stepped into view from behind her. “I didn’t mean to make you jump. Here, let me.” They picked up the dropped items, put them back in the bag, and then deftly liberated Helen of her stack of books.
She sighed with relief. “Thank you. I was going to drop something eventually. This hill seems much bigger on the way back up!”
Her Good Samaritan laughed, throwing his head back.
Helen took the opportunity to get a good look at him. He was about her age. A little taller than her, with thick black hair and dark eyes. Laugh lines formed easily as he chuckled and, when he stopped, she noticed a dimple in his right cheek.
“I’m Jake,” he said, falling into step beside her up the hill.
“Helen,” she replied.
“I thought as much. Mrs. Maybury told me all about you. Your hair’s darker than she remembered though.”
Helen lifted her free hand self-consciously to brush her hair out of her face. “She seems to have told everyone about me.”
“All good, I promise,” Jake said, with another grin.
Helen put her bags down on the kitchen table and waved Jake in to take a seat. “Thank you for the help. Can I get you a cup of tea?”
“That would be lovely.” He sat down, putting the books in a neat pile in the centre of the table, and reached out to stroke the kitten, who yawned at him. “Er, I should probably say, I didn’t just come to rescue you. I…” He paused and ran a hand through his hair. “Mrs. Maybury used to make up a drink for me, to help my hands. She said she’d leave you the recipe.”
“Oh, right.” Helen put the teapot down on the table and reached for the red binder. “It’ll be in here somewhere.” She flicked through the pages until she saw his name at the top. “Helping Hands Healing Hope?” she asked with a laugh.
Jake chuckled. “Yeah. Mrs. Maybury had a bit of a thing for alliteration.”
Helen scanned the recipe. “I should have everything I need, I think. It won’t take long. Why don’t you pour the tea?” She gathered the herbs she needed and a saucepan. The witch had probably made this in a cauldron over the fire, but Helen hadn’t lit one this morning. The weather had been too warm for a daytime blaze. A saucepan would have to do.
When the ingredients were simmering, filling the kitchen with a deep herbal scent, she sat down and picked up the tea Jake had poured for her. She took a sip and sighed with pleasure. “Nothing like a good cup of tea.”
Jake smiled, but his gaze was fixed on the bubbling pot and his eyes were sad.
“Do…” Helen paused. “Do you mind if I ask what it’s for? The recipe didn’t say.”
“Nah, it’s okay. I have this medical condition.” Jake looked at his hands, which he clasped and unclasped in his lap. “My body keeps trying to lay down extra bone–like it never got the message to stop when I stopped growing. It takes over my joints. One day, they’ll fuse, and I won’t be able to move them again.”
“Shit,” Helen whispered.
“And this drink reverses that?”
“Sorta. It keeps my hands and wrists clear, so I can use them.” Jake offered her a wry grin.
Helen frowned. “If she could do that, couldn’t she cure you?”
Jake shrugged. “Perhaps. It’s not important though. As long as I can paint, that’s all I need.”
“You’re an artist?”
“Yes, in fact…” Jake picked up the messenger bag he’d dumped on the floor and fished around in it. “I also came to give you a moving in gift. Here.” He passed her a small square parcel wrapped in brown paper.
“I don’t know what to say.” Helen peeled back the Sellotape holding the parcel closed, folded back the paper, and gasped. “It’s the kitten! Did you know it was here?”
Jake shook his head. “Not at all. But now I know why I chose that one for you. Every painting has a purpose, we just don’t always know what they are.”
The egg-timer Helen had set buzzed, jolting her out of her focus on the painting. It was so very lifelike, and a perfect representation of the kitten, and of her dream.
As she took the pan off the hob and strained the liquid, she couldn’t stop herself from glancing at the kitten and the painting again and again.
“Here.” She handed a glass jar full of the still-warm herbal tincture to Jake. “Careful, it’s hot.”
Jake offered her another of his smiles. “Thank you. It’s been a pleasure to meet you. Perhaps I could come again, for another cup of tea? Just a social visit, next time.”
Helen returned his smile with her own. “I’d like that.”
After he left, she hung the painting on the wall and sat staring at it, the kitten curled up on her lap. “It must be a coincidence,” she muttered, but she didn’t quite believe her own words.
“There’s no such thing as coincidence,” the witch says.
Thirteen-year-old Helen is perched on a stool beside her, helping to chop herbs for the witch’s latest potion. Or possibly for dinner, Helen isn’t quite sure. But the aroma of the herbs rising around her is soothing.
“What do you mean?” she asks.
“How often do you think two things happen that could be said to be linked and we never even notice?” the witch replies, as she lifts a double handful of herbs and dumps them into the cauldron over the fire. As usual, Albert is there, barely visible, stirring away.
Helen’s brow furrows. “I don’t know. Quite often, I guess.”
The witch smiles at her. “Correct. So, if we notice, there must be a reason for it, don’t you think? Because there is some important meaning for us which our subconscious minds have noticed. They prod us to become aware of it as well, helping us see the ‘coincidence’ and, hopefully, ask more questions.”
Helen thinks about it for a few seconds. “Yes… I think I see what you mean.”
A rap on the door interrupts her next thought. It creaks open and a dark-haired boy appears, backlit by the sunlight.
“Ah, Jake,” the witch greets him. “Right on time.” She turns to Helen. “Now then, if you could strain our potion into a jar for young Jake here, I’ll pour us all some more lemonade.”
Helen rises, shy in front of the stranger, and does as the witch asks. All too soon, she’s sat back down next to Jake, both of them staring at their glasses of lemonade rather than looking at each other.
The witch laughs at them as she takes her place at the end of the table. “Now, children, no need to be bashful. You’ll be best of friends one day, mark my words.”
But it’s too much to ask of them, and they don’t speak and, before long, the boy had left and it’s time for Helen to go home. She won’t see him again before her parents’ divorce and she has to move away, forever.
After a few days together in the cottage, Helen and Sky, as she’d named the kitten, settled into a routine; breakfast for both of them, some gardening, and perhaps a walk in the morning, lunch, and then studying the folders the witch had left and her library books until it was time to light the fire for the evening.
The more time Helen spent in the cottage, the more she realised that it wasn’t quite… normal, somehow. The fridge and the lights worked, the boiler fired and there was gas to cook on, but there was no electric meter or gas meter that she could find. There was no septic tank either, or manhole covers for drains. And no utility bills arrived.
Helen had lived in enough student houses to know that bills “To the Occupier” would arrive almost instantly when a gas or electric account was closed. It was odd that none had turned up by now.
She’d tried to call the Council too–to sort out council tax payments and make sure she was on the electoral roll–but the council tax department had never heard of her address. After an hour on hold and being passed from pillar to post, she was cut off and hadn’t bothered to call back. If they wanted her to pay, they could figure it out.
The electoral roll team had heard of the cottage and confirmed that she was already registered. More of the witch’s future-proofing, Helen assumed.
What was even weirder was the wi-fi. It hadn’t been there when she arrived, Helen was sure of it. But, one night, she’d gone to bed wishing she could log on and watch a bit of TV and, the next morning, there had been a router sat on top of the fridge, humming away. She could connect instantly, faster than any broadband she’d had before, but where had it come from?
The weather was odd too. It never rained; not when she wanted to go out. The rain fell, softly and gently, enough to keep the plants happy, but only early morning or late evening when she was indoors.
And it was just around the cottage. She’d popped into town for milk and as she’d walked through the meadow, the sky had got darker and darker until she reached the kissing gate and the pouring rain beyond. Running back to the cottage for an umbrella, Helen had been shocked by the sunshine and almost not taken the umbrella with her after all–thinking it must have been a squall that had blown over. But when she walked back down again, the rain was still there, splattering against the tarmac and bouncing up to soak her legs.
Curled up in her favourite armchair that night, Sky purring on her lap and logs rackling on the fire, Helen found that she didn’t mind the oddness of the cottage, even if she thought, perhaps, she should mind. But it was safe and it was hers and it was home. More homely than anywhere she’d lived for a long time.
She smiled and scratched Sky behind the ears and returned her attention to her books. She had never realised that growing her own veggies could be so absorbing. Perhaps she should think about getting some chickens next.
The next morning, Helen was puttering about the garden, looking up the ornamental plants in her folder as she tried to work out what was meant to be there, when the crunch of footsteps on the path alerted her to a visitor. She turned toward the garden gate and her brows raised in surprise as she recognised her mother, puffing up the hill.
“Helen, dearest,” her mother called, pausing at the gate to catch her breath. “Some post came for you at home. I thought I’d bring it over and see this cottage you were so excited about.”
“Hi, Mum…” Helen tucked her folder under one arm and went to open the gate. “I, er, wasn’t expecting you.”
Her mother waved away her words. “I was in the area… Now, are you going to show me around?”
With a sigh, Helen shoved the kitchen door open and let her mother precede her inside. She should have known Mum would turn up sooner rather than later, although she was pretty sure she hadn’t given her the address.
Helen stepped inside to find her mother inspecting the kitchen cupboards.
“You really should do a proper clean, dear. The inside of some of these drawers are filthy.”
Helen sighed again. “Yes, Mum. Do you want tea?”
“Oh, that would be lovely. I’ll just use your bathroom first though. Where is it?”
“Top of the stairs, first door on the left.” Helen turned to put the kettle on and listened to her mother’s footsteps patter overhead. That squeaking floorboard was her room, and that creak was the door to the spare room, and, finally, that was the bathroom door locking.
A few minutes later, she was sat at the table cradling a mug of tea and wishing for something stronger when her mother reappeared.
“Such a cute little cottage,” she trilled. “And you said a friend was letting you live here for free?”
“Something like that,” Helen muttered. “You said there was a letter for me?”
“Oh, yes.” Her mother sat and pulled her massive handbag into her lap. “It looked important, so I thought I’d better bring it over.” She extracted a thick A4 envelope from the bag and pushed it across the table. “University of Surrey, it says there. Looks like you got that postgrad place, at last.”
Helen ignored her mother and concentrated on opening the envelope. A thick wad of paper and brochures slipped out into her waiting hand, and she scanned the opening lines of the letter.
She’d got in.
A few weeks ago, she would have been thrilled, but now a heavy weight seemed to settle in her stomach, weighing her down. Was this still what she wanted?
No, that was the wrong question. Remember what the witch said–was this what she needed?
“Well?” her mum asked.
Helen cleared her throat, stalling for time to find the words for what she needed to say, but she was interrupted by a rap at the door.
Jake’s head appeared in the open doorway. “Hi, I popped back for that cup of tea. Is this a bad time?”
“No, of course not,” Helen said, shaking her head. “Come in. This is my mum. Mum, this is Jake.”
Her mother simpered. “Hello, young man. Please, call me Pam.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Pam,” Jake said as he slid into the chair next to Helen and poured himself a cup of tea from the teapot in the middle of the table. His gaze flicked to the papers lying in front of Helen. “What have you got there? Looks exciting.”
“Our Helen has got a postgrad place at Surrey,” Pam chipped in. “The first master’s in the family, and soon the first doctorate. We’re so proud.”
“That’s… that’s awesome. Well done, Helen.” Jake’s words were happy, but his voice didn’t match them.
Helen opened her mouth to reply, but her mother talked over her again. “She’s always wanted to be an academic. She tried working a real job for a while, but it didn’t quite stick.” Her mum’s laugh was dagger sharp.
“It was what I wanted, yeah,” Helen said softly, “but, that was before.”
“What was that, dear? Speak up.” Pam leaned forward, frowning.
“What do you want now?” Jake asked.
Helen found that his gaze caught hers and she couldn’t look away. “I’m not sure, anymore,” she said. “But I think it’s more important to figure out what I need.”
There was a chirrup as Sky leapt onto the table. Helen had to catch the teapot that threatened to slide off with the tablecloth that Sky had dug her claws into.
“What’s that?” Pam shrieked.
Helen laughed. “It’s just Sky. She doesn’t like being ignored.” She put the teapot safely back in the middle of the table and picked up the kitten. “Come here and stop causing trouble, little one.”
Her mum snorted. “Can’t stand cats. Dirty creatures.”
Helen looked at her mother. “I’m not going.”
“I’m not taking up the postgrad offer. I want to stay here, with my dirty kitten and my garden. I’m happy here. For the first time in years. So I’m staying.”
Pam stuttered and Helen chewed her bottom lip as she waited for her mother’s anger to boil over.
“But this is what you wanted. This is important. I mean, I’d rather you’d taken a job in the city like your brother, but no, you’re too good for that. At least being an academic is respectable. What are you going to do here, in this tiny grubby cottage with that horrible creature? How are you going to earn a living? You’ll never find a decent husband hidden away here either.”
Helen waited until her mother finally grew silent, Jake sitting tense beside her. She reached out and squeezed his hand and was reassured by the tiny smile he gave her in return.
“It doesn’t matter, Mum,” Helen said when silence finally fell. “I’m happy here, and I’ll figure things out. It’s my life, not yours.”
Pam tried to keep arguing, but Helen wouldn’t have any of it. Jake stayed quiet by her side, but steadfast in his support, and, at last, Helen was able to get rid of her mum. She closed the door and sank back into her chair with a groan.
“I’m so sorry, Jake. You didn’t need to see all of that.”
Jake laughed. “No worries. I mean it wasn’t the most fun way to spend a morning, but at least I wasn’t the target!”
Helen managed a tired grin.
“Up you get,” Jake said. “Let’s get some fresh air. You head outside and I’ll rustle us up some lemonade. You look like you could use the sugar.”
“Thank you.” Helen levered herself to her feet and padded outside.
Sat in the late afternoon sunshine with Jake, glasses of icy lemonade beside them, a memory rose to hover in Helen’s mind. “I met you before,” she said.
“Yes, about three days ago,” Jake replied, laughing.
“No, before then. Years ago. I only remembered after you left. You look just the same as you did as a kid.”
Jake frowned, then a smile spread across his face. “I remember. Your hair has gotten darker.”
Helen pulled a lock of it forward to stare at. “I guess you’re right.” She paused. “The witch was right too. Good thing we got our shyness out of the way when we were younger. I guess we will be seeing a lot more of each other.”
Jake turned to face her. “I certainly hope so,” he said as he leaned toward her.
Just when Helen thought he was about to kiss her, he jerked back as Sky launched herself from the kitchen windowsill into his lap.
“I think she’s feeling left out,” Jake said as he caught the kitten and disentangled her claws from his shirt. “I’ll see more of you too,” he whispered to Sky as he nuzzled her head.
Helen reached out to scratch the kitten behind the ears. “Daft cat,” she said, laughing.
The moment had passed, but Helen didn’t mind. She had everything she needed–sun on her face, a friend beside her, a kitten to love, and meaningful work to be done. But not until tomorrow. Today, everything else could wait.