The witch can’t remember being young.
She would have been, once, probably, but she can’t remember. She is not distressed by this. Instead she remembers huts made of birch and insulated by melted fat. She remembers forests with the size and vertiginous depths of seas, punctuated with the banal chitter of stupid animals and the visits of the brave and the desperate. She remembers the brawny legs of chickens and a craving for teeth that stand against the darkness like jewels.
She remembers to the soundtrack of machines beeping their cheerful Pavlovian chirrup. Beep, keep going. Beep, look how easy this is, to be your own shopkeep. Beep, shouldn’t it always have been thus? Beep, one day we’ll have your graphic design job, too, you cocky prick.
Beep. Beep. Beep beep beep beep.
There is a queue for the machines even though the witch stands by her till unutilised. One of those waiting is an old man, pushing eighty, in a baggy suit and shirt against which shines a sapphire herringbone silk tie like a crystal river cutting through a young landscape. His left hand tremors faintly, accentuated by the pack of Batchelors Pasta ‘n’ Sauce it holds.
His choice of queue annoys her. The others waiting are young enough to be swayed by inevitability but she expects better of older people. Compared to her he is young, of course, but he is as old as he needs to be to understand. There are truths that belong to every generation; to deny or fail to see them is failure. That is why the young ones queue to serve themselves.
If you come to me, she thinks, looking at him, I will heal you. If you leave that silly line and let me serve you I will take your dementia, swallow it up and excrete it as sweat and strenuous shit. I will make your shaking hand as steady as a Siberian pine before the advent of engined teeth. I can still do these things. And he does look in her direction, his eyes darting at and away from her like fish around a lure. Eventually he stutters towards her, his resolve either eroded or reconstituted.
(The witch briefly sees him as a young man: the same nervous eyes, this time looking at a plain woman’s philtrum as he quietly asks her to dance, his heart pulsing like the beating wings of the Slavic firebird.)
The witch tries her best smile, which she knows has the effect of disembarking Vikings as seen from a monastery (she has seen this; they sailed the Volga), but it is the only smile she has.
She offers out her hand. ‘Let me take tho-‘
I am now at your service, chimes till number 3, and the old man smiles in apology and in relief and is won over to the self-service machine.
The witch tenses her jaw. Stupid fucking man. Her mandible lengthens and stretches like warm wax, tightening her skin and revealing her skull like a secret terrain. ‘Stupid weak watery fucking man,’ she shouts, though her distended drooling mouth makes a mockery of the words. She splays her fingers, that grow, multiply and taper to fine points and that have the look of branches in winter. She lances them through the suit, shirt and beautiful tie. They move under his pallid parchment skin, find his bloodstream and deposit boluses of Russian dirt and bark and hair and beetroot and the fear of despatched tsars and dissidents. They will clot and cause a massive heart attack within a month, maybe less.
‘Go to your machines,’ she says, withdrawing from him, retracting her fingers and reeling in her jaw. ‘Enjoy their beeps; they will be singing you a lullaby soon enough.’
And he does, as if nothing has happened. Beep. Batchelor’s Pasta ‘n’ Sauce. Beep. A litre of UHT milk. Beep beep. A packet of Trebor mints and a copy of The Racing Post.
The witch feels a trace of guilt as she watches him leave the Tesco Express. She is old as strata but sometimes she acts like a child. ‘Children are the wisest of us,’ she tells herself.
A confused-looking young woman steps from the back of the queue. ‘Are you in this line?’ she asks other shoppers whilst pointing towards the witch. She knows they are not; the question is a seeking of permission, and perhaps a mild rebuke. They wave her through and she smiles and dumps down a lunchtime meal deal and roots in her bag for her purse.
So there is hope yet, the witch thinks, but she can’t entertain it for now, not for one so young. Hope should prioritise the old.
‘I’m sorry, dear,’ the witch says, looking out the window for the old man. ‘I’m going on a break. The machines will look after you now.’