Harry Bird was a man of regular habits. He’d always been organised, but juggling a demanding job in management, with marriage, children and everything else that life threw at him, it became a necessity. The death of his wife when the children were seven and five respectively required even more care. He refused to farm his children out to day care, and when the company was uncooperative, he resigned. Her life assurance and a little money he made keeping accounts for several small businesses kept their heads above water, and he devoted his attention to his growing daughters. Time passed, the girls grew – giving their father no more trouble than most well-behaved daughters – and when Rebecca, the younger of the two, reached the age of fourteen, he was confronted.
“Dad! We don’t need you to take us to school!”
“No, Dad! We’ll be fine on the bus.”
At eighteen, Naomi, the elder, refused immediate entry into higher education, instead landing a place as an entry-level Health Care Assistant in a local hospital, but when Rebecca was in her final ‘A’ level year, both girls applied for places in a nearby city’s ‘polyversity’; Naomi to read for a nursing degree, and Rebecca computer science. He didn’t argue, though their departure left a gaping void in his life. He was comforted by the idea that they would look after each other as they shared a small flat.
(For many years, in Britain, higher education could be pursued at a Polytechnic, specialising in vocational qualifications, as an alternative to University. In 1992, however, Polytechnics became Universities in their own right, though they continued to offer mainly vocational courses.)
He’d always made himself take a walk, mid morning and mid afternoon, rain or shine, just a couple of miles to a nearby park to get a snack in the park café. They got to know him well, especially as his snack was almost invariably black coffee in the morning and redbush tea in the afternoon. The only variation was the accompaniment, usually a biscuit, sometimes a cake, occasionally a bacon sandwich.
When his girls left for college, little changed for a few weeks, but then, though he was hardly aware of it, he got down.
The pretty, rather overweight girl with spectacular burnished copper hair picked up on it one day when he called in for his morning coffee. “Hey, you look like your pet dog just died! You okay?”
He frowned and thought. Her usual smile, the expression of her bubbly personality, faded. He shook his head. “Since you mention it ... no. Not too great. My daughters left for Uni and I just realised the light’s really gone out of my life.”
“Must be tough.”
He read the honest sympathy in her voice and expression. “Yes – thanks. You understand.”
She smiled a little sadly. “Maybe a little. Dad was into ecology. Took off when I was five, to do something in Tierra del Fuego. I’ve seen him for a few weeks at a time since then between him going to the Far East to protest Japanese whaling, Alaska to protest drilling for oil ... you name it, he’s done it. I’m sort of proud of him, but it would have been nice to have him around more. I feel I hardly know him. Mum’s really bitter about him, too, so I don’t get much about him from her that’s reliable.”
“Sounds as though you had it worse than me...”
“Don’t say that. We each have our own story.”
She smiled again. “Our deeds still follow us from afar, and what we have been makes us what we are.”
He raised his eyebrows. “George Eliot?” She nodded. He looked at her intensely. “What are you doing serving coffee in a park café?”
A grimace. “Not much you can do with a degree in English Lit except teach. And I enjoy this ... meeting people, talking to them when we’re not too busy. I’m working on a Master’s part time. Might go for a job in tertiary ed. Might not.”
“Excuse me, but you don’t look old enough...”
Giggle. “Coming up to thirty this year.”
“Yes!” She cocked her head. “Perhaps you need to get out more.”
“I’m set in my ways...”
“Ways which evolved to care for offspring who have now moved on.”
He shrugged. “Not much fun doing things on my own.”
“I can’t believe you’d have any trouble whatsoever finding someone to do things with.”
For a few moments he wondered if she realised the double entendre in that statement, but glancing at her and seeing the twinkle in her eyes knew the answer.
Perhaps that was the beginning, but twenty years of habitual regularity cannot be overcome in one session. He’d always noticed the girl; if plump, she was pretty, personable and lively, but he began trying to make sure he visited the café when she was on duty – not that it was difficult – and they shared a few words, were flirting, truth be known – any time the place was not busy.
Time passed, as it does, and Christmas approached with little change in his habits other than the increasingly friendly exchanges with the fiery-headed, cheerful girl the other staff called ‘Kat’. Sometimes she’d sit with him, if the café was quiet. She learned his name was Harry – actually Henry – Bird, and that he was no relation to the popular cricket referee. In fact, he told her, “I have no interest whatsoever in cricket. Most sports, in fact, if I’m honest.”
He learned that she was Kathleen Donahue, and that while she was of Irish ancestry, her family had been living in England for three generations, which explained why he hadn’t noticed any accent. “You should hear me at family gatherings, though,” she laughed. “I pick up the way of speaking really quickly.” But then her face dropped into an unaccustomed sadness. “At least, I did.” He just raised his eyebrows at that and after a few moments, she shrugged and went on. “When I moved in with my boyfriend, they didn’t want me around any more.”
But then they went on to other topics and she cheered up quickly. A couple of weeks before he expected his girls home for Christmas, he was down again, and, again she noticed.
“I just had a call from Naomi, to say she’s sorry, but they had an offer to go to Torquay with friends, and did I mind very much if they didn’t come home for Christmas...”
“What could I say? Of course I told her to go and have fun.”
“As a good father – a loving father – should.”
At which point several customers entered the café, requiring her attention. Before she was finished it was his time to leave to go home to do some work.
A few days later it was his turn to notice that she was down. Her usual smile and cheerful demeanour was absent, and so was her usual repartee. He accepted his coffee, and paused before turning away. “Are you okay? You don’t seem your usual self this morning.”
She shook her head and shrugged. “Just a bit tired today.” He was unconvinced, but when he was going to let it go, he had an idea. He tucked his loyalty card away and extracted a business card.
“Here,” he handed it to her. “If, someday, you need a friend ... come see me.”
It was only the next day that she appeared sporting an obviously bruised face, with swollen lips and what would soon be a spectacular shiner. He gave his usual order, and when she handed him the mug, he said, “Come see me. When you sign off from here, come see me.”
She didn’t respond immediately, but disappeared into the back of the café. However, when he stood to leave, she walked over. “Harry – may I walk with you? I need to tell you something.”
Outside the café, she steered him to a picnic table next to the river, well away from the main path, and they sat, watching the water bubbling over the stony bed. As there had been no rain recently, the level was low and there was just a quiet chuckle of sound.
“You offered to help.”
“You need to know something about me.”
He didn’t answer, just cocked his head inquiringly.
“I am a witch.”
He didn’t respond immediately, trying to find the right words. But eventually, he said quietly, “I’m, sorry, Kat. I don’t believe in witchcraft.” He held up a hand to forestall her protest. “I come from a secular family, and I believe there’s a scientific explanation for everything, even if we don’t know it yet.”
She nodded. “I can live with that, as long as you accept there are things you cannot yet explain.” She paused, then, “May I touch you?”
“I ... well, I suppose so.”
She reached out to cover his hand with hers and closed her eyes. For a moment, he just enjoyed the touch, but then became aware of some odd sensations in his body. He’d had a nagging ache in his back, product of too many hours spent in front of a computer screen, or over books. There was tugging sensation, some discomfort, a stab ... and the ache was gone. Images filled his mind, Rebecca and Naomi walking together across the University campus, or listening intently to a lecture. Her hand withdrew. He realised that his eyes were closed and he opened them to find himself meeting her eyes, and reading the question in them.
“So why...” he hesitated, “Why tell me that?”
“Some people ... react badly ... really badly ... to anything to do with witchcraft.”
“But...” he was floundering, “I don’t believe in witches. You obviously have something, but...”
.... There is more of this story ...