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...”
“I am a seventh child of a seventh child, repeating through at least ten generations. I am also,” she took a deep breath, “I am also a virgin. My mother had powers until she married. Now she can only do trivial things. It’s been the same through generations.”
“I told you I had a boyfriend. I do. I did. But we’ve never ... never been ... intimate. He’s only interested in what I can do. He’s been trying to get me to do bad things with my power. Things I could do. Stealing. Making people ill. But I won’t. So he hit me.”
He sat, mulling over what he’d heard and coming to a decision. “Kat, could you kick him out?”
“It’s his flat – I thought I told you, I moved in with him.”
“Oh, yes. You did. Sorry. So, you need somewhere else to live?”
“Well, the girls’ rooms are empty, and I’d welcome some company over Christmas.” After a pause, he went on, “Do you have a lot to collect from your boyfriend’s flat?”
“Ex-boyfriend, please. And yes, I do, but not very much. Do you have a car?”
“No. Couldn’t really afford to run one, and we managed without it pretty well. If I need to, I rent one. We can get a taxi. Do you need to get back to work?”
“No – Terry told me to take the day off, and as long as I need.”
“Then let’s be about it. At least – I’d prefer not to have a confrontation with the boyf ... sorry, ex-boyfriend.”
“Oh, he won’t be there. But it might be as well to get on and get done.”
At the flat, she paused before going in. “There’s just one other thing ... do you like cats?”
“Why – have you got one? A familiar, perhaps?”
“No. No, I don’t have a pet. But do you?”
“I’ve never had any pets, but I don’t mind cats at all. I certainly like this one!”
She giggled. “Let’s go in, then.”
The taxi was plenty for Kat’s two large suitcases. Harry had the driver let them out on the main road, a few yards from the corner to his house.
“Er, Harry – why get out here?” she asked as he led her round the corner and along the cul-de-sac.
“It’s not going to be too hard for your ex to track you down, but there’s no need to make it too easy.”
She stood in the hall of the large thirties semi and looked around. The furniture was functional and in good condition, though hardly matching. The decoration, well, could have done with redoing.
“Come upstairs,” Harry told her, lifting the larger and heavier of the two cases. She took the other, clearly not much bothered by the weight, and followed. In the smallest of the three usable bedrooms, there was a three-quarter bed, made up with a duvet bearing a picture of Snoopy doing his spring dance. “This is Rebecca’s room,” he said. “If they come home, they can share Naomi’s – there are two singles in there. I think you’ll find enough room for your things. I had them rationalise their drawers and wardrobes before they left. They took most of their stuff with them, anyway.”
He left her there, and went downstairs to the kitchen. It was past time for lunch. He filled and boiled a kettle, cut slices of wholemeal bread, washed lettuce, and put tomatoes, cucumber, radishes, spring onions, salad cream and mayonnaise on the table. After a moment’s thought, he added sliced corned beef and a board with several different cheeses on. He thought it unlikely she was vegetarian, but why take a chance?
He turned at her exclamation. “Just sandwiches. It’s wholemeal bread, I’m afraid – I don’t keep white in the house when the girls aren’t here. Often when they are, in fact, depending on what’s flavour of the month at any one time.”
“That’s fine! More than fine! Thank you.”
She settled in. They were already friends, to an extent, so the inevitable awkwardness was minimal as they learned to rub along together. They learned that their tastes in food, music and television were compatible, if not actually identical; the first night, it was ‘Blue Planet’, the second, a documentary about air traffic control, called ‘The Skies Above Britain’.
“I’m surprised,” he commented.
“Why? It’s fascinating. Especially the amateur flyers. And in commercial air travel, how it’s handling the aircraft on the ground that’s the limiting factor in bad weather, not the actual flying. And the training.”
“Oh, I agree. It’s just not what I’d expect from a woman. Especially one with your, um...”
“I suppose.” He looked at her. “Is there anything else I ought to know?”
She bit her lip, frowning. “Well, there’s one thing. I’m just not sure...”
“Okay, then. You asked for it.” She left the room, leaving the door ajar. A few minutes later, a large, long-haired ginger cat pushed its way back into the room and wound round his legs, purring loudly. He stood frozen for several seconds, then stooped to scratch the cat behind her ears.
“I thought ginger cats were all toms,” he commented as her purr intensified and she rolled over onto her back, revealing a white bib and chest. But then he stepped back in order to sit in one of the armchairs, and she twisted sinuously on to her paws and sprang up into his lap. He sighed, stroking her silky fur, “you’re determined to convince me, aren’t you? I suppose I just have to be convinced. You make a very good cat, Kat.” But then he went on, “But you make a much better Kat. Delightful, curvy, flame-haired, bubbly, magical girl.”
The cat in his lap uncurled and stretched. She was big enough to have front and back paws each side of his lap. But then she shimmered and was, once more, Kat. Except ... she was quite naked and stretched across his lap. She twisted and was sitting – on a rapidly burgeoning erection – in his arms. “The only problem with that transformation,” she smiled, “doesn’t work with clothes.”
He swallowed, audibly. “Kat ... my dear ... I would be a fool to complain, but...”
Sitting in his lap, she was almost eye to eye. “I’m not body-shy, but I know I’m no runway model.”
“No – you’re a real woman. At least, a real witch! Kat, I can’t say I want you to cover up, but it might be best if you did.” He was very aware of his hands, one on her thigh, the other her hip; he skin silky smooth.
She nodded. “Okay. But let’s talk, later.” She leant in and pressed her lips to his. Before he could react, she stood and walked out of the room, his eyes following her swaying, plump, rounded rump.
Once she returned to work in time for the weekend, it was inevitable that her ex would track her down. Friday evening, a ring at the door-bell. A glance out of the window and he saw a black Porsche parked in the close outside.
“Your ex – drives a Porsche?”
“Oh! Yeah, he does.”
“Looks as though he’s caught up with you.”
Pause. “Oh. I’d better face him then.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“Well ... okay. If you don’t mind...”
“Better to have a witness of the encounter, I think.”
The ex was a well-dressed man, perhaps early forties. Could have been a bank manager or something of the sort.
“Kat! You know I’m sorry I hit you. Please, come back.”
“No, Sim. No. You’ll only get frustrated with me again when I won’t do what you want. No. Sorry, but it’s over. You don’t want me, anyway. You just want what I can do.”
“Not true, darling! Please...”
“No, Sim. It’s over. Maybe I can reconcile with my family...”
“That lot! They never liked me...”
“Because they saw you for who you are. I was a blind fool. No, Sim. Once was enough – you revealed who you are when you hit me. Oh, and you won’t hit me again. You surprised me before. I’m warned now.”
“Ha! Your delicate sensibilities will stop you doing anything to me.”
“Ah, yes ... but they won’t stop me from protecting myself. I can make it so anything you try to do to me will rebound on you. Don’t believe me? Try, and see.”
“That’s a dangerous game you’re playing...”
“No, not a game. And if it’s dangerous, well, that applies to you, too. Please leave.”
He raised a fist, and Harry stepped closer, but the fist stopped, abruptly, exactly on a line with the door frame. “This is not the end,” he growled.
“It needs to be, Sim. If you keep on pushing, you won’t like the result.” She shut the door on him and turned to Harry. “Thank you, Harry.”
“Thank me? Why? I didn’t do anything.”
“You were there. I drew on your strength.”
“My strength? I don’t have any strength. You’re the strong one.”
“There are different sorts of strength, Harry. You have discipline ... and love. Unbeatable combination.”
He coloured hotly. “Well...” He took a deep breath. “Food.”
“Food would be good. Something quick. Pizza?”
“There’s a flyer here somewhere...”
“Oh, no – I’ll make some.” She moved toward the kitchen, pausing to brush his cheek with her finger-tips on the way. His eyes followed her, his hand covering his cheek where she’d touched him.
Pizza, made by Kat muttering under her breath and using defrosted flat-bread from the freezer, was on the table in quick time, and they sat together, filling the spaces inside.
“This is good,” he commented.
“Quick and easy,” she shrugged, “and a word of blessing.”
He was shaking his head and smiling. “Whatever the reason, I’m grateful.”
“Harry,” she paused, hesitating.
“Go on. What is it?”
“Will you, will you ... go with me to see my family?”
He thought of the disruption of his carefully planned routine, the backlog of work, and sighed. “Sure. Where?”
The door of the well-kept terrace house in an old area of Liverpool opened, revealing a small, dark-haired man, who stood, mute, staring at Kat.
“Daid? I’m sorry, Daid...”
Suddenly, he was outside, embracing her. She was nearly as tall as him, and certainly wider. But he squeezed her, and Harry saw that his face was screwed up, his lips tight.
A woman’s voice from inside. “Who is it, Conor?”
He took a shaky breath, but somehow couldn’t make his voice work, and a few moments later, the woman emerged from the back of the house.
There was no doubt that she was Kat’s mother, plump, bright copper hair, slightly faded and dusted with grey, but long and thick. She looked at her husband and daughter, smiled wryly, and looked back at Harry.
“Missus Donahue? I’m Harry Bird. Kat’s using my guest room for the time being. She wanted me to come with her.” He extended a hand.
She stepped forward and took it, her eyes on his. That was no pro-forma handshake. After a moment, her other hand enclosed his and she smiled warmly. “Welcome to our home, Harry. Won’t you come in?”
He followed her into the front room, which was clearly set aside for visitors, rather than regular use. Kat, with her father, entered a few seconds later. “Mam, tá Harry cara.” She hesitated, and went on in English, “Mam, Daid, this is Harry Bird. He took me in and gave me somewhere to live when I decided to leave Sim. Harry, my father, Conor, my mother, Rhiannon.”
Harry smiled at Rhiannon Donahue, and turned to shake Conor’s outstretched hand. Their hands clasped firmly, and Kat’s father said gruffly, “Thank you, Harry.”
“Mam, Daid,” Kat went ón, “I’ve got to say sorry – you were right and I was stupid, but I think I’ve learned my lesson.”
The older woman crossed the room and took Kat in her arms. As she hugged her, though, she stiffened and leaned back a little. “You’re still...”