A gush of steam from the coffee machine startled me out of my thoughts. Perched on a high stool in The King of Hearts, a lukewarm mocha on the ledge in front of me, I stared out of the window, waiting for Rosemary, a girl I had met at university ten years ago. In the background, the hum of voices: a mishmash of customers, staff and snatches of popular songs from the radio. On the opposite side of the road was Fye Bridge, which I recognised from a ghost walk: the bridge where they used to duck witches.
I checked my mobile for texts and the time. Rosemary was fifteen minutes late, true to her nickname from our uni days – the late Rosemary. It didn’t matter. I was on a week’s break and had plenty of time. Rosemary, on the other hand, could only manage forty minutes for lunch. That was okay too, as we had planned a film and a meal for the end of the week, before I returned to London.
A gurgle from my stomach reminded me that I hadn’t eaten. My sudden appetite was whetted by the aroma of home-made French onion soup and toasted sandwiches, and I twisted on my stool to catch the attention of a member of staff. The place was empty. No customers, nobody behind the counter – and a chilling silence.
Turning back to the window, I was confronted by a mass of faces pressing against the glass. I spotted the woman who served my mocha, and an elderly man who had been reading a newspaper in the far corner when I first entered. Their faces were distorted with hatred and fear, all eyes on me. I pulled on my jacket against the sudden chill. A tall man in a long cloak and a black hat stood inside the door, staring at me.
I squirmed on my stool. I felt numb. My heartbeat quickened. There was a strange buzz in my ears and, although I could see their mouths opening and closing, I could not hear the crowd. I figured out the words from the shape of their lips, ‘Witch! Witch! Sink or swim!’
The dark figure shifted from the threshold of the café until he stood beside me, digging his steely fingers into my upper arm.
‘It is useless to struggle. You must come with me.’
My tongue clove to the roof of my mouth. Words congealed in my throat. I tried to resist but I was dragged out of the door and onto the bridge. No cars or buses. No hum of distant traffic. Just the menacing mob filling the bridge and spilling onto the river banks.
As rough hands pushed me onto a wooden contraption – a ducking stool – I peered down at the murky water below me. It looked deeper than I remembered. I felt the burn of stiff rope pulled tightly around my wrists and ankles, a twist of trepidation in my gut as I was lowered into the river. The undercurrent dragged at my jacket and droplets ran from my hair and eyelashes. I rose to the surface and was ducked again. And then, from out of nowhere, a hand gripped mine and pulled. Above me, the crowd erupted: ‘The witch has a familiar!’
Through the water I could just make out a face. It was Rosemary’s, a small crowd of customers and café staff behind her. I emerged from the water like a half-drowned cat. The woman who had served my mocha came forward with a blanket, which she wrapped around me, and Rosemary gently guided me back into the warmth.
Image found on www.edp24.co.uk