Read by Tony Bell
I have emailed the chairperson of the Lichfield borough council diversity and inclusivity committee several times in respect of this matter. Each time, I have received a courteous reply. Each time, no action has been taken.
I am by no means satisfied with this state of affairs.
My name is Peter McKenny. I have served on the diversity and inclusivity committee for eight years now. It is a role I take seriously. Diversity is not just a buzzword. Diversity is aloo gobi on primary school lunch menus. It is Diwali celebrations at the town hall every autumn. It is a three-fold increase in the proportion of black and minority ethnic candidates interviewed for local authority posts over the last two financial years.
We have all these things, and more, in Lichfield. I am proud to know that I played my part in making these things possible.
There is now a witch on the borough council diversity and inclusivity committee. Her name is Matilda Sturges. She favours long skirts, and wears her hair parted in the middle. She is officially a Wiccan – but if you challenge her on the issue she will quite readily admit that what this means is that she is in fact a witch.
I really do not have the words to express just how inappropriate this is.
In my first email, I made clear to the committee chairperson that I am by no means averse to – indeed, I am keenly in favour of – the representation on the committee of those professing all faiths or none. I myself am an Anglican, but I frequently attend Catholic church services: I enjoy the sonority of the Latin, and the smell of incense. My wife is a Christian Scientist. Mine is a familiar face at inter-faith gatherings of all kinds. Occasionally I will buy a copy of New Humanist magazine. No-one, I hope, could ever accuse me of being small-minded in matters of faith and conscience.
But the fact remains – I wrote – that Matilda Sturges is a witch. I do not think it is appropriate for a borough council that embraces positivity and outreach to employ a witch. I am not sure that it is appropriate for anyone to employ a witch.
It was shortly after I submitted that email to the committee chairperson that the pains began. In my armpits, and in the soft parts of my groin. I consulted my GP (who is, by the way, a practising Jew). He could find no cause for the pains.
‘They are agonising,’ I told him – for indeed they were. On one occasion the pain in my armpit was so severe that I fell from my bicycle, into the road.
But Dr Ingram told me that there was nothing he could do for me.
In response to my email, the chairperson of the committee expressed surprise at my objection to the inclusion of Ms Sturges on the committee, given my excellent track-record with regard to broad-based faith initiatives, and suggested that my reluctance to embrace the Wiccan community stemmed from an unfortunate misinterpretation on my part of the tenets of that particular faith, which were, the chairperson informed me, nurturing, inclusive and fully in line with Lichfield borough council’s stated values and objectives.
I took to praying more frequently than was usually my custom. My wife prayed with me.
In my reply to the chairperson, I explained that I had in fact conducted a good deal of research into the Wiccan faith and did not believe myself to be labouring under any misapprehension regarding its tenets.
Perhaps unwisely – in a moment of weakness or desperation – I told the chairperson about my pains.
The chairperson, by return email, referred me to the council’s occupational health officer. The occupational health officer adjusted my workstation. The pains only got worse.
One morning, when visiting the toilet, I observed with consternation that my urine, usually odourless and a wheaty pale yellow, was red, so deeply red as to be almost black, and that it smelt distinctly of rosebay willowherb.
On the following Thursday, following the scheduled bi-monthly meeting of the diversity and inclusivity committee, I took the opportunity to confront Matilda Sturges as she was gathering up her papers in the committee room.
She is a white-faced woman, long in the jaw. Her hair is brown and dry. She wears silver pendant earrings.
I told her – somewhat heatedly, for the events of the previous few days had left me shaken and emotional – to cease her persecution of me. She laughed. She said she didn’t know what on earth I was talking about.
I told her that beneath my suit the skin of my armpits and groin was now a deep burgundy in colour. I told her that at the strangest moments my nostrils would fill suddenly with unexpected smells, including those of wildflowers, human faeces, raw meat, and damp earth. I told her that, according to my wife, who was a good woman, I had taken to singing in my sleep, and to waking up screaming.
She said it sounded like I was going out of my mind. Maybe, she said, I had a brain tumour or something.
I said that I knew her wicked game.
Her pale eyes gleamed. She said: ‘Very well, Mr know-it-all. Here’s something you don’t know.’
She bent double, lifted up the hem of her skirt, and exposed herself to me. She was not wearing underwear. I voiced my horror. I asked her to stop.
She opened her legs and pointed with a ringed finger to a nubbin or excrescence on the white skin of her inner thigh.
‘This is where little Christopher likes to suckle,’ she said. Christopher is the cat whose framed photograph she keeps on her desk, beside a pad of post-it notes and a souvenir snowstorm.
Then she pinched the nubbin sharply between her finger and thumb. It expressed milk.
‘Avaunt!’ I shouted, absurdly, there in the committee room, and Matilda Sturges laughed again.
She pointed out, quite correctly, that there was no sense in my going squealing to the committee chairperson, because quite clearly my story would not be thought credible. Moreover, she said, if I ventured to relate the story of her nubbin, I would be laying myself open to very serious charges of sexual harassment, if not sexual assault.
I had no answer – I only stood, choking back tears of terror – and she laughed at my silence.
‘Run along, bald-headed little piglet,’ she hissed. ‘Return to your wife and child, whimpering man-thing.’
The email I submitted to the chairperson that evening was forcibly worded. I disclosed no details of the terrifying encounter in the committee room, but only demanded that Ms Sturges be removed from the committee; otherwise, I wrote, I would have no option but to resign from the committee myself.
In the email I received in reply the following morning I was informed that the chairperson in that case had no option but to reluctantly accept my resignation. At this stage, however, I was less concerned by this news than I might at another time have been, because I had only hours earlier discovered that, at some point during the previous night, Helen, our daughter, had disappeared.
I had gone to wake her for school. She was not there. Her bed had been slept in but she was not there. In her bedroom there was a smell of rosebay willowherb.
She is eight years old. I do not know what use witches make of eight-year-old girls in their rites and rituals; the books I have bought are silent on the subject.
Naturally we contacted the police. I told them about my workplace dispute with Matilda Sturges. I did not say that she was a witch – but presumably this is something they will turn up in their investigations.
For all I know, there may be witches in the police service. The policewoman who visited yesterday may have been a witch. Beneath her uniform she may have been knobbed with witches’ teats.
My wife went out early this morning to comb the village for signs of Helen. Stay in, I told her – begged her. The police are looking for her. They are professionals. It is not safe for you out there, I told her. It is not safe. There are forces at work, my darling, I said, beyond our ken.
Tearful, trembling, her silver hair unbrushed, she went anyway.
A short while ago, I sent my last email to the chairperson of the diversity and inclusivity committee. I kept it brief and to the point. I quoted scripture. Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. The Book of Exodus, chapter twenty-two, verse eighteen. It seems pretty unambiguous.
For purposes of emphasis, I wrote the email in upper-case letters.
Almost immediately I received a reply. It was not from the chairperson. It was from the council’s director of human resources, requesting a meeting with me at the earliest possible opportunity.
This reply, once again, was among the least of my worries.
I am in my study now. About forty-five minutes ago, I heard a woman’s voice downstairs, and assumed that my wife had returned. But I soon realised that it was not my wife’s voice. It was the voice of someone singing. And there were loud footsteps – footsteps as of somebody dancing to a syncopated beat.
I locked my study door. I propped a chair against the door-handle.
Around twenty minutes ago, there were footsteps on the stairs. I could hear someone softly giggling.
I would have climbed out of the window, but the study window does not open – and even if I were to break the glass, I would not be able to fit my body through the frame. I looked out of the window, into the lane; there was no-one to be seen. Only a cat, cleaning itself with its tongue.
I sat, and trembled, and listened. I heard the footsteps approach the door, and stop.
I held my breath as a white envelope was slipped under the door. It was loosely closed, and looped with crimson ribbon. I quiveringly unwound the ribbon. I tried not to think of the witch crounching beyond the study door.
In the envelope I found two locks of hair, one silver, one blonde, knotted dextrously together.
And there was a ring, too, a gold ring. My wife’s ring.
There was something else. I could feel it through the paper. It was lodged in the corner of the envelope; I had to shake the envelope to free it, and then it tumbled into my open hand. It was a bone. A tiny bone, pink with blood – an ear-bone, I think, a stirrup bone from the inner ear.
As I held these things in my trembling hand I could still hear the giggling, just outside the door.
‘Let me be!’ I sobbed.
The giggling only grew louder.
Now Matilda Sturges scratches at the study door with her fingernails. Dear God. What has she done? And what will she do to me? Whatever it is, I do not know what I have done to deserve it.
I hear the mechanism of the door-lock slowly swivel in its casing.
I am all for diversity. But this is not what diversity should be about.
Something Wicked by Richard Smyth was read by Tony Bell at the Liars’ League Fear & Loathing event on Tuesday 11th October 2011, at the Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London.
Richard Smyth is a freelance writer, journalist and cartoonist. His work has appeared in Private Eye, New Humanist, and History Today. He is currently researching a book about the history of toilet paper, and as a consequence knows some very unsavoury facts. He is very glad to be writing for Liars' League.