Read by Carrie Cohen
“Emergency. Which service?”
This is what you’ll hear, if you are unfortunate enough to need to call 999. There are, of course, many more than three options.
The AA – the car breakdown company, not Alcoholics Anonymous – once claimed it was the Nation’s Fourth Emergency Service. But that was just self-serving aggrandising claptrap.
There are departments that the Government, Freedom of Information Act or not, will point-blank deny exist, until that one time they are needed. Some are the stuff of nightmares – cures as terrible as the disease, only to be contacted in the direst of apocalyptic emergencies.
At the very bottom of the list, there’s Mavis Ethelwright. Not by name, she’s listed as: “Miscellaneous, Spooky, Weird”, but from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, there is only one phone that will ring if that call is made and it’s sitting on a lace tablecloth on a small occasional table in a semi-detached on the edges of Walthamstow. There is a reason she lives there and a reason so much of the Hackney Marshes will never be built on and the two might be connected, but that is for another story.
Mavis was in her favourite armchair when the red Bakelite telephone rang. It rang seven times – just long enough for her to finish her cup of tea - before she reached out and picked up the handset.
“Yes dear?” she answered.
“Erm... is that...?” the emergency dispatcher warbled.
“This is Mavis Ethelwright.”
“Ah. I think I have the wrong-“
“Oh, I don’t think so dear,” Mavis said, peering at the leaves at the bottom of her teacup. “I don’t think you have the wrong number at all.”
Miscellaneous, Spooky, Weird does not have official transportation, so after taking the particulars from the still wary Dispatch, Mavis rang for a Taxi. Miscellaneous, Spooky, Weird does not, as a general rule, require immediate response, sometime before the next Tuesday is what appears on her rather reluctantly filled out Service Level Agreement.
She gathered her things and, after performing a quick ward to protect her home, she went out the front and sat on the small garden bench to wait for her ride.
“Alwight, Mavis?” the Taxi driver said as he drew up.
“Oh yes, thank you Alan.”
Alan hopped out of the cab and swung open the back door.
“The front, I think, Alan,” she said.
He drew in a sharp breath. “That serious?”
“I’m afraid so,” Mavis said. “I’ll be wanting to see where we’re going.”
“Right-ho.” He wasted no further time, nearly breaking into a run as he rounded the Taxi and retook his seat. “Where to?”
“South,” Mavis said, squinting at an old iron nail dangling from a piece of yarn.
Mavis Ethelwright is England’s only official witch. That England’s other witches tend to keep a rather lower profile has a lot to do with the oldest on that list of emergency services, a hangover from the 16th Century and never fully disbanded. Mavis calls them the “Drown ‘em and burn ‘em brigade” and a number of her spells and incantations have more to do with protecting herself from them than the evil power that lurks deep in the marshes.
Their destination became obvious after only a couple of minutes drive, an ominous black cloud roiled in the otherwise blue sky. That it was centred over an otherwise unremarkable row of terraced houses did little to lessen the chilling effect. As they drew to a halt on the opposite side of the road, Alan reached out to close the cab’s windows.
“No,” Mavis said, putting the yarn and nail back into her large carpet bag. “Let it in, Alan. Best I know as much about it as possible.”
The cloud’s shade enveloped them, a gloomy darkness fell and the streetlamps fizzled briefly on and then, just as quickly, faded back into the black, the amber light sucked dry by smoky tendrils.
But Mavis wasn’t looking up, or even down at the blue front door of No. 16 as it squatted deep in the shadow of the glowering cloud. She was facing the other way, eyeing that rarest of mythical beasts, a working BT phone box.
She handed a thermos flask to Alan and rooted in her bag for a couple of extra cups. “Three teas, please Alan. One for you, you know how I like mine, and... the third with one – no, better make it two sugars.”
She cracked open the cab door and shivered.
“You sure this is your department, Mavis?” Alan asked, his mockney accent slipping somewhat and showing a hint of his long buried Armenian heritage.
“No. I don’t suppose it is. But we’re here now. Best make do.”
She edged her way carefully over to the phone booth. An advert for a ‘meat inferno’ pizza hid the interior but beneath the door there was a glimpse of black laced underskirt over a pair of scuffed DMs.
Mavis pulled the kiosk door open. “Are you all right, dear?” she asked, as a pair of startled eyes peered up through charcoal eye-shadow streaked by tears.
“Janice, isn’t it? I guess it was you who phoned... this... in?”
The girl, her black hair shot through with purple, silver pentagram earrings swinging in their circular hoops, nodded and slowly relaxed the knuckle-whitening grip she had around her knees.
“Come and have a nice cup of tea and tell me all about it.”
The telling didn’t take long. She huddled on the kerb the ‘safe’ side of the taxi, as Mavis perched on a garden wall overlooking No. 16 and Alan stood on the cab’s runner, peering over the top.
“It was an accident,” Janice mumbled, head bowed.
“You mean,” Mavis said, not unkindly, “that you didn’t expect it to work?”
The girl looked up through her fringe, her shoulders momentarily bunched.
“Well, at least your primary ward took.”
“The thing that’s holding it where it is, love,” Alan helpfully chipped in.
“I fear it won’t hold for much longer,” Mavis said, as the double glazed PVC windows pulsed. The front door letter flap popped open and something long and purple snaked through, tasting the air.
Mavis pulled a yellowed candle stub from her cavernous bag. She had a half dozen Ikea tea lights that would have done just as well, but then, she did have an audience.
“Janice my dear, I’m going to need something from you.”
Janice nodded, defeatedly, and offered up her arm, a fresh white bandage scrappily tied and edged with red.
Mavis shook her head. “Not that, your tea cup, please. I need to see which way it will break.”
After peering intently at the pattern of leaves at the bottom of the tin cup, Mavis consulted her Ipad. Ever since the British Library had digitised their occult section, she had been saved lugging around a half dozen hefty books, but such easy access was a mixed blessing. Although much of the scanned content was palpable nonsense, there were, scattered amongst the alchemical instructions and obtuse lore, the occasional page of true power. And so, somewhere in the heart of No.16, sat Janice’s smartphone, the screen locked onto a page from a dusty French grimoire – a summoning spell.
She lit the candle, sprinkled a few herbs around the base, and chanted under her breath.
For a moment, the fabric of the stone clad terrace seemed to disintegrate, each brick, each slate, floating free of its neighbour and, through the gaps, the three of them caught a glimpse of something rising up on squat, powerful legs. Through the roof, a pair of torn reptilian wings flexed, blood red, and eight, or quite possibly a lot more, tentacles writhed in front of a hidden head, rippling hungrily towards them. It was slipping its bounds, shaking itself free both of the physical restraints: the bricks, the mortar, the cavity wall insulation, and also of the magical ward that Janice had invoked in its summoning.
Mavis reached out and with her bare fingers snuffed the candle.
There was a noise not unlike that of an elephant, minus the bones, dropped from a great height directly onto the hard concrete floor of the Tate Modern's turbine hall.
Mavis ducked behind the body of the cab as a couple of tons of calamari and dragon blood splattered across the road and the stench of the grave passed over them.
The chill dank air lifted and sunlight flooded blindingly back, as though a total eclipse had finished way before it was due. In the near distance, a bird nervously started up its song, only to peter out into embarrassed silence when it realised it was singing solo.
“May I borrow your phone, Alan?” Mavis asked.
Alan stood rooted to the spot, something purple dripping from his cheek, until she asked again and silently he handed it over.
She tapped quickly away and immediately a voice asked: “Emergency: Which Service?”
“Eldritch Cleanup, please,” Mavis said.
“It’s on the list, dear. Authorisation code: Howard Phillips. Better get me an environmental disaster squad as well,” she said, eyeing the splattered tentacles and ectoplasmic goo. “And a media blackout team, stat.”
“What happens now?” Janice asked, her voice small.
Mavis looked up at the gaping hole in the roof as a section of chimney plummeted into the smoking remains. “Normally we go down the ‘gas leak’ route. Any strange sightings are attributed to oxygen deprivation.”
“No... I mean... to me?”
Mavis peered over the top of her glasses. Janice stood, pale, morose, currently rather sticky, although the Taxi and Alan had borne the brunt. And yet, this curiously attired slip of a girl had summoned a real stinker of a class 2 minor deity, with little more than a blood offering and a high resolution smartphone. She’d be dead if her ward hadn’t held, but the point was, it had, for just long enough anyway.
“Ever thought of being an apprentice?” she asked.
“Like on the telly?” Janice said, “’You’re fired’? an’ all that?”
Mavis smiled. “Yes. Something like that.”
(c) Liam Hogan, 2015
Liam Hogan is a Liar of long standing and was recently a finalist in Sci-Fest LA's Roswell award, where he was up against "Grandma's Sex Robot", and lost.
Carrie Cohen (left): Recent theatre: Mrs Tarleton in Shaw’s Misalliance (Tabard), Hetty in Gelt (Etcetera) and Myfanwy in Hula Hoops Were My Downfall (The Space), Grace in Mouthplay (Tabard) scheduled to be filmed in October. In June she read poetry at The Serpentine Gallery. Full CV, show & voice reels at www.CarrieCohen.co.uk