While researching my book, Unexpected Companions, I found a Shropshire folklore tale about Nanny Morgan, an old woman who lived in Much Wenlock and was believed to be a witch. The locals were afraid of her and she met a tragic end. The short story below is my version from her perspective. Here is the link to the original text of the folklore tale, The Shocking End of the Witch Nanny Morgan, if you want to read the original text that I based my story on.
Nan held her head high, her eyes on the horizon, and ignored the shouts and laughter swirling around her. ‘Get away, ins Nanny Morgan,’ the children cried in mock horror. Their laughter danced in the field as they hid but Nan didn’t break stride. She stepped over the cob-nut that lay unvanquished in the road after the children had abandoned it, and carried on down the lane.
Further along, the sounds of the brook were a balm for Nan. Released from the sensation of curious eyes, she allowed her feet a moment of cool release. She didn’t worry about her neighbours seeing her. That was an advantage of being an outsider: anything she did was strange.
She felt alive with achievement after her day of foraging and hunting and was excited to show William what she had found. His smiling face glimmered in her mind and she smiled back hoping the real version was at home, waiting and feeling stronger than he had this morning.
Nan splashed a toe in the water, watching the brook absorb the interruption. It was almost a year since William had knocked on her door looking for lodgings with nothing but a small bag and enthusiasm. His enthusiasm to find work had ebbed and flowed like the brook over that time but in its place affection, and dare she say love, had sprung. And now they were getting married. After so long living by herself, it was nice to be a part of something again and, maybe this time, she had found someone who would stand by her.
She smiled again, took one last deep breath and returned to the lane; the wind played with her earrings, the bag with the dead rabbits swayed by her side and the hedgerow was alive with birds. The row of cottages was in sight now, with all but one of the five chimneys puffing smoke. Jane Evans knelt weeding in her front garden as Nan drew closer but, as soon as Jane saw her former childhood friend, she scuttled into her house.
Nan shook her head. ‘Tha’s right, run on, Mrs Evans, afore I turn yo’ into a woodlouse,’ she said to Jane’s newly painted front door. ‘She’s big-sorted. Can’t speak to an owd friend, Jane?’ she muttered as she reached her cottage, the end of the row.
One of her cats leapt off the gate, leaving it wobbling on its last hinge. ‘Ey up, Sky,’ Nan rubbed the grey cat between the ears as it wrapped itself between the folds of her skirt. ‘Would yo’ like some milk?’ The cat meowed and Nan could hear its light tread as it followed her across the overgrown paving stones. Inside, the room was quiet. Nan considered going upstairs to look for William but decided against it. He was often not in during the day; off looking for work, he said.
And if he was there, he might be sleeping. He had been acting so strangely lately that she was sure he just needed some rest. She started the fire, pulled out the plants she had collected that day, chopped them up and added garlic and rosemary to the bubbling pot so the room smelt of the outdoors.
There was a knock at the door as Nan put out a saucer of milk. Stepping over two other cats who had appeared for the treat, she found a young girl outside. The girl adjusted her cap, tried to speak, stuttered to a halt then pulled out a couple of coins which she extended to Nan.
‘Would yo’se like me to tell yore future?’ Nan said. The girl nodded, her shoes dusty from her walk. Nan was glad she was wearing her bright red scarf. ‘Come in then,’ Nan pushed the door wider, the girl peered into the darkness and scrunched her nose against the smell of damp.
‘Alrigh’, then,’ Nan sighed and took the girl’s hand. ‘Yoreself gon’ta meet a tall foreigner soon,’ she ran her finger over the girl’s palm. ‘Mighty soon. ’E’ll be ‘andsome. Hmm, you’re to come into some money. Mebbe the man, mebbe someone else,’ she rattled off. ‘I can see yore future’ll be bless’d with health an’ happiness.’
The girl thanked her with a smile and rushed to the sanctuary of the main road. The coins gave a satisfying clink as they settled in Nan’s tin. Was it her imagination or did the tin feel lighter than before? She put it back on the shelf and moved other jars to hide it.
‘Stealin’ money from most innocentest with yore blather?’ Nan’s stomach lurched. William stood in the murky light, his hair dishevelled and a scowl eating at his delicate features.
‘It mak ‘em happy. I don’t see no harm in it,’ she said.
Nan pushed a strand of grey hair back into place and stretched her hand towards William. ‘How yo’ feeling?’
He batted her hand away. The movement stung. ‘What yo’ given me tha’ made me feel queasy?’ he said. ’I had these aches all o’er. I warrand yo’ gi’en me something.’
‘I didn’t. Just the camomine tea to help yo’ sleep. Yo’ been despert bad.’
He glared at her. ‘Yo‘ poisoned me. I been at Much Wenlock an’ afore I knew, I’m wakin’ i’ bed. I’ll lose work an’ it’ll be yore fault.’
‘But, yo’ don’t have work.’
‘Tha’s because yo’ poisoned me. Yore tryin’ to get me to stay as y’know yore nothin’ without me. But it won’t work, yore witchifyin’.’ He pointed a finger at her, ‘I’m onto yo’.’
Nan opened her mouth in stunned silence and a frown creased her brow as she wondered where this outburst had come from. Overcoming her surprise, she decided to control the situation with a different approach.
‘Yo’ must be mighty clemmed,’ Nan said, ‘Yo’ sit and I’ll get yo’ some broth. Boiling right now.’
William looked at her sullenly. ‘No, I wouldn’t touch something yo’ have made. Don’t know what yo’ll ‘ave done in it. This ‘ere bread an’ cheese is meals-meat for me.’
Nan stirred the pot, her astonishment simmering. ‘Don’t be mad, don’t be in a fanteeg,’ she said in a fierce whisper.
‘Theer yo’ go, with yore gypsy talk, mungering curses. What would yo’ be around here without me? Cast out, tha’s what.’
Nan saw her reflection in the battered tray she used as a mirror above the fireplace. She knew she was still attractive but years in the sun had wrinkled her once smooth skin and her nose was no longer straight after an incident years earlier. Now, against William’s youth, she felt haggard and old. William slumped in a chair and cut a chunk of cheese. Nan pulled out the rabbits and picked up the empty sack. A brown package, hidden underneath, fell to the ground.
‘What’s this ‘ere?’ Nan asked. Picking it up and untying the string to reveal a five pronged eel spear. She weighed the handle in her hand. It was in good condition. ‘Get yoreself a spear?’
‘What o’ it,’ William said.
‘I just thought yo’ didn’t have money, tha’s all.’
‘What yo’ saying? Tha’ I stole it?’
‘No,’ Nan said. ‘Who’d yo’ get it from?’
‘One o’ yore packman friends. Said I could earn much money catchin’ eels.’ Nan said nothing. ‘I can fish,’ William said, his lips disappearing in his anger.
From her card table, a pet toad plopped onto the floor and crawled away. William kicked at it and missed. Nan picked up the toad and put it back with the others. ‘Vile animals,’ William said.
‘Them theer toads help with all sorts of aches,’ Nan said, feeling protective of her misunderstood pets. William scoffed. Nan went back to the pot and stirred in her wishes. ‘Don’t be mad,’ she said. ‘Don’t leave.’
William broke off some bread and chewed it as he watched her. ‘I’m goin’,’ he said. Nan caught her breath. ‘Where to?’ she said, her voice just a whisper.
‘It’s no matter where, I can’t abide living ‘ere with yo’ in this ‘ere swampy house.’
Nan looked at him, noticing for the first time his new trousers and waistcoat.
‘Stop peerin’ at me, like tha’, yo’ foul hag. I was bewitched to have been ‘ere so long, I know it.’ He patted his pocket nervously. Nan watched the action and deep in her mind a wheel moved into motion. William picked up the spear, put it down, patted his pocket again. Nan scuffed at the earthern floor with her toe. ‘This ‘ouse was goodsome for my mother, it’s goodsome for yo’,’ she said. William didn’t reply.
‘We’re havin’ our bands read on Sunday,’ Nan said. She clasped her hands so hard the nails bit into her palm. ‘Yo’ can’t go. What’ll yo’ do?’
‘I’ll earn money good an’ honest. Not like yo’ with yore money an’ jewel’ry an’ all got by spells an’ bewitching folk.’
‘It isn’t magic, just blather; yo’ said it yoreself.’ She heard her desperation and cringed.
‘Tha’ theer isn’t what folks say. Them theer say yore curses had’st power. Them theer say yo’ have the evil eye. An’ I can’t be ‘ere no longer being cursed an’ tricked.’
‘Isn’t magic,’ Nan said, trying to find the right words to manage his anger. ‘I love yo’. Yo’ loves me, I know it.’
He sneered at her, his face ugly with emotion. ‘Yo’? With yore onlucky ways an’ evil past? Nah, I’ve been under a spell, now I’m not though an’ I’m going.’ He leant forward to grab the rest of the bread and for a second something gold glittered before it was hidden in the folds of his pocket.
‘What yo’ got theer, then?’ Nan said. A flash of fear crossed William’s face and another wheel started to turn in Nan’s mind.
‘Nothin’,’ William said.
‘Not nothin’. What’s in yore pocket?’
‘What’s owed me, tha’s what.’
Nan stared at him, her eyes two narrow slits as she tried to make out the shape in his pocket. William shifted and then jumped up, the chair tumbling to the floor. ‘Mrs Evans says I should be sure I took what was owed. For puttin’ up with yo’ and lodgin’ with yo’ all this time.’
‘Yo’ve been talkin’ to Mrs Evans.’ Nan said. His absences over the past few weeks and strange behaviour began to fall into place. She simultaneously felt sick and angry. ‘So what do yo’ think yore owed?’ she asked. ‘Free bed an’ board not enough, eh?’ The shot slipped out before she could stop herself. She sighed and took up a different approach: ‘Yo’ look nice. Thems bobbersome clothes.’
William’s hand bothered the pocket before straightening the waistcoat. Nan watched the movement and took a step closer. The waistcoat was soft under her hand, her fingers played with the pocket, feeling the shape of the hidden, imprisoned object. He twisted away. A dull clunk finished the crescendo of ripping material and the gold watch hit the floor.
‘All as is is this,’ Nan said, not taking her eyes off the watch. The final wheel clicked into place. William shrugged and picked it up. Nan watched him.
‘It’s just a watch,’ he said, not looking at her. ‘It’s not even good enough for yore precious trove.’
‘Yo’ know tha’s not true.’
‘It was just lyin’ around. Could’ve been anybodys.’
‘But it isn’t.’
‘Tha’s right. Tis mine now.’ He stared at her, standing a little taller as he said it. Nan looked at him and then at the watch and felt something shift inside her.
‘Yo’ case-hardened scoundrel! Away to-go, if yo’ want to, but yo‘ no having the watch,’ Nan said.
‘The watch more importan’ than me? They’n be right. Yo’ just want money and jewels.’
‘Tha’ theer watch is my mother’s. Yo’ know it. Tha’s why yo’ took it, yo’ villain.’
‘Yo’ lying. Mrs Evans says yo’ have nothin’ from yore family. No one wanted nothin’ t’ do with yo. They’n set the cottage to yo’ as no one else could live in this ‘ere craitchy house.’
‘Mrs Evans a reg’lar owd cant. It would look better on her to mind her own business. Talked her husband to death, tha’s what them said.’
‘Yo’ cursed ‘im. Tha’s what happened.’
Nan laughed coldly. ‘Give a cat a canary! I wasn’t livin’ ‘ere when he died. How can I o’ cursed him? Yo’ pathetic nauf.’
‘Yo’ gypsies can do things.’ William nodded, still gripping the watch. It struck Nan how foolish she’d been, pinning her efforts on this person. She looked at him with fresh eyes: his features, once beautiful, now had a snake-like appearance to them and his arms, that she had loved holding her, looked thin and weak, drowned by his ill-fitting shirt.
‘Yo’ no having the watch,’ she repeated, her contempt ablaze on her face. She turned back to the pot, catching her reflection. She looked younger, her eyes had light in them once more.
‘By-leddy, I been bewitched by yo’,’ William muttered. ‘Nothing but cold-fires.’
‘I’ll give yo’ what for, usin’ foul words in my home,’ Nan said. She waved her spoon towards the door. ‘I have no use for yo’ an’ yore fallal. Go on, yo’ want to be off, get yo’ gone.’
‘I’ll go when I’m ready,’ he growled. ‘I ain’t bein’ told what to do by a nineted owd gypsy as yo’.’
He stared at her, his face betraying his rage, but she didn’t care anymore. Let him go. Let them say what they want. ‘An’ I know ‘bout yore brevitting in the money tin.’ Her eyes went over his clothes.
‘No’ne would believe yo’ even if it was true,’ William said. ‘They would believe me.’ His anxiety betrayed his words and fuelled Nan on.
‘ An’ bless me, I never seen such a man as yo’ for lozzocking and huddmuckery ways!’ She glared at him his jaw clenched. A toad croaked into the silence. William kicked the table breaking one of the legs and sending it crashing to the floor. Nan stared at the splintered leg, the toads hopping about in confusion and the cards scattered on the floor. Her eyes locked onto the four of clubs; she shuddered but made no attempt to fight it.
‘They’n believe me,’ he said again but he didn’t sound anxious this time. Nan turned away and saw William’s reflection put the watch on the table. ’Vengeance’n come for yo’,’ she said in a hushed tone as she stared into the frothing pot of water. Nan felt his fury fill the room and take every last inch of air. A cat jumped onto the windowsill, she watched the glow of the fire sparkle on the blackened pot and savoured the smell of the broth as it foamed and frothed. She heard the scrape of the spear. She shut her eyes.
All as is is this.