The tap-washer talisman
By Judith Field
The Saturday morning sunlight burst through the window
and Mark’s closed eyelids. He rolled over and collided
with something soft and warm. Stretching out a hand, he
opened his eyes.
Pat slept, wisps of white hair that
had escaped from her plait in a halo round her face on
the pillow next to his. A moment of disbelief, then
images of the night before burst into his head. He
smiled. She muttered and turned away from him. Her hair
flicked his nose and he stifled a sneeze. Pat Court, his
next door neighbour, his part-time boss, and now his
He stretched, feeling his joints
click, and looked at his watch on the bedside table.
Seven o’clock. He got up and picked his way through the
piles of discarded clothing to the bathroom, shutting
the door behind him. Pat might be the sort who snarled
if woken too soon.
When he came back, she was snoring
faintly. He walked to the window and looked down into
her garden. She had designed the
plants, the landscaping, even the stonework in the
rockery to bring in magical power and protect the house
from supernatural forces.
He looked at Nellie Webber’s wilderness on the
right-hand side. A mass of brambles jostled for space
with towering clumps of nettles and knee-high grass.
Stems of ivy spiralled up the trunks of the trees and
twisted into giant nests between the branches.
Pat got up and hugged him
from behind. He jumped.
“Sorry, didn’t you hear me?” she said.
“You looked miles away. There’s a lot to do in the
garden today. So the sooner we finish it, the sooner we
can get on with some work.”
“On a Sunday?”
“Yes, we’ve got loads of calls to
follow up,” she said. “It’s as though as soon as our
backs were turned, entities crept in. Can’t walk down a
street without seeing manticores here, revenants there.
It’ll take us weeks to clear the backlog.”
“Well, business is business.” Mark
tried to hide the disappointment in his voice.
Pat smiled and put her hand on his
arm. “Play your cards right, and there might be time for
something else. But first, that plum tree’s got to go.
You told me you’d do it, not to bother getting someone
in, and it’s been standing there for weeks.”
“Sorry, I’ll do it today.”
“Make sure you do. It’s cutting the
lines of force. Didn’t you notice the patches where the
snow never settled, when four inches fell everywhere
He nodded. “Wondered what that was. I
thought it must be something to do with the drains.”
She shook her head. “No, it’s residual
magic. Even the earth has shrunk back from the tree-- it
looks like it’s standing in a trench. It’s got to go –
messing with lines of force turns a garden into a ghost
magnet. It can play havoc with the weeds, too. I don’t
want to end up with a garden like Nellie’s.”
“OK, put the kettle on. I’ll get
dressed and pop round to my place for the axe.
Pat pulled on a fluffy robe that made
her look like a cuddly toy and went downstairs.
Mark shut the door and got dressed.
Dipping into his trouser pocket, he pulled out the
talisman and held it in front of his face. To the
untrained eye, it was a brass tap washer, hanging from a
piece of black ribbon, and so it had been before Mark
charged it with the power to protect himself, when the
letter came three weeks earlier. A search through Pat’s
more obscure books had shown him what to do. So far, it
seemed to be working. It left a faint blue trail as it
moved. It was smooth on both sides without engraving. He
slipped the ribbon over his head and tucked the talisman
inside his shirt.
He opened his front door and picked up the post. Just a
local paper, a pizza menu and a letter about loose
covers. His heart rate returned to normal. Another day
off the hook. He stepped inside and shut the door. There
was a brown envelope behind it, still half inside the
door. His hands shook as he turned it over and saw the
stamp of the local education authority. As he fumbled to
get the envelope open with one hand, he grasped the
talisman with the other, as though it could alter what
had already been written. He pulled the letter out.
“Dear Mr Anderson, your request to
remain in our employment after the retirement age of
sixty three, as stated in your pension plan, is under
consideration. We will contact you again when we have
made our decision.” No clue as to when that might be,
but at least they hadn’t said “You reach the end of the
line in six weeks, sod off.”
The talisman was working. It couldn’t
be down to chance, he told himself; they got rid of
Saunders when he asked to stay. But Saunders was a
useless old fool, setting work then clearing off to the
staffroom for the rest of the lesson. Mark had had to go
into his classroom more than once to shut the kids up.
And they’d stayed quiet, even after Mark had left.
Perhaps the talisman had made the school governors see
what they’d be giving up if he had to leave.
He felt his hair standing on end,
where he had run his fingers through it while reading
the letter. The ribbon had brushed over his head for the
last couple of days as he put the talisman on and took
it off, and now hair was growing where it had been
sparse before. He looked at himself in the hall mirror.
There was enough sandy brown hair to do a comb-over now,
but he would rather go completely bald than do that. His
hair had kept its colour. He remembered Pat telling him
that hers had begun to go white when she was in her
twenties; some early magical venture backfired. He
envied her, being self-employed. She might only be three
years younger than him, but no worries for her about
forced retirement. He put the letter into his pocket and
went to get the axe.
“Sit down, I won’t be a minute,” Pat said. She sat at
her patio table, poking a screwdriver at the
multicoloured wires inside the phasmometer, the entity
detector, in her hand. She looked up.
“This is on the blink again. The
display’s reading ‘entity 100%’. I can’t zero it. That’s
what you get for buying cheap on eBay. Tea?” She put
the box down and picked up a teapot, steam swirling from
Mark nodded and sat down. “Give me the
detector.” He took its batteries out and put them back
in. The display showed “0%”. “When in doubt, turn it
off, and back on again.”
“You’ll never turn me off,” Pat said.
Mark leaned across the table and kissed her.
“If anyone else came out with
something as cheesy as that, I’d give them detention.
But from you, it’s Shakespeare.”
“Cheesy? You patronising sod,” Pat
said. “Not that I’d mind being kept in by you,
“Coo-ee!” With a rustling and a sound
of snapping twigs, Nellie Webber stuck her head through
the overgrown bushes and called across the fence. Thin
wisps of grey hair dangled round her face, shrivelled
like an old apple. She wore a shapeless, stained sack of
a dress, the colour faded.
“Having your brekkies, Pat?” Nellie
said. “That’s nice. How’s Doris, dear? Coming outside
too, is she?”
“She’s fine, thanks.” Pat said. “Just
popped to the shops.”
Nellie leaned farther across. She
waved to Mark. “Hello, Mr Anderson, fancy seeing you.
Having a street party? I bet Doris went to get some
“Come round and have a cup of tea,”
Pat called. She turned to Mark and spoke out of the side
of her mouth. “Don’t scowl like that. Poor old dear,
she’s desperate for a bit of company. We’ve got the rest
of the day.”
“I can’t,” Nellie said, taking a
string of lumpen clay beads the colour and size of
donkey droppings out of the creased supermarket carrier
bag she carried on her elbow. She waved them at Pat.
“Sylvia’s going to be here in a
minute.” She paused and looked at them with raised
eyebrows, as though expecting a reply.
“Who’s Sylvia?” Mark said.
Nellie smiled. “Who? Only my
granddaughter! My angel. The kindest, prettiest girl in
the world. And clever! I’ve got to get the garden
ready.” She pushed away through the grass and hung the
beads on a branch of a tree. Moving to the far end, she
pulled out another set and hung them on a holly bush.
“Ouch! But that’s better! Now for the house. Tell Doris
I’ll see her later,” she called, and went back indoors.
“Who’s Doris?” Mark said.
“My mother. And Nellie hasn’t got a
granddaughter. She’s got no family at all,” Pat said
“It’ll take more than a minute to sort her house out.
It’s going to need a pitchfork and a dozen dumpsters if
it’s the same as it was last time I was there.”
“What’s it like? An indoor version of
“Well, I thought at first she had some
sort of poltergeist, the place was such a mess. But she
hasn’t, she just never throws anything away. She’s got
some lovely antique furniture, as far as I can remember,
but I couldn’t see it for piles of newspapers going back
to the year dot, heaps of rags and bags of rubbish. I
offered to help, but she wouldn’t have it.”
“Shame,” Mark said. “Can’t the Council
“She gets meals on wheels, but that’s
it. She won’t have a carer. She’s scared of Social
Services. ‘They’ll send me to an almshouse’, she says.
I’ve told her it’s not like that now, but she won’t
“If she’s a friend of your mother’s,
couldn’t she help?”
Pat shook her head. “Mum’s been dead
fifteen years. It was before you bought next door. When
Mum lived here, Nellie was alright; they used to do all
sorts together, like an art class at the Institute.”
Mark squeezed her hand.
Pat smiled at him. “It’s just in the
last few years Nellie’s gone strange. I used to try
telling her Mum had died, but she’d get terribly sad and
then forget. I haven’t got the heart to keep upsetting
her every time she asks about her, so now I just lie to
her. Sometimes she thinks I’m Mum. I don’t want to
confuse her even more.”
Mark drained his cup, put it on the
table and stood up. The plum tree was about ten feet
tall, with a trunk as wide as his thigh. He grasped the
axe and chopped out a small wedge of wood, about a foot
from the ground. He swung the axe at the opposite side
of the tree, till a large chunk had been removed.
“Right,” he called to Pat, “It’s about
to go. Get ready. You can shout ‘timber’ if you like.”
Pat smiled. “OK. It’ll be as good as
an invocation. You can never really tell what’s lurking
in a garden like this; they might not take kindly to
being crushed by a tree.”
Mark hit the tree again, in the centre
of the gap in the trunk. It crashed onto the lawn,
leaving a stump about a foot high, looking like a castle
in a foot-deep moat where the magic had driven the earth
“Sorry,” Mark said. “It went before
you had your chance to shout.”
“Quiet!” Pat stood up and cupped her
hand behind her ear. “Do you hear that? Coming from the
trunk. It’s an entity, of some sort...and I don’t think
it’s very pleased.”
The hiss sounded like a giant wasps’
nest amplified through a rock festival speaker, and the
swirling air had a green tinge to it. Mark’s eyes
watered and ears rang, as the buzz grew higher in pitch.
He put his fingers in his ears and headed back towards
“Don’t, Mark!” Pat shouted, holding
the detector out. “It’s reading off the scale!”
Mark heard a loud bang, like a car
backfiring. He could no longer hear the buzz. Had it
stopped, or had the frequency of the pitch exceeded the
range of the human ear? The swirling light solidified. A
woman stood in front of them. She was around six feet
tall, probably aged in her mid thirties. She wore a dark
green sleeveless dress that reached to the ground, with
a plunging neckline. Tangled green hair, dried leaves
caught among a few of the curls, spilled over her
shoulders, down to her hips. Her skin was black with the
blue glossiness of a plum. She looked down at the fallen
Pat looked at the detector. “Well,
this is a first for me. She’s a hamadryad.”
“Nymph?” Mark said. “Lives inside a
“Yes, Kyrie,” the hamadryad said. Her
accent reminded Mark of the Cypriots among his pupils.
She turned to Pat and curtsied. “And, Kyria, on the
contrary, I am very pleased.” She stood up, dropping
into another curtsy to Mark. “And you, Kyrie, thank you
for freeing me. I, Sinobia, owe you a debt of gratitude.
Now I can roam the wild forests. Which way, please?”
“Hang on, love,” Pat said, turning her
palm up like a traffic cop. She beckoned to Mark and
whispered in his ear. “We’ve got a problem here.
Lives inside a tree. Lives being the key
word. If a hamadryad’s tree dies, then she dies too. I
think. But I don’t think Sinobia realises.”
Sinobia wandered down to the end of
the garden and tried to start a conversation with an ash
“I think we’re stuck with her,” Pat
said. “There’s probably enough residual magic in this
garden to keep her going, but she won’t be able to
“Can’t she go into another tree?”
“Only a plum, and I haven’t got one.
She’ll just have to lurk around the garden till I work
out what to do with her. I might have to buy a little
plum sapling. I wonder if I can persuade her to move
into the shed?”
Mark shrugged his shoulders. “Well,
now’s the time to ask her; she’s coming back again.”
Sinobia walked back towards them, a garland of newly
picked marigolds on her head.
“You keep her talking. I think she
likes you.” Pat said. “I know I’ve got nothing in the
books. I’ll post something online and see what they
As Pat went back into the house,
Nellie came out with another string of misshapen beads.
She peered over the fence, stopped and gasped.
“Sylvia!” she shouted.
“Me?” Sinobia pointed at herself.
“Well, I wasn’t talking to Mr
Anderson,” Nellie said. “Yes, you, girl.”
Sinobia curtseyed to Nellie. “Hail,
Demeter! All praise to your harvest of...er...weeds. For
what is a weed, but a plant nobody’s yet found a use
“That’s Granny, to you,” Nellie said.
“What are you doing in Doris’s garden? Come back this
“Demeter-Granny too hard for me. I
shall call you Yiayia,” Sinobia said. She ran towards
the fence and scrambled over it before Mark could stop
her, disappearing into the bushes on the other side.
Mark heard her say “Wait for me!” as she followed Nellie
into the house.
Pat came outside.
“OK, let’s see if anyone posts a
reply. Where’s Sinobia?”
Pat sighed. “This isn’t the best
outcome in the world. The poor thing won’t last long
away from here. I expect Nellie will go and make her a
cup of tea and come back to nothing but a pile of dead
leaves. At least she won’t remember it tomorrow.”
Mark woke next morning to the sound of a motor mower. He
opened the bedroom window and looked outside. In
Nellie’s garden Sinobia was marching up and down mowing
even stripes into the lawn. She turned as she reached
the end and waved at Mark. Her hair still fell down her
back like a green waterfall, but Mark noticed that
instead of the long green dress, she was wearing a tweed
skirt reaching just below her knees, thick tights and a
sweater with a matching cardigan. Nellie must have lent
her some clothes. Sinobia stopped the mower and called
up to Mark.
“Kalimera, Kyrie, lovely day! See my
works! Those plants, they had no spirit in them so I cut
them down.” She nodded towards a heap of ivy piled up
against the fence, started the engine and continued
towards the house.
Pat came into the bedroom and rested
her head on his shoulder.
“She’s a grafter, I’ll give her that.”
Mark kissed the top of her head. “Who
is Silvia? What is she?” he said into Pat’s hair.
“Two Gentlemen of Verona. ‘She
excels each mortal thing,
upon the dull earth dwelling’”.
“He’s got that right, I’d never have
thought anyone could sort that garden without a machete
and a flamethrower.”
Mark saw Nellie coming out of the
house. “Look what Sinobia’s done with her,” he said.
Nellie shouted across the garden to
Sinobia. “You should tie your hair back, Sylvia. And put
some shoes on, you don’t want to hurt your feet.”
Nellie’s own hair was tied up into a neat bun and she
wore a crisp white blouse and trousers. Even from the
window Mark saw that a crease had been ironed into each
leg that looked as if it would have cut the grass
without the aid of a mower. The sunlight reflected from
the toes of her polished shoes.
Later in the week, Nellie and Sinobia spent most of the
day filling a dumpster. It had been delivered with a
bone rattling clatter at about six that morning, but
Mark had been awake for hours before that, wondering
what the postman would bring.
He got up and pulled his clothes on,
his hair sticking out at all angles, making him look
like a chrysanthemum. Pat opened her eyes. “Are you
going to work like that? You’ll have to get a haircut,
it’ll be as long as Sinobia’s soon.” She yawned. “I
think we should sleep at yours tonight, if they’re going
to keep making that racket right next door every
Mark smiled. “Fine with me. Goodness
knows how long they’re going to keep this up. You said
Sinobia couldn’t leave the garden, but she seems to be
fine. They went on a clothes shopping spree yesterday,
if the carrier bags they brought back are anything to go
by. Last of the big spenders.”
Pat shrugged. “I don’t think Nellie’s
short of money. It was probably in a sock hidden under
that bed Sinobia just heaved into the dumpster all on
her own. And I only said I thought she couldn’t
leave the garden. I must have been wrong. Just as well
really, nobody’s replied to my message.”
Mark heard the postman pushing letters
through Pat’s door. He flinched before remembering that
anything for him would be delivered to his own house. He
heard the postman walking away, but couldn’t tell if he
had gone to his door.
“What’s eating you?” Pat asked.
“You’re a bag of nerves.”
“Nothing, I just didn’t sleep
properly. I’ll have to pop next door before I go into
“You’ve got ages yet. Come here, I’ve
got something to ease all that nervous tension.”
By the following Saturday morning Mark had still not
heard about his application to stay on.
No news is good news. The
talisman must have worked,
he told himself, running his fingers through the fringe
that flopped over his forehead. There was a ring at the
door. Mark dropped the cup he’d been drying. It must be
the postman, with a letter that he had to sign for.
Containing a new contract? Or, did they want to be sure
he got his marching orders?
“For goodness sake, pull yourself
together,” Pat said. “I’ll clear up the bits. You answer
the door, before whoever it is shoves a card through the
letterbox and hops it.”
It was Nellie and Sinobia, wearing
identical outfits of jeans and denim shirts.
“You like, Kyrie?” Sinobia twirled in
front of him.
“You don’t think double denim is too
much?” Nellie said. “Double denim! Hark at me – Sylvia’s
got me reading all the fashion mags. Said I needed
bringing up to date. We’ll be going out dancing, next, I
shouldn’t wonder.” She pinched Sinobia’s cheek.
“Not today, Yiayia, I tired. Head
“Perhaps you’ve been overdoing the
clearing up,” Mark said. “But very nice outfits.” He
started to close the door.
“No, hang on,” Nellie said. “We didn’t
just come to show off our new kit, that’s the word,
isn’t it, Syl?”
Sinobia nodded. “No, we did not. We
give you this.” She pushed a pink envelope into Mark’s
Pat came into the hall.
“Oh, there you are!” Nellie said.
“Wondered why there was no answer at yours.” She tapped
the side of her nose. “We just popped over to invite you
to our little garden party this afternoon.”
“Thanks, we’d love to come,” Pat said.
“Wouldn’t we, Mark?”
“Oh good,” Nellie said before Mark had
the chance to reply. “I thought we might as well do
things proper so I got my paints out, made this invite
myself. I’m only sorry Doris isn’t around any more.
She’d love to see how nice we’ve got the house, now. See
you later!” She turned and, dragging Sinobia after her
by the hand, strode back to her own house.
“Give it here, then.” Pat grabbed the
envelope and took out the card inside. She put on her
reading glasses. “’Nellie and Sylvia invite you to their
garden party at 2 pm. Dress elegantly’“.
Pat went next door to get changed. Mark sat in his hall
by the front door waiting, tapping his fingers against
the arm of his chair. He wore a pale beige linen suit
and had transferred the letter to the jacket pocket. Pat
let herself back in, wearing a white, short-sleeved
dress. It clung to her upper body, flaring outwards from
the waist to a full skirt ending just above her knees.
Thin wisps of white leather held high-heeled sandals
onto her feet. She wore a wide-brimmed straw hat tilted
to one side.
Mark’s jaw dropped and he coughed,
lost for a quote. “Beautiful!”
“Thanks! And you scrub up well, too.”
He put on a panama hat and opened the
They rang Nellie’s doorbell. She led
them through bright, fragrant rooms set out with
polished antique chairs and tables. Nellie pointed at a
“Your dear mother did that one, Pat.”
She led them through the kitchen, fitted with old
fashioned cupboards and equipment, but all of them
“Go through, dear, take a seat by the
table. Under the parasol,” Nellie said. “I’ll go and
call Sylvia. She’s still a bit poorly.” She went
As they sat down. Pat’s phone bleeped.
Nellie came out of the house. Sinobia
trailed after her, shielding her eyes from the sun.
“She’s got a migraine, poor thing,”
Nellie said. “I’ve given her a pill, so she’ll be better
soon. I’ll go and put the kettle on.”
Pat looked at her phone and gasped.
“A reply from the bulletin board.” She
gulped. “This is no migraine. This is the end.”
“I did not have heart to tell Yiayia,”
Sinobia said, her voice croaking and dry, like twigs
rubbing together. She looked down at her hands, which
had turned from blue-black to brown, wrinkled like bark.
“Oh no, it’s happening already.” The brown colouration
spread over her wrists and up her arms. Her face was the
colour of dead leaves. She dropped to the ground, face
down and headlong, like a felled tree.
Mark knelt next to her and turned her
over. He held her hand. It felt cooler than his, and
stiff. Her hair faded to yellow.
“What can we do?” he said to Pat.
“What did the e mail say?”
“They can live away from residual
garden magic, but only for about a week. And that’s how
long it’s been.”
Mark moved behind Sinobia, grunting
from the effort as he hauled her shoulders up till she
was sitting. She leaned back against his chest. She felt
as heavy and as dead a weight as a felled tree. Her eyes
were closed and she took low, shallow breaths.
“Quick,” Mark said. “Help me get her
back into your garden. Better take her over the fence.
You climb over, then I’ll lift her.”
Pat’s eyes filled with tears. “That’s
no good, the e mail said the process is irreversible
once they leave the garden.”
Mark’s head darted round as he scanned
Nellie’s garden. No plum trees. “We must be able to do
“All I can think of is... if there was
some way of warding it off. I just don’t know enough
about hamadryads, I’ll have to see if there’s anything
in the books. I hope there’ll be time.” She stood up.
Otherwise, Sinobia will
die, Mark thought. And Nellie will
be a dotty old woman again, living alone in squalor.
“No, stop, he said,” grabbing Pat’s
hand. He laid Sinobia back down on the grass, pulled his
tie off and dragged his collar open. He tore the ribbon
from round his neck.
“Will this do?” The talisman glittered
in the sunlight. “I made it to protect myself from
something specific, but let’s hope it’ll work for her.”
He tied the ribbon round Sinobia’s neck.
She had all but stopped breathing,
drawing in just the occasional gasp that subsided into
nothingness. Mark put his hand on the talisman. “I
don’t know the right sort of incantation, invocation or
anything else,” he said, “but may whatever is in this,
protect Sinobia from death.” He took Sinobia’s gnarled
hands in his, and clasped them to his lips.
He crossed her arms across her chest
and turned towards the house as he heard the sound of
rattling crockery coming from the open kitchen window.
Any minute now, Nellie would come out.
“Mark, look!” Pat said.
Turning back, he heard the sound of
wind through dry leaves as Sinobia took a deep breath.
Her hands turned blue black, and the colour spread up
her arms, over her neck and face. She opened her eyes
and uncrossed her arms.
“Can you get up?” Pat asked.
Sinobia nodded and gave a cough. “Life
burns within me now.” They helped her to a sitting
Nellie opened the back door. “Sylvia,
get off the grass. It’s damp! You’ll get piles,” she
shouted. She walked across the grass and put a tray set
for afternoon tea on the table. “And Pat, you’ll get
stains on your lovely dress. Too late for you, Mr
Anderson – you’re all over green at the knees.” She
stared at Mark. “Here -- are you feeling OK? You’re in a
muck sweat. I’ll get you a glass of water.”
Sinobia staggered to her feet.
“Headache all gone, Yiayia. Look, you forgot the cake. I
help you.” She and Nellie went back into the house.
Mark sat down and wafted his hand in
front of his face. It had been warm work. He took off
his hat and a wad of hair came away inside it, leaving
him with a bald patch in the middle of his head.
Pat took his hand. “I knew it. Some
kind of talisman. A hair restorer. And it restored
Sinobia to life. Must be something to do with growth.
And you gave it up. But you don’t have to worry about
your hair, I’d think you were gorgeous even if you were
completely bald. Especially if you were, actually.”
Mark set his mouth into a line and
shook his head. “Sod that, I wasn’t worried about hair.
I made the talisman to stop myself being
uprooted. Look.” He took the envelope out of his pocket
and passed it to her.
Pat read it. “You’re a good man,” she
said, with a catch in her voice. She handed the letter
“I’ve still got a mortgage to pay. I
thought I’d have years of income ahead of me.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Pat said.
“You can work with me full time if it all goes
“Is there enough for two of us?”
“Yes, there’s plenty, look how busy
He shrugged. “Well, if it does go
quiet I suppose I could make myself another talisman. Or
make lots and flog them as hair restorers.”
Pat squeezed his hand. “I’m afraid
not. You can only have one of those in use at a time. So
while Sinobia’s got your talisman, that’s it. Sorry.”
She poured tea for the two of them.
They sipped in silence.
“Anyway, whatever the future holds,
we’ll face it together,” Pat said.
He clinked his cup against hers.