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Story 3

Judith Field

Judith Field lives in London, UK. She is the daughter of writers, and learned how to agonize over fiction submissions at her mother’s (and father’s) knee. She’s a pharmacist, medical writer, editor and indexer.

In 2009, she made a New Year's resolution to start writing fiction and get published within the year. Pretty soon she realized how unrealistic that was but, in fact, it sort of worked: she got a slot to write a weekly column in a local paper shortly before Christmas of 2009 and that ran for a several years. She still writes occasional feature articles for the paper.

She has two daughters, a son, a granddaughter and a grandson. Her fiction, mainly speculative, has appeared in a variety of publications, mainly in the USA.

When she’s not working, writing or singing, she’s studying part-time for a degree in English. She speaks five languages and can say, “Please publish this story” in all of them.  She blogs at

“The tap-washer talisman” is a charming contemporary tale of magic in rural Britain.






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 lover.

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 else?”

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 the spout.

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, especially if-”

“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 cakes.”

“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 the garden?”

“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 do something?”

“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 listen.”

“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 back.

“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 the tree.

“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 tree trunk.

Pat looked at the detector. “Well, this is a first for me. She’s a hamadryad.”

“Nymph?” Mark said. “Lives inside a tree?”

“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 tree.

“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 leave.”

“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 recommend.”

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 For what is a weed, but a plant nobody’s yet found a use for?”

“That’s Granny, to you,” Nellie said. “What are you doing in Doris’s garden? Come back this minute.”

“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?”

Mark explained.

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 morning.”

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 work.”

“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 hurts.”

“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 hand.

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 front door.

They rang Nellie’s doorbell. She led them through bright, fragrant rooms set out with polished antique chairs and tables. Nellie pointed at a painting.

“Your dear mother did that one, Pat.” She led them through the kitchen, fitted with old fashioned cupboards and equipment, but all of them clean.

“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 upstairs.

As they sat down. Pat’s phone bleeped. An email.

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 something.”

“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 position.

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 back.

“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 pear-shaped.”

“Is there enough for two of us?”

“Yes, there’s plenty, look how busy we’ve been.”

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. “Together.”


The end


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