• Double, double toil and trouble;
  • Fire burn and caldron bubble.
  • Fillet of a fenny snake,
  • In the caldron boil and bake;
  • Eye of newt and toe of frog,
  • Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
  • Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
  • Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
  • For a charm of powerful trouble,
  • Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
  • Double, double toil and trouble;
  • Fire burn and caldron bubble.
  • Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
  • Then the charm is firm and good.

This, from Macbeth, is one of those little Shakespeare song/poems that most people recognise but few people – apart from actors – read very carefully. I say people don’t read these things very carefully because, just look at the last verse of the witches’ curse – Cool it with a baboon’s blood. Fenny snakes, blind-worms, bats, newts, dogs, lizards and howlets (owlets?) might be presumed to be freely available in Mediaeval Scotland, but where might a witch have sourced a baboon? And poor baboon! How could they? Did they murder him for the sake of a few drops of his blood and a silly curse? Or did they keep him, chained in a cave, feeding him on howlets and tapping the precious fluid as and when necessary?

Which reminds me of a boyfriend I once had – you can’t really call them boyfriends when you’re middle aged, but what else can you call them? He showed me the ornamental pond he had dug in his back garden, and something black swimming around in murky water. It’s my newt. Ha, ha ha, ha, ha ha ha, ha… He had obviously been working on this joke for some considerable time. It put me off him. That and the pointy nose.

How did I get started on curses and baboons? Oh yes I was thinking about tedious tasks. A tenuous link, I admit, but it occurred to me that the attraction of spell-making might lie not so much in the power to do harm, or exercise one’s wickedness, as in the comforting process of stirring. Just stirring. It’s the same as knitting. Why do people knit? The end result is itchy, usually unwearable, and quickly gets stretched and bobbly in the tumble-dryer. And yet we continue to knit, because it’s soothing. In my time I have made cat-blanket after cat-blanket out of six-inch garter-stitch squares. In times of stress – or distress – I tend to knit, stroke cats or iron piles of stuff that doesn’t need to be ironed. My Canadian sister, staying with me, once passed the room where I was ironing and exclaimed, ‘Did I just catch you ironing a knicker?’ And all to save my sanity. When my cat Sophie needed to be put to sleep I took her to the vets alone, I watched her die alone and came home from the vets alone – and mowed the lawn alone, and howled, and mowed the lawn a bit more, and howled a bit more. I had to break the howling up with something.

The boyfriend mentioned above – setting aside for a moment the sticking points of his minute newts and his pointy nose – had had troubles of his own from time to time. His first remedy had been to walk. He walked from one side of northern England to another following one of the Wainwright maps. And he made curries; more curries than he could ever possibly have eaten. It was his own recipe, which he knew by heart. In the corner of his kitchenette lived a teetering stack of shallow, empty margarine tubs and the transparent lids to go with them. On his down days he would fill vast numbers of margarine tubs with home-made curry, and freeze the results. The lodger was never short of something to microwave when he staggered in from the pub.

Shelling peas is another soothing thing. Sitting on the back doorstep in the sunshine, shelling a great heap of peas into a bowl; preparing any sort of vegetables, really – peeling potatoes, diagonally slicing runner beans, even cutting those daft little crosses into the stalks of Brussels sprouts. Are the crosses really necessary? Would the world come to an end if a sprout entered a saucepan uncrossed? And sharpening pencils. In the absence of inspiration: sharpen.

So I am hoping to be pleasantly soothed rather than excruciatingly bored when, on returning from the inevitably sad and stressful Sunday visit to my mother later this afternoon, I am going to have to start cutting up a ream of self-printed paper label sheets ready for my new catalogue-delivering venture. Yes, as from next Wednesday when several enormous cardboard boxes of catalogues are due to arrive via Parcel Force, the paucity of the State Retirement Pension and twelve ravenous rescue cats will have forced me to walk the streets of my village, and most probably all the other villages within drivable distance. I must remember not to wear a Red Hat (luckily I don’t possess a Red Hat) as a Red Hat is said to mean No Drawers. I suspect I’ll be safe enough out there on the streets of shame, and the exercise will do me good. Won’t it?

I hate exercise. But you need exercise. But I hate exercise. But it will be soothing. Didn’t you just say tedious tasks are soothing? But what if the books won’t balance?

What if it rains?

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