By Gillie Threadgold, Skipton
I dreamed of Auld Annie last night; I don’t know what brought her to mind after so many years, maybe something I’d read or heard, or maybe the fact that she haunted my childhood for so long has stayed in the dark recesses of my mind. She was quite benign and smiled at me, that terrifying, empty smile that sent us running for cover, screaming and shouting wildly, probably more frightening that Auld Annie could ever be.
Annie lived in the village of my childhood, a small close-knit farming community, safe and secure as life in the 1940’s always seemed. I can’t remember her history, where she came from or who her parents were, she just ‘was’, ever-present, always the same, and always quite terrifying to us children.
We always knew that she wouldn’t harm us but that knowledge made no difference. Annie was not like other people, or at least not like anyone else in our intimate world. Most of our community were hardworking, ‘feet in the soil’ farmers or farm workers with the odd vicar and teacher thrown in.
Cars were a rarity; I seem to remember three; the vicar’s, the headmaster’s and the people who lived in the ‘big house’ who had a chauffeur. Travel was either by a rickety bus, old bicycle, or horse and cart, and people usually didn’t stray very far from home unless there was a very good reason such as a big funeral. A large and important funeral would empty the villages for miles around. All that food, port and merriment was an occasion not to be missed.
Annie was a witch, a real witch. She shambled around, coarse short black hair flying around her face in wild disarray, her eyes flashing in all directions seemingly at once and her smile, well, her smile was the most alarming of all as she was toothless except for one, large almost black fang which stuck out from between the front of her slobbering lips.
She would jump out from behind hedges or bushes and utter a wild, totally incomprehensible sound, a cross between an owl’s shriek and a cow’s moo. Then she would stamp her feet and wave her long, scarecrow-like arms wildly above her head and chase us.
Well, when I say ‘chase us’ I mean ‘try to chase us’. Annie was no match for our young legs and we would race down the old dirt tracks at full speed, screaming and pushing each other into the bank in our effort to escape this monster who lived among us.
Looking back I realise that she probably wanted to share our games and join in our fun but at the time we were convinced that she wanted to eat us, tear us to pieces limb by limb and then devour our bodies secretly by the light of a full moon. Her case wasn’t helped by the fact that Johnnie had sneaked into her home one afternoon and spied a large black cauldron hanging over the fire with what looked suspiciously like a black cat stewing inside. That was what witches did in our story books and the fairy tales we were told and Annie fitted the bill perfectly.
The tiny two-roomed, single- storey cottage Annie lived in was sandwiched between the village bakery and the man who owned the only threshing machine for miles around. Although a warm bed was tucked into a corner, along with a table and chairs, she always slept on a pile of hay just inside the doorway. As often happened in those days the village looked after its own with regular meals being provided by friends and neighbours, who also took care of her washing and made sure that she was tucked in safely each night.
A watchful eye was kept on her wanderings and natural inquisitiveness with a firm hand leading her back to the safety of her narrow confines should she stray too far. It was, looking back, a prime example of ‘care in the community’ long before the expression was ever thought of.
When she fell ill the doctor was called for and paid by others in order to keep her as healthy as possible. When her shoes or clothes showed signs of wear, replacements were quickly offered and somebody must have cut that wild hair and long, tapering, yellow finger nails but I can’t remember who after so many years.
I do remember some well intentioned person mentioning that maybe she would be better in one of those asylum places where she would be kept safe and locked away for the rest of her life. The village closed ranks and Annie stayed put, free to enjoy the fields and sunshine and the butterflies that she loved. Free to enjoy her sparse home comforts and free to roam our lovely village at will.
I can’t remember how old she was when I was young but I do recall hearing that she had died peacefully in her sleep a few years after I had married and had moved away.
Her funeral was attended by most of the village and for many, many years her grave was carefully tended and stands to this day. Annie was lucky to have lived in the era she did, as a few years later she would indeed have been taken away, her freedom lost behind iron bars and her spirit withering behind cold brick walls.