AFTER she retired from the Air Force, Mary bought a house in the ancient Suffolk market town of Halesworth. She joined the tennis club, where she played twice a week and made steady progress as her fitness improved, and the muscle memory she’d developed in her teens began to reassert itself. But tennis twice a week wasn’t enough to keep her occupied, she needed more to do. The local arts centre, a converted old maltings called ‘The Cut,’ offered a surprisingly large number of recreational courses: digital photography, water colour painting, belly dancing, tai chi, holistic therapy, mind body and spirit, shamanism, paganism, the list went on, the last item was ‘Thaumaturgy.’ Mary had no experience of the occult and, intrigued, she decided to give it a try and signed up for a twelve week, one on one course.
When she arrived for her first class, the receptionist directed her to her tutor’s room in the sub-basement. The elevator took a surprisingly long time to reach the lowest level, she expected a dim, damp and possibly verminous room but the office, when she found it, was warm, clean and well ventilated. Her tutor stood to shake hands as she entered, there was a name plate on his desk but she stumbled over the pronunciation. He chuckled at her attempt and asked her to call him ‘Professor.’ He was old-looking, tall, with short, white hair and piercing blue eyes. She noticed that he seldom seemed to blink. He apologised for the need to work underground and said that it was to avoid ‘interference,’ although he didn’t specify from what. There was an old-fashioned clock on his desk facing towards her.
“How can I help you, er,” he looked down at the paper he was holding, “Ms Lee?” he asked. His diction was good but he spoke with a slight foreign accent.
“Please call me Mary. Are you a magician?” she asked.
He chuckled. “A lovely old-fashioned term, how I wish I was. No, I am a scientist, although the science I practise is less than exact. You might say that I deal with probabilities. I try to improve the probability of unlikely events occurring. How can I help you?” he asked again.
Mary had been expecting a crystal-gazing new-ager, the last thing she’d expected was a tutorial with this mild-mannered professorial type wearing neat clothes and rimless glasses. She floundered mentally for a few moments and then said the first thing that came into her head. “I’d like to improve my tennis.”
“Hm,” said her tutor, “I’d have to recommend practice as a first step. As you say in English ‘practice makes perfect.’ ”
“But couldn’t I use “Thaumaturgy” as a short-cut?” Mary asked.
The old man looked at her over the top of his spectacles. “That would be cheating.”
Mary chuckled. “I don’t mind, if you don’t,” she said.
The old man continued to peer at her for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. He flipped up the screen of his laptop and began tapping keys.
“Okay, lesson one, ‘Trajectories.’ Now, it’s no good making a ball lift itself over the net at the last moment when it’s perfectly obvious that it’s travelling too low to go over. You have to control the trajectory of the ball immediately after you’ve hit it, otherwise your opponent will become suspicious. The same goes if a ball is coming towards you, you have to control it as soon as it leaves your opponent’s racket. Smooth trajectories, remember that, smooth trajectories.” Behind him a laser printer pushed out several pages. He reached back, then handed them to her.
“These are your exercises,” he said and explained each one. “Practice with a tennis ball in your back garden or the park before you try them in a match.”.
“So, no eye of newt, no burnt offerings, no herbs, no dead man’s fingers?” said Mary when they finished.
He sighed “No,” he said, “none of that old nonsense.” The clock pinged “I’m afraid our time is up, but just stick to the regime I’ve given you and I’ll see you next week.”
Mary tried the exercises and was surprised how quickly they began to work. She couldn’t control the ball completely but she was aware of being able to give it small pushes and pulls in its flight, and in her next match, she was able to save several points and win games that she would otherwise have lost. Her opponent was impressed and asked her what she’d had for breakfast. Mary just smiled and looked forward to her next encounter with the old thaumaturgist.
The next Monday, she entered the basement room to find a yellow tennis ball hovering just above the Professor’s head, spinning slowly. He looked up at her and smiled, the ball dropped onto his desk.
He asked her about her progress, he made a few notes and seemed satisfied.
“Lesson two, ‘Time control.’ Now, if you can slow down your perception of time, you will have longer to decide where you are going to place your shots.”
“So, I have to speed myself up?” asked Mary.
“No, my dear, that would be bad for you, you have to slow time down but just locally. Here are your exercises.” He handed over a thin sheaf of papers. “There are other techniques to learn but these two, in combination, will give you a considerable advantage. See you next week.” The tennis ball rose off the desk and began to orbit the Professor’s head. The clock pinged and Mary saw that thirty minutes had passed, although it felt as if she’d arrived only five minutes before.
She mastered the new technique quickly and found it useful in everyday life. She extended pleasures such as eating ice cream, and compressed chores such as vacuuming the stairs. Her tennis improved dramatically over the next few weeks as the professor taught her more thaumatological techniques. Changing the weight of an opponent’s racket was reasonably simple. The most difficult to master was ‘disassociation’ of the ball which momentarily released all its molecular bonds so that it could pass through a rival’s racket strings, the bonds had to be instantly joined up again or the ball exploded in a cloud of yellow dust.
On the twelfth week, Mary went for her last lesson. She’d bought her tutor a bottle of wine, but the receptionist told her that he’d left unexpectedly. “The Professor said that he was troubled by the ‘auguries’ whatever they are and that the ‘emanations’ were confused. I’m sorry, dear, we don’t give refunds, you’ll have to take it up with him.”
As Mary left the old, red brick building, she wondered, momentarily, what an ‘augury’ was, but she was preoccupied with thoughts of the ladies’ singles championship at the tennis club that afternoon. Her opponent was half her age but, with the help of her special techniques, she felt sure she could beat her and qualify for the county championship.
“I’m sorry, Mary”, said the club chairman that evening. “The rules are quite specific; we have to take back the trophy and hand you over to the Church Wardens. We always have a ‘Sensitive’ on court for the finals. Mary said nothing as the Wardens, in their hooded habits, shackled her and escorted her from the tennis pavilion to the lock-up in the Police headquarters. Oh well, she thought, it’s a fair cop I suppose. But she felt the committee members were over-reacting, it was only a game, after all.
A week later, after the hearing in the ecclesiastical court, Mary stood in the open-topped Land Rover as she was driven through the jeering crowds that lined the Thoroughfare, Mary speeded up time to get the unpleasant experience over with. She tried to ‘disassociate’ the chains they used to attach her to the stake in the marketplace, but the metal was too dense, the technique only worked on light materials like plastic and leather.
The crowd had followed her into the square, pushing and jostling for the best view. Teenage boys climbed the lamp posts, small children were lifted onto their fathers’ shoulders. They chanted “Burn the witch, burn the witch, burn the witch.”
As the Wardens lit the bundles of brushwood they’d piled around her, she thought she caught a glimpse of the Professor looking out from the waiting area in the Chinese restaurant a dozen metres away but she couldn’t be sure, the window was steamed up and smoke filled her eyes, as the fire took hold. She slowed time down as much as she could, but eventually the flames touched her, and she had no choice. Screaming with agony she disassociated herself.
The cloud of fine, crimson droplets exploded over the crowd of onlookers and spattered the shop fronts around the square. After an initial roar of disappointment, the people began to disperse, muttering and wiping their hands and faces with handkerchiefs and tissues. The Wardens stayed on to watch the fire burn itself out as rain began to fall and wash the granite cobbles clean.
The Professor stepped out of the restaurant’s warm interior and into the marketplace, he pulled the hood of his waterproof jacket over his head and hurried away. Thaumaturgy was quietly removed from the list of courses offered at the Cut, to be replaced by ‘Crystal Healing for beginners.’