Appreciated by MATTHEW G. REES

RECENTLY I found myself at a charity bookshop, depositing volumes  I no longer needed.

I had vowed to hand them over and leave without buying any more books – I’ve enough waiting to be got through. 

I kept my pledge for all of thirty seconds.

Investigating a stand of second-hand paperbacks my eye was caught by a collection of writing by Laurie Lee.

As I opened it, its pages parted to a piece titled ‘A Drink with a Witch’.

I read the first few lines and (spellbound) went and paid. A copy exists in our family somewhere – one of my mother’s, I think. But – bitten – I was unable to defer my ‘need to read’.

I first read Lee (English novelist, story-writer and essayist, 1914-1997) at school: Cider With Rosie, of course. I was enchanted but found myself migrating to more urban – and what I may have felt was more urbane – fare.  More fool me. 

‘A Drink with a Witch’ (in terms of length it’s not much more than a fragment, a little under six pages) first appeared in the short-lived British magazine Leader, which circulated in the 1940s.

Lee described the piece as a recollection of his early life in rural Gloucestershire, and his departure from it.

It tells of  his return – as still a fairly young man, I think – to the valley in the Cotswolds where he grew up – and we find him wandering on a cloudless July afternoon.

Lee delivers a detailed description of the landscape, which is evoked with a near-journalistic wealth of information rich in its use of active verbs: orchids and fungi smoulder among sweating roots, clusters of huge lilies jag and sparkle ‘like underwater explosions…’

But the line that really hooked me was this – 

‘Yet at four o’clock in the afternoon my tongue went dry and my thumbs pricked, and looking into her eyes I smelt wet crows, midnight and burning: and I knew I was with a witch.’ 

It’s the story’s second sentence: his early disclosure demonstrating, I submit, Lee’s mastery of how to tell a tale and capture a reader.

In this deep and verdant English countryside, Lee tries to locate a disused chapel – a place where he played games as a boy.

Strangely, he comes across a bullock, lying dead beneath a wall.

‘At first I thought it was merely asleep in the sun, but as I approached I realised that this was not so. A buzz of flies circled its staring eyes and its pink tongue lay motionless between its teeth like a bitten rose… I left it with a faint, sinister feeling of privilege.’

Soon afterwards he encounters the woman at the centre of this memoir.

We find her in the act of gathering weeds in a particularly overgrown patch of land. She seems to rise from the soil itself, and is drawn marvellously by Lee.

‘… a creature rose from the green-spiked depths like Venus rising up from the sea. I say Venus, because she was golden and unusually beautiful. She was about thirty years old, but much clearer in skin and more monumental in figure than the usual valley woman (whom the damp seems to smother and the steep hills to stunt). She had thick yellow hair, blue eyes, pale lips like alder leaves, and a long dress of yellow hessian tied round the waist with rope. Her cheeks and arms were yellow with dried earth and she clutched a few green weeds in her fingers…

‘…’Where’m ye from then?’ she asked…’ 

(Cont next column)

The woman leads Lee to the chapel he was seeking, which is now overgrown and quite hidden.

A harp hangs from a tree outside, and it becomes clear that the woman has taken the chapel as her home.

It is the beginning of a passage of truly magical writing.

Lee describes how the woman supplies him with a cup of bee-orchid wine. ‘It glittered in the cup, transparent, cool, the colour of emeralds.’

The real strength of the passage though lies in Lee’s description of his hostess and how the sunlight plays upon her via the old chapel’s stained glass windows.

‘The sun threw the figures of saints like lantern-slides against the walls, and the woman, as she moved about before me, changed from blue to purple, from green to rose. Occasionally, like a mystic translation, the ghostly glowing face of some bearded prophet lay superimposed upon hr own, and she looked at me with double eyes, through double features.’  

It’s sufficient here to say that conversation between Lee and the woman turns to the bullock – the beast is hers – and a seeming feud with a farmer (who is ‘off-stage’ on a remote holding still deeper in the valley).

From early on in the piece there is a sense that the dead bullock will revive in some fashion… that we are not ‘done’ with the ‘beast’ (to use the woman’s word).

And Lee doesn’t disappoint. The memoir has a fine closing passage I shall avoid discussing so that you may have the pleasure. I urge you to read it. 

This tale strikes me as of a piece with work by the Welshman Glyn Jones (1905-1995), an almost exact contemporary of Lee – such as Jones’s superb short story ‘Wat Pantathro’.

Graham Greene, perhaps surprisingly, is another who reported something of this life.

As a struggling novelist Greene lived in the Cotswolds. Extracts from his diary – in his autobiography A Sort of Life – tell of rat-catchers, eccentrics, strange deaths and home-made wine.

But I’ve the conviction that this particular story – precise, elegant and seeminlgy cut from the Gloucestershire earth itself – could only have been written by Lee. 

Some years ago, matters of a business nature occasionally took me to the Gloucestershire town of Stroud.

I was in the habit of travelling there from the cathedral city of Gloucester in the most advantageous way: on the upper tier of a double-decker service bus, its height granting wonderful views lost to motorists in their cars.

The Gloucestershire countryside, I’m pleased to say, still looked magnificent: green, rolling… I shan’t attempt to describe it. Such things are best left to Laurie Lee.

The bus in question – I believe it still runs – passed not far from his home village of Slad.

Lee, of course, famously left it to travel to Spain.

Looking out from the top deck, after some adventures and misadventures of my own, including some time abroad, I felt myself re-connecting with him, his writing, his land. 

Why ever had I forsaken them?


I Can’t Stay Long by Laurie Lee (Penguin)

The Collected Stories of Glyn Jones (University of Wales Press)

A Sort of Life by Graham Greene (Penguin)


Title photo credit: Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

Standard Horla disclaimer: image has no direct connection with text.

Keyhole, a collection of short stories by Matthew G. Rees that leans to the supernatural, is now available from Three Impostors press. (‘Tales shot through with the shudder of the unexpected and magical transformations…’ Jon Gower)

He has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Swansea, Wales. His early career was in journalism. Later he entered teaching, working for a time in Moscow. His fiction has been published by, among others, Belle Ombre, The Lonely Crowd, The Short Story and Oddville Press. He is the editor of Horla.

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