I have a confession. I have a witchy past (despite my parent’s best efforts with the Order of the Cross). Ok, so it was only skirting around the shadows of witchcraft, playing Abigail in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, and a few spells in the chicken house with girlfriends, but boy did I relish the part. Having had my first 14 years imposed on by that repressive religion gave me a particular enthusiasm for the part. At one point, Abigail (with a bunch of her teenage friends), is accused of dancing with the devil in the woods, supposedly encouraged by Tituba the slave. (No ill-disguised racism there eh?) It is a moment of high tension in the play. For many seconds there is silence. Then Abigail lets rip with a liver-curdling scream, pretending to be in a trance seeing birds in the rafters. I gave it my all, slicing the silence with that ear splitting pitch only young girls can achieve. It was rather successful, startling the audience, and particularly my parents, and indirectly making my life take on a different course.
One of the parents in the audience was John Mortimer, the playwright. I was in the same dorm at his daughter Sally at Frensham Heights boarding school. She had been very helpful impersonating me sleeping soundly in my bed, only the top of her head showing, while I sneaked out to meet my boyfriend Chezzy in the woods. (We’d speed across the Hog’s Back to Guildford on his Lambretta to watch Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds at the RickyTick club.) After the play Sally’s Dad came to congratulate me and said to my parents “she must go on the stage”. Not ‘should’ you note. Previously my parents put their feet down on any theatrical ambitions of mine. “You’ll have to sleep with the directors” argued my mother. ‘So?’ I thought. But John Mortimer? He was God. He was Rumpole of the Bailey.
It was tantalizing knowing Salem was only about half an hour away from Nick and Jane’s in Marblehead. I dropped lots of hints about going there, but Jane kept insisting there really was nothing to do there. The witch museum was rubbish, and the only other point of interest there was the House of Seven Gables. She could give me a lift, she works there, but what would I do with the rest of the day? Still I couldn’t let go of the idea.
You would not believe how complicated it is to arrange public transport to Salem from Marblehead. Wasn’t this a tourist area, even if the native’s didn’t want to bus it? I considered walking, but that’s not possible in America the way it is here in the UK.
I remember once suggesting to my ex that I walk from his father’s house in Woodside north to San Francisco.
“You want to WALK? WALK to San Francisco?”
“Sure, why not? It’s only 30 miles.”
“You can’t. There’s no trail. You’d have to walk on the highway.”
I was pretty unnerved by their 12 lane highways when I first
saw them and this argument figured with me. I was always amazed that car hire firms would hand over the keys to a 13 hour jet-lagged Brit, and say ‘have a nice day mam’. No, in America land is property. It’s not like here where you can wander almost freely on footpaths, which are all over the place, and the owners have to put up with it. They might plough up a few paths to deter you, but most people, should you get lost and wander on to their property, just point you back in the right direction. It’s not like you’d get shot.
Nick and I had a walk around Redd’s pond that evening.
Wilmot Redd, or ‘Mammy Redd’ as she came to be known, was, as far as I can tell, a ‘crabbit old woman’. She had lived in a small house on the South East corner of the pond in Marblehead in the 1600s. Her husband, Samuel Redd, was a fisherman. She put the local women’s back up, it seems, just by being a bit cranky. Her fate was sealed when she was accused during the Salem Witch Trials of “detestible acts called Witchcraft and Sorceries, wickedly, mallitiously and ffelloniously (sic) used, practised and exercised at the towne of Salem”. So far, so Daily Mail. She denied it, but was sentenced to be “hung by the neck until she is dead”. On the 22nd September 1692 she and seven other women were hung on Gallows Hill, Salem.
Nick must have noticed my disappointment, because next day we went to Salem. As we passed the witchcraft museum, Nick and Jane repeated “It’s crap, you really don’t want to go there.” But I was delighted to see this sign on the grass nearby:
How wonderful that they are educating witches in Salem. I wonder what the Tea Party thinks about that?
We went instead to the House of Seven Gables. This is a pretty interesting house, I suspect. ‘I suspect’ because we met the worst guide ever there. Maybe it was her first day?
“Was William Hathorn (the original owner of the house) married?”
“Good question. Ha. Yes, that’s a really good question. I really don’t know. Probably.”
Downstairs there was a table full of fascinating old things from the colonial period – probably.
“Would that be a wax candle maker?” I asked.
“Wow. I never really noticed that before. Good question, no-one’s ever asked that question before.”
Her other tactic, other than praising our questions, but not actually answering them, was “I’m going to answer that question in the next room”. Needless to say, she never did. Or she’d say “I know, it’s confusing”. Spot on there.
We shuffled out none the wiser. It was a nice house. Lovely garden. If you have time to spare in Salem I’d recommend a visit, but if I were you I’d mug up on the history before you go. Apparently the book The House of Seven Gables written by Nathaniel Hawthorne (b. July 4th 1804), a relative of the first owner who fictionalised those times, is very informative, and groundbreaking. Nathaniel added a ‘W’ to his name to distinguish himself from Colonel John Hathorne, another rellie. John Hathorne was a JP who who presided over the Salem Witch Trials. Despite being one of the first pilgrims, who had escaped religious persecution, he had a thing about Quakers. He used to regularly beat them up, or rather, have them beaten up. No wonder Nathaniel wanted that ‘W’.
The rest of the afternoon we spent at a pumpkin and farm with extensive apple orchards, a classic Halloween thing to do. The apples were big and crisp and even. Perfect for display – but flavour-wise give me a good old English Coxes Orange Pippin.
The journey home was not uneventful. First we passed Essex Radio Station, obviously a happening place with its finger on the pulse, and then, to my absolute delight, we saw a turkey strolling about, without so much as a by-your-leave, on someone’s front lawn. It’s hard to convey the size of the thing from the picture, but I would say it might intimidate a labrador. I hope it knows where to hide in December.