I put a spell on you

John Burnside

In the spring of 1958, my family moved from a rat-haunted tenement on King Street to one of the last remaining prefabs in Cowdenbeath. It was a move up, in most ways; the prefabs had been built as temporary wartime accommodation but, to my child’s mind at least, the cold and the damp, the putty-tainted pools of condensation on winter mornings and the airless heat of August afternoons were minor concerns compared with the pleasure of living on our own garden plot, in what was, essentially, a detached house, just yards from a stand of high beech trees where tawny owls hunted through the night, their to-and-fro cries so close it seemed they were right there with us, in the tiny bedroom I shared with my sister, Margaret. Just beyond that stand of trees was Kirk’s chicken farm, where the birds ran free in wide pens and Mr Kirk, who lived in an old stone house that I took for a mansion, walked back and forth all day, distributing the feed, collecting the eggs and mucking out the henhouses. Later, when I was old enough, he would let me walk with him, and I took great pride in keeping pace with a grown man as he went about his business, peering into the incubators and manhandling heavy buckets of grain from here to there while he watched, with a soft, contained amusement. On the other side of the house, towards what I liked to think of as open country, the fields ran away to the strip woods, in one direction, and the grey, leechy waters of Loch Fitty, in the other, and I wandered out there whenever I could, imagining myself a child of the countryside, like the boys in picture books, or one of the chums from the Rupert annuals my Auntie Sall gave me every year for Christmas.

I was only three when we moved to Blackburn Drive but it wasn’t long before I grasped that we were ‘coming up’ in the world. By the time I was seven, we had a television set and on Sundays, even though it was school the next day, Margaret and I would occasionally be allowed to sit up, eating ice cream from Katy’s van and watching Sunday Night at the London Palladium. I don’t know why I ever thought of this as a treat: the show wasn’t very interesting to a seven-year-old and, though they sometimes had pop stars on the bill, it was mostly dancers and novelty acts. Soon my loyalties switched to Juke Box Jury, where you could hear the latest releases and the panellists were slender and nice-looking, with beehive hairdos and Mod dresses, like my cousin Madeleine. They weren’t as beautiful, though, and when Madeleine came round to our house, as she sometimes did on a Saturday, I would sit for hours at the kitchen table while she and my mother chatted, fascinated by her long, slim fingers and the cherry red or powder blue varnish on her nails. Every time she came, she looked different – new nails, new hair, a new dress – but she was always Madeleine. The very first time we met, at another cousin’s wedding, I had fallen in love with her – and I’ve been in love with her ever since, in various guises. She was ten years older than me and engaged to a merchant seaman called Jackie, but she was the one who made me see that the lyrics of all the love songs I’d heard on Juke Box Jury, or on my mother’s radio, actually meant something. I’d thought they were just words, snippets of gibberish and hyperbole that nobody could possibly take seriously, but now I knew different because, now, I was in love, and love felt very odd to me, like hearing the first few lines of a story I would never read to the end, because the end belonged to somebody else.

Even I knew I was suffering from a crush and, besides, there was so much to love back then, in the easy, boyish way that I suspect most men wish would last for ever. At nine, I loved almost everything, more or less unconditionally. The hushed theatre of the year’s first snow. Teeming thaw water in the ditches and gutters. The arc of a well-thrown ball through the summer air. That faraway look in Judy Garland’s eyes when the dull storyline pauses and she opens her mouth to sing. Kyries and the black vestments on Good Friday. The blur of the host on my tongue and the taunts of the high-school girls as I walked home along Stenhouse Street and up through the woods by Kirk’s farm. Most of all, I loved the older sisters of my schoolfriends; still slender girls turning into women more or less beautiful and undamaged, for now, by wedlock, they were wonderful, free creatures with money in their purses and sweet, lipsticky smiles for the soppy kid who crossed their paths from time to time. All these things made me happy, and it didn’t bother me that such happiness was an affair of the moment. A few minutes, an hour, a September afternoon in the park: the moments came, and then they were gone, so they remained mysterious and uncontaminated – a gift rather than a burden.

Then, one Saturday afternoon, just after Madeleine and Jackie got married, my mother took me to visit them in their new flat, and Madeleine played us a record she had just bought. It was ‘I Put a Spell on You’ by Nina Simone, and in the space of two and a half minutes I reached the conclusion that this was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. Everybody stopped talking to listen and, when it was over, we all sat round the table, dumbstruck, until Jackie put it on again. Never having heard the song before, I thought Simone’s was the original version and this magical, if slightly sad, afternoon stayed at the back of my mind for years, with the snapshots of my mother and Madeleine in Pittencrieff Park, and the sound of Janice Nicholls on Thank Your Lucky Stars saying, ‘I’ll give it foive,’ strands in the fabric of myself that remained more or less hidden, but were there all the same, like the creatures in a 1950s horror film, asleep for now in the Black Lagoon, but ready to be reawakened by the smallest shift in the weather or the tide.

I must have heard that song, in several versions, over the next decade or so, but I forgot it, more or less, till a girl called Annie leaned over the back of her seat and sang it to me, one Saturday afternoon in the Charolais café in Corby, her breath smelling of Bacardi and instant coffee, her painted smile just inches from my face:

I put a spell on you,
because you’re mi-i-i-ne,
You better stop the things you do-o,
I ain’t ly-ing …

I was startled by this. I didn’t know Annie that well, though I’d often noticed her when she came in, because she was always laughing, always making desperate, slightly hysterical fun of everyone around her, especially herself: a careless, naive, somewhat fearful girl of 19, clinging blindly to the sense she had acquired somewhere that, if you didn’t take anything too seriously, there would never be anything to worry about.

So I had noticed her, but I’d never paid her any obvious attention and I wasn’t attracted to her, which was always the dividing line, back then, between the girls you bothered with and the ones who blurred into the wallpaper. I did know one of the gang she went around with, a very thin blonde with smudgy blue eyes called Charlotte, and that day, I was aware of her, just off to one side, watching the performance with the rest of the café, while Annie carried on singing and I sat frozen, mesmerised by the proximity and the publicness of it all. I’d actually gone out with Charlotte a couple of times, but after a drunken night in Coronation Park, it had all come to nothing and, when she started turning up at the Charolais on Saturday afternoons, it was a relief when she decided to pretend we’d never met. Now, though, she fixed me with a grim, oddly vengeful stare and waited to see what would happen next.

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