What do you think Betty's really planning?
Betty Widdershins first learned of the family curse on the night of her birthday. It was her thirteenth, a number considered unlucky by some, but Betty was too practical to believe in all that. She liked to think she was too practical to believe in most superstitious nonsense, despite having grown up surrounded by it.
It was a Saturday; always a busy night in Betty’s home, which was the village inn. The Poacher’s Pocket was the rowdiest place on the isle of Crowstone, and had been in the Widdershins family for generations. It now belonged to her granny, also named Betty but whom everyone called Bunny to avoid confusion. They lived there with Betty’s sisters, Felicity (known as Fliss) who was the eldest, and six-year-old Charlotte who would only answer to ‘Charlie’.
Betty’s birthday also happened to fall on Halloween. As she and Charlie galloped downstairs, their trick or treat costumes billowed behind them in a satisfying, villainous way. In fact, the outfit was helping Betty to feel rather daring, which she was glad of, as she and Charlie were about to break Granny’s biggest rule. Only Charlie didn’t know it yet.
As they threw open the door to the lounge bar, warm beer-scented air hit Betty’s nostrils through the holes in her skeleton mask. She picked up Granny’s favourite horseshoe which had clattered to the floor, and placed it back above the doorframe. Charlie did her best witch’s cackle to announce their entrance and swished her cape. Grabbing Granny’s broomstick from the corner she began dancing round the scuffed tables and mismatched chairs, chanting as her eyes sparkled in her painted green face.
‘Trick or treat, trick or treat . . . the marshes are misty and sugar is sweet!’ She twirled and hopped like an imp as the regulars looked on in amusement.
‘Careful, Charlie!’ Betty called, eyeing her sister’s cape near the crackling fires. She had lit them earlier after she and Charlie had carved pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns. She adjusted her long, black cloak and motioned impatiently to Granny, who was wiping down the bar.
‘We’re off now, Granny,’ she said, thankful her face was hidden. She had been planning this evening for weeks, feeling only excitement, but now that it had come to carrying it out she couldn’t quite believe her own disobedience. She hoped her grandmother would put the tremor in her voice down to excitement, and not the nerves that were buzzing inside her like marsh midges.
Granny stamped over. She stamped everywhere instead of walking, slammed doors instead of closing them, and mostly shouted rather than talked.
‘Off out scrounging?’ she said, blowing grey hair out of her face.
‘It’s trick or treating,’ Betty corrected. ‘And everyone does it.’
Granny tutted. ‘I’m well aware of what everyone does, thank you. And it looks like scrounging to me, when you could be useful here.’
‘I’ve been useful all day,’ Betty muttered snippily. Under the hot mask her bushy hair itched against her neck. ‘So much for birthdays.’
Granny snorted. Birthday or not, all the Widdershins had to help run the place, even Charlie.
‘Only go around the green,’ Granny ordered. ‘No further, do you hear? And I want you back by—’
‘Supper time,’ Betty finished. ‘I know.’
‘Well, mind you are – remember what happened last year.’ Granny’s voice softened. ‘There’s birthday cake for later.’
‘Oooh,’ said Charlie, pausing her imp dance at the mention of food.
Betty caught Fliss’s eye as Granny was called away to serve a customer.
‘Are you sure you won’t come with us?’ Betty asked, a note of pleading entering her voice. It had always been such fun, the three of them getting into their Halloween costumes each year. ‘It won’t be the same without you.’
Fliss shook her head, her dark, glossy hair swishing over her shoulders. There was a faint smear of green on her perfect upturned nose, from where she had painted Charlie’s face earlier. ‘I’m too old for all that. Besides, I’m needed here.’
‘Or maybe you don’t want to miss Will Turner coming in?’ Betty joked. ‘Or is it Jack Humble this week? Who’s getting the Fliss kiss? I can’t keep up, Flit.’
Fliss glared. ‘I’ve told you not to call me that!’
Betty rolled her eyes, deciding to keep quiet about the paint on her sister’s nose. Since her birthday, Fliss hadn’t been herself. She was quiet, even moody at times, and clammed up every time Betty asked what was troubling her.
‘Betty?’ Fliss said, glancing warily at Granny. ‘You will stay by the green, won’t you?’
Under her mask, Betty gulped. She crossed her fingers within the folds of her cloak, and fibbed. ‘Yes. We’ll stay by the green.’
Fliss’s expression was unreadable as she gazed past Betty to the window. ‘It’s best you stay close, anyway. It’s looking a bit foggy out there. Taking a ferry over the marshes could be dangerous.’ She turned away to serve as a hoity-toity regular named Queenie rapped on the counter impatiently.
Betty rolled her eyes at her sister’s back. ‘Mustn’t do this, can’t do that,’ she muttered under her breath. What had happened to Fliss since her birthday? True, she was as vain as she’d always been, often staring broodily into an old mermaid mirror Granny had given her, but all her fun had been blown away with the candles on her cake. In fact, she had started sounding exactly like Granny.
Increasingly, Betty felt as though her life at the Poacher’s Pocket was a corset tightening around her, with Granny pulling one string and now Fliss yanking the other, lacing her in so she couldn’t breathe. Tonight, Betty was determined to cut those strings, if only for a little while.
She called to Charlie, who had interrupted a domino game to proudly show off the gap where her front teeth had fallen out. Together, Betty and Charlie headed for the doors, weaving past tables of familiar faces that Betty knew as well as her own.
Icy air snaked round her ankles as she and Charlie squeezed past more customers who were piling inside. Then they were out into the freezing night. But, oh – what a night . . . freedom! Or at least it would be, once they were firmly on the ferry in a few minutes’ time. Betty silently cheered, shivering as much from anticipation as from the cold. She felt a flutter of anxiety, too. Fliss had been right: it was looking a little misty out here. As far as Betty knew (for she had been checking) there was no fog forecast. Yet she also knew the marshes were unpredictable, and that sometimes the forecasts were wrong.
Charlie’s breath came in white puffs as she ran ahead, shaking her empty cauldron, the cold not bothering her. Betty strode after her, her eyes sweeping Nestynook Green. There were a few costumed people going from door to door, and she counted five pumpkins glowing on doorsteps. Most of the houses, however, were in darkness. Many people had no wish to be disturbed by masked strangers – for good reason.
Last year, the Halloween fun had been cut short when the bell of Crowstone had started clanging. It was an alarm, and meant that across the marshes the prison beacons had been lit, signifying danger. Calls of ‘Trick or treat!’ had been replaced with cries of ‘Prisoners on the loose! Everyone inside, lock your doors!’ Betty and her sisters had raced back to the Poacher’s Pocket and sat upstairs, their noses pressed up to Betty’s window. While Fliss nervously chewed her nails and Charlie complained about losing out on sweets, Betty had fizzled with excitement, secretly hoping the prisoners might stay on the run for a few days just to shake Crowstone up a bit. Escapes were rare, and growing up in the prison’s shadow meant they could almost forget how close it was – and how dangerous it might be. The girls had watched and waited, but apart from two prison warders searching with lanterns they saw no one. By breakfast the excitement was over, for they’d heard the felons had been caught on the marshes. Betty had always followed any tales of escape with interest, as she sometimes felt like a prisoner herself. Unfortunately, the story of inmates on the loose had been added to Granny’s collection of excuses which prevented the girls from wandering too far.
Snapping back to the present, Betty glanced back at the Poacher’s Pocket. Fliss had once described it as a knackered old racing pigeon, with its loose tiles and shutters flapping like raggedy feathers. It perched at the edge of Nestynook Green, its weathered bricks a patchwork of the years gone by. Time had nudged it like an elbow, and now the whole building slumped drunkenly to the left. The light from the windows glowed amber, broken by moving figures within and a few hagstones and other lucky charms Granny had strung up. No one was outside, no one suspected.
Good. The possibility of being hauled back by an enraged Granny was both scary and humiliating. Sure, Granny had a foul temper, but it was the consequences Betty feared most. If Granny found out what Betty had planned, she would never let her take Charlie out alone again . . . and any chance of adventure would vanish. The corset laces would tighten, squeezing the life out of her.
Already Charlie had knocked at the first house, chorusing ‘Trick or treat!’ before sweets were popped into her cauldron. She skipped back to Betty, unwrapping a sticky-beak toffee from Hubbards’, the sweet shop. ‘Didn’t you bring anything to put your treats in?’
‘Nah, I’ll just pinch a couple of yours,’ said Betty, poking through the cauldron until she found her favourite: a marshmelt. A plume of powdered sugar wafted off it as she stuffed it into her mouth, crunching through the wafer shell into the whipped centre. She checked the clock on the craggy old church as they neared the lane beside it. Seven minutes. Under the mask, her temples prickled with sweat and her pulse began to race. We can’t get caught, not now . . . not when we’re this close. With another glance back at the inn she took Charlie’s sleeve and urged her towards the lane. ‘This way. I’ve got a surprise for you.’
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