Nina Milton, author of the Shaman Mystery Series, welcomes book lovers to the Kitchen Table Writers.
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My father was a Victorian, born before the century moved from 19th to 20th, but he had modish ideas about playtime. When I was quite small…five, six, seven…and my mother wanted a day out shopping in town, I’d stay with Dad and we’d play together. He was in his fifties and already retired when I was born, so he was always there, in the house, a ready-made nanny when my mother needed a break.
If it was sunny, we’d go for a steady walk together, maybe to the local farm, where we could see the animals and pick up eggs, but I didn’t enjoy that. Dad was not a well man. He’d stop all the time, resting on walls while his breathing steadied and his colour returned. And I was shy of the farmer’s wife because I knew Dad had told her a lie on our first visit. She’d looked down at me, kicking my sandals against the doorstep, and asked him if this was his granddaughter.
“Yes,” he’d said.
Now, as a grown-up, I understand that little fib. We’ve all told them, when the truth is just way to complicated to go into with a stranger. He could have said, “This is my daughter by my second marriage. I have a son in Australia, a married daughter with children of her own and I lost my eldest son in the war,” but of course, he wasn’t going to go into all that. Even so, the little fib rubbed on my young conscience and on my guilty distaste of having such elderly parents, whom I loved, but wanted to hide away from my friends.
So it was when it rained, that I enjoyed our times together best. I much preferred to stay in the house and play at Shakespeare.
Print by Charles Sherwin (1764-1794) after an original work by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825).
Shakespeare was my favourite game to play with my father, and of all the versions, the Three Witches of Macbeth
was the best of all.
Firstly we’d have to find the props. I’d rush round the house and garden, collecting a cauldron (usually Mum’s old enamelled washtub), plus evil things to throw into it. Building the fire was the most challenging, but usually I sneaked into my parent’s bedroom, because there would be soft silky things in scarlet. Once we had the fire lit in the middle of the dining room, with criss-crossed sticks from the real pile of kindling and the soft silks peeking out between, the cauldron was balanced on top. Then we dressed ourselves up, draping counterpanes and old curtains round our shoulders and making pointed hats from newspapers or cereal boxes. Dad would start the game, reading from a copy of the complete works that long ago had fallen into disrepair.
“Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d!” He used a cracked, high-pitched voice which instantly hit me in the stomach, dispatching me into a dark wood, to the mouth of an even darker cavern. When it was my go, he mouthed my words at me (we only had one copy) – “Tis time, 'tis time!” I screeched back, and we circled the fire, me skipping, him taking his usual steady pace.
“Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw…”
I had all the entrails in one of Mum’s forgotten shopping baskets and we took turns to throw them in, choosing items which at least vaguely resembled the original.
“Toad, that under cold stone…swelter’d venom sleeping got. Fillet of a fenny snake, Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting, Lizard's leg and owlet's wing…”
And then, my favourite bit, which we’d cackle out together.
“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
When we ran out of things to throw in the pot, and I’d have to scamper off again, searching anew for something that, with a bit of imagination (and we both had plenty of that), could represent the next batch of magical ingredients.
Scale of dragon…waxy laurel leaves usual did the trick. Tooth of wolf…a sliver off a tallow candle. Witches’ mummy…an unfortunate rag doll. Maw and gulf of the ravin'd salt-sea shark…frankly, if there had been fish in the fridge, we’d’ve commandeered it, but mostly we managed with a cut-out fishy shape. Root of hemlock was nice and easy, a weed pulled from the flowerbed (least, we hoped it was a weed), and slips of yew even easier as we had a hedge full of it. In fact, not much stumped us, certainly not nose of Turk and Tartar's lips – I had saved a set of grotesque plastic lips and false nose from a cracker, just for this purpose. Even finger of birth-strangled babe, however macabre that was, however much I shivered at the thought of it, was easily got – there was always an old wine cork in the pantry somewhere. But liver of blaspheming Jew…that was tricky. For a start, I wasn’t sure what a blaspheming Jew was, and Dad never precisely explained, and liver, which I utterly hated the taste of, was not something I fancied handling. Dad usually dealt with this by throwing in the soft, round red cushion that he used for the back of his neck. Once all of these were in, we’d set off again.
“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
Then Hecate would appear. Dad would swap his witch’s hat for one of my mother’s best ones, further raising his voice so that it trilled out. “And now about the cauldron sing, live elves and fairies in a ring, enchanting all that you put in.”
This was my cue; the best line in the entire game. “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes. Open, locks, Whoever knocks!”
Dad would throw off Mum’s good hat and put on his trilby, transforming into Macbeth.
This game could happily take an entire rainy afternoon, but, despite the deep love for Shakespeare it gave me, what I recall most about it are not the words – powerful and iconic though they are – I had no idea that this stuff had been loved and studied across the world for almost five hundred years. My happiest memories are searching for the cauldron’s ingredients, scabbling in the cupboard under the stairs, at the backs of kitchen drawers and in my mother’s wardrobe, where odd-looking items like corn pads could always be uncovered. Playing The Three Witches of Macbeth grounded me in my own home in a way the other Shakespeare games couldn’t do. Hamlet only required bedsheets (even so, the ghost frightened me to the core), and Romeo and Juliet, although needing pretty things for me to dress up in, was a bit long-winded, in my view, and Dad never attempted climbing to the balcony, he merely took the stairs to where I stood on the upper landing. R&J was generally a bit of a let-down compared to The Witches.
Naturally, my mother never knew about the game of Shakespeare; she was always out when we played it and the entire thing was rapidly cleared away before she returned – silken petticoats (probably snagged) back upstairs, the washtub stored outside, and the pointed hats smoothed down, ready to screw up for the fire.
I would love to be able to thank my father for his introduction to the Game of Shakespeare, but I’m sure he was well aware of the long-term results. And anyway, he loved our secret afternoons together just as much as I did. They remained our secret, until I shared them with my own children.
The original Complete Shakespeare, in tiny print on wafter-thin paper, had fallen apart long before my kids were
old enough to dress up and dance around cauldrons, so I bought a three volume edition, embossed in a dust-proof slipcase, which I’ll still get out and read, before a trip to the theatre.
My father died shortly after my eleventh birthday, and he never had the opportunity to take me to a Shakespeare play, but when I did finally see one – which was not until I took my English Lit exams – I instantly fell in love with them. I cannot, to this day, hear the words, “round and round the cauldron go,” without being winged back to that old house, the rain drizzling down the windows, the smell of the drawers by my mother’s bedside, and me and my dad playing at witches.