The streets of Witches Crossing were full that day, with banners strung between the houses in the town square and down all the streets. Market stalls stretched up and down the village square, each set up to sell some of the fantastical food the village was famous for. Glistening Moon Queen cakes, covered in bright green icing and topped with a mysterious slime that stuck deliciously to the roof of your mouth like a very tasty worm were heaped on wooden platters. There were flagons of the local brew, Big Bertha’s End, which was named after the original brewer of this magical ale, Bertha, who met a very wet and sticky demise when she displeased the Witchfinder and was drowned in a barrel of her own homebrew. This delicious drink tasted like lemonade and honey and all things sweet and sunny, but left most people asleep on the floor after one too many flagons, and the next day turned them a funny yellow colour. Mrs. Hegarty’s Hangman’s Pie, which came stuffed to the brim with five different and mysteriously chewy meats that hung suspended by tiny little ropes from pretend gallows, were wafting their wonderful smells at anyone who wandered past.
Witches Crossing held many celebrations, despite its damp and miserable weather, usually commemorating the long list of terrible things that had happened to its residents during the Great and Terrible Witch Trials of 1645. When grown ups put unnecessary and ungrammatical capital letters on things, it is generally because something is Very Very Important. The Great and Terrible Witch Trials were exactly that – they were VERY IMPORTANT indeed to the residents of Witches Crossing.
Back before the Witch trials the village had gone by a different name, Wychhaven. In those days the weather had been an endless summer, where swallows dived down past the sun up in the sky to skim above the lake that stretched out from the edge of the village, where flowers danced in the soft and gentle breeze. It had been famous for the supposed magical powers of the people who lived there. People had come from far and wide to seek their services, obtaining potions, poultices and other helpful things – after all hospitals didn’t exist in those days, and neither did doctors or vets. But what some viewed as good aroused the suspicions of others.
For far too long very ignorant and silly people have largely ruled the whole wide world. Gideon Fortescue Manningtree was one of these people, a weasley, angry man who liked to make people miserable. He was the kind of person whose favourite childhood memories were of plucking wings off flies, or pouring salt on slugs, and watching with glee as they disappeared into a frothy mess. He remembered these things far too often and far too fondly, spending whole long nights laughing at the memory. When he was a grown up he did what many men with limited intelligence and lots of mummy and daddy’s money do and became a politician. As a not very bright man he decided that anyone who was strange, or different, or poor or helpless, was most probably a witch. He convinced the Parliament of Old Albion that all magic was evil and all witches should be removed – permanently. As Parliament consisted of a group of little old men, who had probably been bullied by someone like Gideon Manningtree at school, they were all very scared of him and accepted, if only to get rid of him. That day Gideon bought himself a large black hat and pulled it over his rather thin black hair, giving himself the grand title of Witchfinder General, although he wasn’t particularly general-like being a bit weedy, with a permanently runny nose and a hat that kept falling over his watery blue eyes.
The Witchfinder General and his men scoured Old Albion for witches, making them go through ferocious trials to prove they were innocent and leaving villages destroyed in their wake. Finally it was the turn of the tiny village of Wychhaven. The Witchfinder General and his men descended on the village one bright and sunny morning in 1645, setting up camp in the village school. The villagers were scared, and rumour, gossip and accusation ruled that long dark summer as the Witchfinder General’s men patrolled the village waving long pointy sticks so they could find out who was a Witch and who was not.
In the most famous of the trials, of which Gideon Fortescue Manningtree was most proud, a suspected Witch would be rolled through the village, sealed up in a large oak barrel. Villagers would run alongside, hurling abuse and objects at the barrel, whilst secretly thanking any spirits who happened to be listening that this wasn’t happening to them. The barrel was then unceremoniously dropped into a marsh with a loud KERPLOP.
The rules of the trial were that an innocent person would sink, whilst a witch would float. This did not take into consideration those people who were strong swimmers and somehow made it back to land, or those desperate enough to survive that they clawed out the nails sealing the barrel lid with their fingertips as they were sinking. Those who survived and clambered onto land out of the dank marshes with big grins on their faces would not survive for very long, but were promptly tied to a stake and burnt. This was a clear use of magic after all, said the Witchfinder General, for he was a very jealous man who could not swim.
It was this trial which the villagers celebrated in the festival of the Clanging Barrel. The village's children would all climb into barrels that they decorated themselves while being pushed through the streets by their parents. Whoever reached the end of the village first would be the winner and given a year’s supply of Mrs Hegarty’s Hangman pies and Moon Queen cakes. All the while they did this the other villagers would run alongside, banging on the barrels with sticks, their hands or vegetables or whatever they could find to make the experience more authentic.
This was one of the most popular festivals in the village, and it was in the midst of this clanging chaos that the Pendercast twins, Gertrude and Dunstan found themselves, as they kneeled down finishing off the last touches to their barrel in the village square.
“Put stripes down the sides – it makes it faster, “ Gertrude bellowed and hit her brother Dunstan once on top of his head. He screamed back, “NO” and hit her back exactly the same way.
The twins spent their lives this way, hollering at one another and hitting out to reinforce the point. When Gertrude or Dunstan spoke, a left-jab or an uppercut was the same as a full stop or a comma would be to you or me. Violence was a kind of grammar to them, and they were very heavily punctuated in everything they did.
Dunstan finished off sticking on the skull and crossbones he had cut from the pages of a magazine onto the front of the barrel, his tongue sticking out of his mouth as he concentrated hard on what he was doing.
“No Gertrude – we agreed that the theme was going to be Pirates. Go faster stripes would not work,” he shouted back and slapped her face once more. This was their first time in the competition having moved to the village six months before.
The Pendercast twins were as different looking as a cat and a pipe cleaner. And that is almost what they looked like. Gertrude was extremely small and extremely pretty with hair so light it was nearly the same colour as her skin. Like a cat she seemed to curl around corners and drift through rooms. Her brother Dunstan had none of this elegance - he was all lanky limbs, and swarthy skin and a body that sat at difficult angles, stumbling and shuffling and falling over as he chased his sister from place to place.
On the day the twins were due, Mother Pendercast was taken to hospital, as all nearly-there mothers are, and the nice nurse put on some relaxing music. Mother and Father Pendercast waited for the beautiful moment their blessings would arrive. As the moment got closer and closer, and the babies had nearly popped out of Mother Pendercast’s tummy, a confused rumble spread through the delivery room. Doctors shouted at one another, and nurses jumped up and down, each one peering at what was coming out of Mother Pendercast’s tummy, then pulling back fast, amazed and not a little frightened:
“It’s a boy”, said a doctor.
“No, no, no. It’s a girl,” said a nurse.
“No you sillies, it’s a boy,” said another.
Then they all realised it was both and neither, and not one child but two, and then they saw what those two children were doing. Someone said then, though no-one could remember who:
“They’re – they’re fighting.”
When the Pendercast twins, born at exactly the same second, emerged they were, in fact, fighting. Each clung on to the other in fierce determination, little baby Gertrude’s hand around the throat of her brother Dunstan, and Dunstan’s finger pushed knuckle deep into his sister’s nose. If you looked at the first photograph of Father Pendercast holding the twins, and saw the look of anxiety and surprise on Mother Pendercast’s face, then you would understand that the twins were glaring at each other, their little fists clenched tightly into balls, waiting to strike. Their punching, kicking, biting and gouging continued to shock their mother from the first day to this - from before their first day in fact, as she had known about it secretly since they were both inside her tummy, wrestling each other for the right to come out first.
Gertrude stared with distaste at her brother, raising her fist as if to punch him, but instead clambered into the barrel. Dunstan followed not far behind her. For Gertrude and Dunstan this was a very important moment. They had planned the design of the barrel carefully and their exhausted parents, who were writers of extremely long and boring books, for once ignored the sounds of fighting from the playroom as the children wrestled each other for the glue or the scissors, or hit each other around the head with their tennis rackets as they argued about the finer points of barrel design.
“They are doing something positive,” said Mother Pendercast to Father Pendercast, amazed, and they both sat back in their chairs and fell fast asleep, snoring loudly, whilst the barrel-decorating progressed.
As Gertrude and Dunstan sat inside their barrel, squished up next to one another, they held hands, sweaty with excitement.
“Darlings, are you ok?” their parents asked.
“Yes mother, yes father,” they shouted back dismissively, both hollering at exactly the same time. Holding each other tight, at peace for once, the Pendercast twins waited, excited to begin.
The starter bashed the big bronze gong that rusted slowly in the middle of the town square to start off the race. Gertrude and Dunstan heard it over the torrential rain beating down upon their barrel, and they both began to squeal. After all the waiting, all the fighting and all the gluing and sticking, finally it was beginning! Suddenly they were moving, spinning round and round and round.
Gertrude’s tiny body, and Dunstan’s long and gangly limbs, banged into one another, noses poking into eyes, foreheads cracking onto foreheads and knobbly knees knocking. They had never been this happy before! Bump, bump, bump, they went through the cobbled streets of Witches Crossing, the sound of running feet bouncing back and forth around the barrel’s walls. When one of the locals managed to hit the barrel, or they ran over a sleeping dog, it was like a fireworks show was taking place right beside the Pendercast twins’ heads, and they both squealed with excitement again.
This rolling went on a remarkably long time, and seconds stretched into minutes with the rolling going faster, faster and faster still. Gertrude’s teeth were bashing in her mouth so loudly that Dunstan could not understand her when she shouted out, “what’s going on?” not one inch away from his ear. “Where are we?” her brother asked, and likewise Gertrude could not understand a thing. The barrel was loose, rolling free through the streets of Witches Crossing, following a terrible logic of its own, and Gertrude and Dunstan Pendercast would bounce and roll inside it wherever it would go.