Left to himself, Alex might have ended his foray into witchcraft there and then, but family circumstances forced him into contact with his grandmother almost daily and before long he found himself becoming interested and then totally absorbed in the secret teachings.
A quick learner-he had been able to read at the age of three-he was never fully extended by his school work and had no difficulty maintaining his place at the top of the class.
After school, when he had finished peeling potatoes and running errands for his mother, he would ask to go to Grans for his lessons in Welsh. Hannah was sadly out of practice herself and was glad that her son was so keen to speak a second language.
Alex did in fact have Welsh lessons-but only for half an hour.
After that, the witch regalia was brought out and the boy was taught the meaning of each item.
The runic symbols dating back thousands of years when prophets cast sticks into the air and, from the pattern they made in landing, foretold the future.
the inscriptions on the witches’ dagger-the kneeling man, the kneeling woman, the bare breasts touching, the arrow speeding through the wheel of life down into the pointed blade, ready to strike at its owner’s bidding.
The miniature whip, a harmless substitute for the earlier weapon with which members were scourged, sometimes to the point of death.
and the glistening crystal, which fascinated him most of all.
He learned by heart the meaningless chants in a long-dead language, and at the end of the lesson, he would take a small brass bowl of water and darken it with ink.
He squatted on the floor by the light of the fire, the bowl before him.
At first, he could see only the flickering reflection of the coals, but Gran urged him to have patience. ‘It. will come,’ she said confidently.
And it did.
One day, long after he had given up hope of ever seeing anything, the reflections seemed to mist over.
When they cleared, his mother was looking up at him from the ink.
She was lying on a bed, and beside her leg, splashed with blood, was a newborn baby, its umbilical cord uncut.
Three months later Hannah Sanders gave birth to her fourth child, Patricia.
Visions did not always confine themselves to the bowl.
Alex was playing in the schoolyard one day when another boy suddenly appeared to him to have a double image, as out of focus, and the fainter image revealed the boy’s left leg in plaster.
‘You’re going to break your leg,’ Alex exclaimed.
The boy, who was bigger than Alex, didn’t take kindly to this and promptly thumped him.
Several weeks later he fell off a swing-s-and broke his left leg.
After that Alex was careful to hold his tongue when his friends appeared in his visions.
Once, for instance, a ‘picture’ appeared in his mind of a schoolmate’s mother being taken to hospital in an ambulance, but there was little he could do to warn her.
Not long after she had to have an appendix operation.
On another occasion, he saw a White-haired man whom he had never met.
Weeks later he and two friends, Alan and David, raided a local soft-drinks factory.
They climbed up a back wall, crawled across a steeply pitched roof and dropped into the inner yard where the crates were piled ready for delivery.
The three boys each grabbed a bottle and made it off the way they had come.
Once in the street, David told Alex to go back and fetch another bottle.
But Alex was less careful this time.
He missed his footing on the roof and crashed through a glass skylight, gashing his leg.
With difficulty, he got back onto the roof and as far as the top of the wall but then he began to feel faint.
Two young men were passing and Alex called to them for help.
That was all he remembered until he woke up to find the white-haired man of his vision bending over him.
He was a. doctor and he was stitching the cut.
Alex’s ‘growing belief in witchcraft, reinforced by ‘each experience of clairvoyance, did not conflict with his regular attendance at Sunday School.
His gran had explained that there was only one God but that he was known by many names.
It was easy, too, to accept that the Virgin Mary was the moon goddess in disguise.
Alex’s childhood heroes took on new aspects when Gran re-told their stories.
There was Robin Hood, previously just the leader of the merry men, but now revealed in his real role as a witch who used his powers to direct money where it was most needed, and to escape his pursuers.
There was also Joan of Arc, who was really the Witch Queen of France and unashamedly declared it by her dress in an age when witches were the only females who would wear men’s clothing.
The terror Alex had felt when he first heard of her death in the flames was allayed when he learned that condemned witches were usually helped by their companions at liberty.
If drugs like dwale or foxglove could not be smuggled into the gaol, then witches in the crowd around the pyre would use their powers to hypnotize the victim and deaden her pain when the flames reached her.
Love potions, good-luck charms-s-Gran’s remedies were all absorbed by the enchanted child.
He hardly ever saw a blade of grass in his world of concrete, but he learned how to recognize wild thyme, rosemary, and pimpernel from the book in which his grandmother had pressed leaves, ferns and flowers during. her youth in the foothills of Snowdon.
As a girl, she had belonged to a coven of four witches who were ardent chapel-goers-in Bethesda anyone who missed a service without good reason was ostracized by the other residents.
At night the coven used to climb part-way up the mountain to a small lake reputed to have belonged to witches since the Middle Ages.
Stepping-stones led to the small island in the center which was the circle where they performed their rituals, and in the inky black waters they studied the moon’s reflections and conjured up the future.
When he was nine, Alex was allowed to take part in his first full-moon ceremony.
Gran had no difficulty in persuading his mother to part with him for the night, for she was delighted with the progress he had made in Welsh and grateful to her mother for having taught him.
As the moon rose, Gran opened the kitchen curtains and let its light flood the kitchen.
She had banked up the fire with small coal to deaden its glow and now she led Alex into the center of the circle.
The air was heavy with incense burning in four bowls placed at intervals around the perimeter.
She handed him his own athame and told him she was going to consecrate it.
The boy had to lie flat on his back, the dagger on his bare chest, then she lowered herself onto him, muttering incantations he had never heard before.
He felt peculiar, his bare body pressed close to hers, but she was deadly serious and already he firmly believed in her magic.
When they rose, she led him outside into the yard where she told him to raise his athame to the moon and repeat the words of the ritual.
It was his first ‘calling down the moon’ ceremony.
Although magic, witchcraft and the ever-increasing affinity he formed with his grandmother filled most of his childhood, Alex was usually able to lead an entirely separate life at home.
He was very close to his sister Joan, two years his junior, but though he often longed to tell her his secrets, there was scarcely ever the time or privacy required.
At one stage he was getting up at five o’clock every other morning to take a pillowcase to the local bakery where a new bread-slicing machine was having teething troubles.
The first half-dozen loaves of the day were deformed and Alex could buy them for threepence.
Boyish rivalry sometimes stretched the promises he had made to his grandmother.
When a classmate boasted of a Spanish rapier his father had bought, Alex could not resist mentioning his grandmother’s swords.
‘Go on, you’re a liar!’ jeered his classmate.
Alex was too small and thin to fight, so he marched his friend to Gran’s house, told him to keep quiet, and led him into the empty kitchen.
He knew how to operate the double-lock on the chest.
As he was turning the key, Gran came in. She had been in the front room and had seen them coming up the street.
She fetched him a clout across his head that made his ears ring
‘You’re never to bring boys in here again, do you hear?’
Alex nodded silently, and when his companion had gone, Gran made him promise never to open the chest again without her permission.
Alex did not forget, but not long afterward his school was performing a play and one of the props needed was a ceremonial sword.
Alex immediately told the master in charge, who was his favorite, that he had just the thing.
‘It’s gold and it has huge rubies in it, I’ll bring it in,’ he volunteered.
Gran was horrified and told him that he certainly could not borrow it.
Even though it was only gilded and the ‘rubies’ were colored glass, it was a consecrated piece of regalia and not to be handled by non-witches.
Chastened, Alex went to school the next day and explained the matter to the master.
‘I’m a witch, you see, and nonwitches aren’t allowed to use such weapons.’
The master threw back his head and roared with laughter and Alex could never really like him again.
Now that he had an athame of his own he began to take part in the rituals within the circle which Gran performed to cure the sickness of neighbors who had petitioned her.
Then he embarked on the next step of his training.
He started to make his own copy of The Book of Shadows, the witchcraft manual containing basic chants, recipes and instructions for various magic rites.
Almost unaltered over the years, the book. had been copied by every witch in his or her own handwriting so that if arrested in the era of persecution, one could not implicate another.
Carefully Alex copied every word of his grandmother’s tattered volume into an exercise book, and promised her that when she died he would destroy her copy and keep only his own.
This was a major development in Alex’s training as a witch, and with it came new powers.
Instead of gazing into a bowl of ink, he was now allowed to use his grandmother’s crystal.
Don’t clutch it-you’ll mist it over,’ she scolded, the first time he tried.
‘Sit in a relaxed position and half-close your eyes.
Now, tell me what you see.’
Alex gazed in shock and amazement.
There were aeroplanes falling out of the sky and crashing into houses.
The side wall of one house had been tom away, exposing a cross-section of tilting floors.
Flames were licking at buildings; people with terror-stricken faces were running wildly through the streets, carrying their screaming children.
Five years later, in 1940, he would gaze again at the identical scene.
He now had his own witch-name, Verbius, and he called his grandmother by hers, Medea.
Sometimes he used it when his brother and sisters were there and he had to pretend it was a nickname.
He reveled in Gran’s favoritism; he loved his mother, even his father, but Gran was someone very special.
‘What would have happened,’ he once asked her, ‘if I had not interrupted your ritual that day? Would you have let me go on as anon-witch?’
She did not know; for her, Alex’s unscheduled appearance that day had been the work of fate.
None of her own three daughters had ever discovered her secret; even her own mother had not known, although she herself had been a witch’s daughter.
Gran was certainly proud of her pupil, for he had mastered the rituals, he knew how to draw the magic circle, how to call down the power to work for him, how to conjure up spirit children he could play with.
Gran understood all this of old and smiled indulgently, but she impressed him with the need for utter integrity.
She warned him that if he abused the power, used it for selfish ends, to the harm of others, it would destroy him.
For Alex at this point, it was all somewhat exasperating. He dreamed of riches, even of gaining a few extra inches: to make him as big as other boys his age.
His rapidly developing gift of clairvoyance was not always welcome.
Hours before his mother and father had a. quarrel he would hear the words. they were going to use against each other.
Near to tears, he would bury his head in the pillow and wait impatiently, the sooner the quarrel began, the sooner it would be over.
His grandmother wasted no sympathy on him and told him to think of the good he could do.
Without letting her neighbors know she was a witch, she worked to cure their ailments, both physical and mental.
‘If I can help others, why can’t I help myself?’ Alex once asked her.
He was referred to his Book of Shadows and told to attend to the basic rules-ask, never command, be grateful for what you get even though it is not exactly what you want.
Now as it happened, Alex for once knew exactly what he wanted.
He worked out a series of incantations and dreamed of a pair of magnificent brown boots.
Three days later, on his way to school, he saw a splendid second-hand bicycle on sale for fifteen shillings.
However, he didn’t have one shilling, let alone fifteen, and his mother, who regarded debt as only one step removed from theft, refused to try to borrow the money.
The next day he was told of a newsagent looking for a delivery boy.
Alex got his mother’s permission to proposition him: he, the employer, should buy the bicycle and for the next thirty weeks keep sixpence out of Alex’s one-and sixpence-a-week wage to pay for it.
Alex would save up his remaining pay for the brown boots.
Sure enough, before three weeks were out, he saw in a pawnbroker’s shop the very boots he had dreamed of-priced at three shillings!
A by-product of his new job was that it absolved him from the punishment meted out by his father, who was fond of making an errant child stand upright at the table for two or three hours at a time.
The offense might be as small as making noise while Father was listening to a symphony concert on the radio.
Now that Alex was a wage-earner, his mother demanded that he be spared such treatment.
When Alex was eleven he won a scholarship to William Hulmes Grammar School, but it never crossed his mind to use magic to make his parents accept the award.
Already there was a fifth child in the family and much as Alex longed to be a doctor, taking up a place at grammar school was out of the question, even for a witch.
His father was now working in a floor-tile business, but they had had to leave the house in Chorlton and were renting a large old house in Old Trafford, No. 23 Virgil Street.
Times were hard. Alex himself was going through a bleak period-all his visions spoke of sorrow and loneliness, there was no one he could turn to.
When he asked his grandmother to interpret them she refused.
It was his future; no one else could read it for him.