The day was quiet, with not much happening after gym practice was cancelled because one of the grown-ups was sick. Nelly decided to visit the Wizard’s house again.
The Wizard lived close to the edge of town, at the top of a small hill, but even though you were nearly out of breath when you got there, there wasn’t a nice view to look at. The windows of the house only faced the neighbours’ back yards and some stumpy old trees, and on the other side of the road some dusty cars that had been parked forever in front of a chain link fence.
The house itself was an old wreck of a place that was in a style that Nelly’s father called a Queenslander. It was made of wood and all the rooms were up the stairs. The wood hadn’t been painted in a long time and there was an old boat lying upturned on the front yard with grass growing between the planks. The house wasn’t pretty, but at least it was close enough that Nelly was allowed to go there on her own.
Nelly liked to go there only because the Wizard was interesting, sometimes. She rang the doorbell and the Wizard came to the door in her wizard’s robe that she sometimes called a housecoat, even though it was already late morning and already hot. The Wizard seemed pleased to see Nelly; and invited her in.
Wizard Charlotte McConaghy lived alone, with a cat called Professor Hizzenspit and a dog named Plug. On a previous visit, Nelly had asked the Wizard how a cat could be a professor and had he once been a person? Mrs McConaghy said that it was possible, but she didn’t remember. Anyway what was certain was that these days Professor Hizzenspit preferred to remain a cat.
Another question that Nelly had asked the Wizard was, how could she be a wizard when she was a lady? Surely wizards were men and lady wizards were witches? Mrs McConaghy only answered that magic was magic; and if everyone wanted to keep believing that wizards were wise and witches were wicked, then she was going to go on being a wizard.
The Wizard made tea for them both. It was served in dainty, patterned cups that you could almost see through, with matching little plates that Mrs McConaghy called saucers; that seemed pointless, but nice. The Wizard’s tea smelled different to the tea at home, more like perfume; and there was never any milk in it.
The Wizard told Nelly that milk was for babies and no other species but humans drank milk once they were grown up. One of the reasons that Nelly enjoyed her conversations with Mrs McConaghy was that she had very definite opinions about everything and she talked to Nelly just as if she was speaking to another grown-up (it didn’t matter if there were some things that Nelly wasn’t sure she quite understood). But here Nelly thought that the Wizard had made a mistake and she asked if the same rule should apply to cheese (which she knew that the Wizard liked very much). Mrs McConaghy only said that cheese tasted very good; and then she changed the subject by pouring some tea into her saucer and setting it on the floor for Plug to drink.
Maybe the Professor had once been something other than a cat, but Plug had always been a most doggy dog. He was small, but strong, with a neat, short-haired coat and a black face that looked like it had been squashed flat. Somehow his whole shape was not quite right. the Wizard told Nelly that he had started off as a French bulldog, but that he’d turned out all wrong and now he was best described as a mixture. She referred to him as a Belgian cowdog to spare him embarrassment.
Nelly was old enough to be fairly sure that dogs didn’t suffer embarrassment, especially when you considered some of the gross things they did. Plug looked completely unflustered even when he’d made the most horrible smell in the world come out of his bottom. Nelly reckoned that she knew a lot more about the world than people gave her credit for, even if she was very small.
She knew that the brown liquid in the tiny glass that Mrs McConaghy filled from a small bottle and drank with her tea wasn’t medicine, as the Wizard claimed; because it smelled just like a drink that her father had at home sometimes after dinner (but not at eleven o-clock in the morning).
They were sitting at the kitchen table, sipping their tea. The Wizard kept adjusting her gown as if she couldn’t get comfortable. Her face was almost hidden behind her hair that was so long and thick that you had to believe it would be a strain for her neck to carry so much of it around.
“Why is your hair that colour?”
“Grey is not a colour. It’s like that because that’s how it grows.”
“All the mums who bring their children to my school have hair the colour they decide it should be,” Nelly told her, “ and sometimes they change it for something different”.
“And” she continued, “I have to say that they all use a brush more often than you do. I’d be in trouble if I let my hair grow that way.”
The Wizard ran a hand over the top of her head.
“The best thing about being old, is you get to please yourself,” she said. “ And if I brushed this lot out, where would the mice and spiders live?”
Nelly giggled, but for the next few minutes she kept looking at the Wizard’s hair, without being too obvious about it, to see if she could spot anything moving.
Then Nelly remembered that she was supposed to be annoyed with the Wizard.
“You don’t keep your promises,” she said, “you promised to show me some magic.”
“I’m sure that I said, when you are old enough. There’s a lot to remember when you study magic. I only have the space in my head to remember important things.”
“On my birthday, you said. That’s when you’d show me.”
“Well. There you are then.”
Nelly wrinkled up her now and practiced her annoyed face.
“My birthday was last week. I expect you forgot. I expect my birthday is not one of those important days you have the space to remember.”
“Oh, Nelly. I’m so sorry love. I did forget. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t love you very much. It’s just that by the time we get old, we’ve had so many birthdays that we forget how important they used to be. But you are important to me, honest you are.”
Nelly sat back in her chair.
“Well”, she said slowly, “I’ll forgive you. But in return you have to show me some magic before I go.”
That was the stern voice that her father sometimes used. Nelly thought that it sounded quite impressive.
The Wizard said that maybe just a small amount of magic would be safe. She’d been working on a spell for making animals do tricks, and maybe that would do. She went to get her magic wand from the living room. When she came back, they noticed that Professor Hizzenspit had disappeared.
“He’s such a coward”, the Wizard complained, “but never mind”.
She looked Plug in the eye, as if daring him to move, and lifted the wand in the air. As she started to say some odd words in a strange voice, Plug began to growl and back away.
“What’s wrong with him?” Nelly asked.
“Maybe he remembers when I tried it last week and things didn’t turn out quite as we expected. He turned into a little footstool with carved wooden feet and a lovely, soft suede covering. Quite pretty really, but too small to be of much use. And who wants a footstool that has a tail? It took me three days to get him back to normal, but I’m almost sure I’ve fixed the spell now.”
“Please don’t”, Nelly shouted. She was not a selfish girl and she didn’t want the dog to be turned into furniture just to satisfy her curiosity.
“As you wish”, said the Wizard, putting down the wand.
They sat back down at the kitchen table. Nelly’s tea was cold but she kept sipping it because it would be impolite to say so.
“You’re not the most reliable wizard, are you?” she asked the Wizard.
Mrs McConaghy explained that really she was still only a learner in true magic, or magick with a K, as it should be called. The problem was that she’d started when she was already quite old. But anyway, there was so much to know about magick with a K that you could never master it in one lifetime, even if you started to study before you were ever born.
“But how could you do that?” Nelly asked.
Mrs McConaghy looked thoughtful.
“Interesting question”, she nodded. “Maybe that’s the answer. I’ll save that thought for later.”
The kitchen was full of scraps of paper and pens and pencils of all shapes and sizes. The Wizard wrote down Nelly’s question on a scrap of paper that had some blank space left on it: then she looked thoughtful for a minute. Nelly interrupted her thoughts.
“I wanted to ask you for some help”, she said. “We are going to England at Christmas to see all of our English relations; and I needed to know if there will be snow. I was looking forward to seeing snow, because I never have except in pictures; but then my dad told me that it doesn’t always snow at Christmas in England, even though it’s such a freezing cold country near to the North Pole.”
“Hmm”, said the Wizard, “We can check that in the grimoire; but first tell me some interesting facts that you know about snow.”
“No two snowflakes are exactly alike”, Nelly told her.
“That’s rubbish. They all look the same to me. Try again.”
“Cold-blooded creatures can’t live in snow”, Nelly said, “because they take their body heat from their surroundings; but warm-blooded creatures like us that make our own heat can survive, especially big ones. That’s why there were never dinosaurs at the North Pole, but there were some furry elephants, I mean mammoths, that are sometimes found in the ice after being frozen for millions of years.”
“That’s very interesting. I’m going to put that in the book later. But you should know that England is not really all that cold. It doesn’t usually have proper snow that stays cold and dry and is so white that it hurts your eyes to look at it when the sun shines. If there’s snow in England, it tends to be wet and turning to slush, as if mud was its cousin. Have you ever seen a freezer after the power has been cut by accident?”
“No, but I’d like to see any kind of snow at Christmas, all the same.”
The Wizard sighed.
“Well, let’s go see the book.”
The Wizard’s personal grimoire was a heavy volume of thick pages, some printed some handwritten, that was always kept in the lounge, on a carved wooden stand. Apparently, every wizard had to have one.
Even though it was such a big book with so many pages, the Wizard claimed that there was so much in the book that there wasn’t space on the paper for even a small part of it. At any one time, most of the book was somewhere other than on its pages. What you would see if you opened the book without knowing where to look was just a jumbled selection, or perhaps what the book wanted to show you just then. You had to know magick to make the right pages appear from wherever they had been when you needed them.
It was very convenient to have so much information in one book. The only problem was that if you remembered that you had read something before, say at page 207, and then next time you opened the book at page 207, you were quite likely to find something quite different from what you had remembered.
The Wizard had explained all this to Nelly before, but she had never been allowed to look in the book for herself. In fact Nelly was not entirely sure that she trusted the grimoire.
“Look”, she said, “my sister lent me her i-podphone this morning. Well anyway, she wasn’t around when I left the house. Maybe it would be easier if you just helped me search for the information on that.”
The Wizard looked at the gadget with disdain.
“That thing won’t work here,” she said.
It was true. The house was in a place where there was no signal.
“What’s wrong with it?” Nelly asked.
“Maybe it needs an i-podiatrician” the Wizard gave a nasty smile, which made Nelly think she was being sarcastic.
So they looked in the book instead.
Nelly never actually saw the pages changing like the Wizard said they did, but after a few minutes she understood that the book did not make it easy to come back to the same place twice. The lounge was the posh room, that smelled of lilac and floor cleaner. It was very quiet except for the rustle of paper as Nelly turned the pages.
Mrs McConaghy had told her that she must open the pages herself if she hoped to find answers for her questions. Nelly asked if that wasn’t dangerous, but the Wizard only shrugged her shoulders and said that all of life had its dangers.
Nelly understood that the grimoire was arranged like a book of the year, with dividing pages for the different months.
“The month you want is either Victoria or Albert” the Wizard advised.
“Those are the names of people, not months, Nelly protested.
“A month is just the time it takes for the moon to grow and fade. It can have any name you like.”
“But it’s not logical to call them after people.”
“My calendar is more logical that what you know, which is the calendar invented by the Romans. “
“Romans were logical. They invented roads and toilets and big circuses.”
“But all their months are out of order. September means seven, but it’s the ninth month, and the same with October, November and December. December should be month ten, not twelve, and in my calendar, it is. Everything got mixed up because they added two extra months in the middle of the year, when the weather was nicest.”
“that sounds silly. Unless it meant they got more nice weather than before.”
“It was silly. All because some silly men wanted to feel important – Julius and Augustus”
“They were Caesars, I know about them.”
“So you have July and August. Can you imagine how many months we’d have if all the men who thought they were important enough could have a month named after them? Well I took them out again so that September and the others could find their proper place; but there have to be twelve months so I added two at the end that I decided I could call what I liked.”
“My birthday is in August”
“Well that explains why I forgot it then. Look under Albert. That’s the last month, when you’ll be in England.”
It took some time for Nelly to find the place and when she finally did, she read for some time and then closed the book. They went back into the kitchen. Mrs McConaghy started to make some more tea.
“Well,” she asked Nelly, “what did you see?”
“It told me that there will almost certainly be snow in England somewhere while we are there, but it is impossible to say whether it will happen where we are.”
“There you are then. Take your warm clothes. Why are you looking so disappointed?”
“I wanted to know for sure.”
“We never know anything for sure.”
“What good is it then, if you can’t tell the future?”
“I don’t do wizarding so that I can tell the future. I do it because it interests me Nelly. That’s the only reason you should do anything. You think I know whether these lottery tickets are going to come up?”
She pointed to some brightly coloured lottery tickets that were held up on the fridge door by a magnet in the shape of a rabbit’s foot. Nelly had noticed them before; she’d found it strange that a wizard should need to buy lottery tickets.
“If you were a really powerful wizard”, Nelly sighed, “you’d be able to make those numbers come up.”
“Maybe, but making the numbers happen is not the same as knowing whether they’ll happen or not. In fact it’s quite different.
Nelly knew that Mrs McConaghy meant well, even if her housecoat wasn’t a very good wizard’s gown, with a bit of a tear in it, and her spells didn’t seem to do much good. Nelly thanked her for the tea and said that now she thought she had better be going. The Wizard thanked her for coming and said it was nice to see another face now and then.
“But aren’t you forgetting something?” she asked. Nelly didn’t know what she meant.
“You said I promised to show you some magic.”
Nelly felt a little bit sad.
“Oh, that’s all right”, she said. “You needn’t bother now”.
She was sure that the magic would be another disappointment.
“A promise is a promise”, said Mrs McConaghy.
She cleared the cups from the table and came back from the sink holding a small object that she placed right in the middle of the table. Nelly had not seen where it came from. It was a cheap plastic snowstorm, like a glass bubble with a miniature winter scene inside. The bubble was full of liquid and after you shook it little flakes of pretend snow took a few minutes to settle back on the bottom.
“Keep your eyes on that and watch very closely”, Mrs McConaghy told her.
Nelly sighed again. She thought she’d better stare at the thing for a while so as not to hurt her friend’s feelings, though she didn’t know what she was going to say about it afterwards.
Then a strange thing happened. As she continued to look, it was as if she was getting smaller, until she was inside the winter scene, but it wasn’t cheap plastic any more, it was real: real enough to make Nelly shiver, until she realized that she wasn’t wearing her summer clothes any more. She had on a quilted red jacket and some thick, warm, ski pants with a pair of snug boots. And she was walking through the snow that was lying deep as more snow fell from the sky.
Nelly took some time to notice how it felt to be walking through the snow, as your boots made crunching noises; and how sound was different when snow was falling. She threw some snowballs at the pine trees. When she came to the path she was able to run and slide along the ground like a skater. Then she heard some heavy, crunching noises coming towards her through the snowy forest.
When she looked where the sound came from, she saw between the trees an enormous woolly mammoth with giant tusks making its way through the trees, crashing against the trunks and sending icicles flying like little diamond spears from the branches. When it saw her, the mammoth paused and raised her trunk to wave at Nelly before turning back to head further still into the deep forest.
Finally, Nelly stopped in a clearing and turned her face up to the sky, where the snow was still falling. She put out her tongue to catch the taste of fresh snow, and as they fell towards her, she noticed that each tiny snowdrop had its own peculiar shape, with no two ever exactly the same.
When she went home, Mrs McConaghy let her keep the plastic snowstorm, although it was understood between them without speaking that she must never tell anyone what it could do.