On Madeleine’s 13th birthday, she is visited by a red-haired stranger. He brings her gifts and a secret about her past that will change her future forever. If only her family approved… [Rating: All ages]
A Year of Magic
Madeleine’s eyes shot open. ‘It’s my birthday,’ she whispered to the darkness around her. ‘It’s my birthday.’ Her tummy did a little somersault as she sat up, throwing off the duvet and dangling her legs over the edge of the bed. A strip of light appeared beneath her door. Her family was awake too. Madeleine sat there waiting for a while, her feet swaying above the worn carpet. Then another while as she heard tiny feet rumble across the landing. After a long while of waiting, Madeleine could no longer contain herself. She jumped up and rushed out of her bedroom onto the landing towards the bathroom. She threw open the door.
‘It’s my –.’
‘Aaaah!’ screamed her younger sister Margaret. ‘Get out! Get out!’
‘Get out! Muuum! Maddy’s being horrible again!’
Behind her, Madeleine heard a door open and footsteps emerge.
‘Madeleine, leave your sister alone.’
‘Get dressed. Now!’
Madeleine stomped back to her bedroom and gave the door a good swing. It closed with a satisfactory bang.
‘Madeleine!’ her mother shouted disapprovingly through the door. Madeleine pulled her favourite dress – a black one with long sleeves and silver flowers stitched onto the fabric – out of her wardrobe and waited until all was quiet upstairs before leaving her bedroom to brush her teeth.
By now her eyes were almost as red as her hair from crying and the more she rubbed them trying to make the redness disappear, the redder they became. Finally giving up, she braided her long red hair. It was a skill Madeleine was particularly proud of herself for. After smiling at her red appearance in the mirror, she made her way down into the kitchen, dressed and ready for school.
Her family sat around the kitchen table fighting over the strawberry jam.
‘She’s here,’ her brother Iain, Margaret’s twin, whispered. Instantly, the fighting stopped and they all stared at Madeleine.
‘Hi,’ said Madeleine, grabbing a mug from the shelf and filling it with the contents of the milk carton that had been left on the kitchen counter.
‘Happy birthday, darling,’ said her mother, standing up and kissing her on the head. ‘Sorry about earlier.’
‘Happy birthday,’ said her father, giving her a hug.
‘Happy birthday,’ said Iain, biting off a piece of toast.
‘Yeah, happy birthday,’ said Margaret, putting her drink down with a thump.
‘Thanks,’ said Madeleine, as she sat down on the last free chair, feeling slightly better.
‘Here you go,’ said her mother, putting a red velvet cupcake in front of her and stroking her red hair and braid.
The decoration made it look like the cupcake was bleeding. ‘Made especially for you.’
Madeleine grinned at the threatening treat. ‘Thank you.’ As she bit off the top, her mum showed Madeleine what she got her to take to school. ‘I really wish I had been able to make them myself, but work… You know… So, I phoned Adkins Bakery and she made these for us. For you.’ Madeleine’s mum looked down at the contents of the carrier with a proud smile, but Madeleine looked horrified.
Before her on a tray, lay all kinds of decorated cupcakes. Amazingly decorated cupcakes. One was black as night with a spider on top. Another was white as a sheet except for the trickle of blood at the tip of a knife sticking out at the top. Another was brown, like the broom on top of it. There was a witch cupcake. A bat one. One with a ghoul and another with a bloody hand protruding from a patch of grass in front of a tiny gravestone. They were works of art and Madeleine absolutely loved them, but…
‘What’s wrong? You don’t like them?’ her mother said, staring at Madeleine’s shocked expression.
‘I love them,’ said Madeleine. ‘But…’
‘As if her classmates don’t think she’s enough of a freak as it is,’ said Margaret while stuffing her face with jam.
‘Maggy,’ said her mother, looking behind Madeleine where Margaret shrugged and continued eating her breakfast.
Without realising, Madeleine had started to twirl the bright red hair at the end of her braid with her fingers.
‘Don’t be so mean to your sister,’ said her mum. ‘Bill?’
‘Hmm?’ said her husband, who had been hiding behind his newspaper. ‘Oh, it’s that time already? Got to go, kids. Have a nice day at school. Behave, but also have fun. Especially you today, Maddy. Bye.’ He kissed his wife on the cheek and gave the children a wave before disappearing through the backdoor.
With her husband unable to back her, Madeleine’s mother turned towards Madeleine. ‘You don’t want to bring them to school? But I had them especially made for you and your friends,’ said her mother.
‘What friends?’ said Iain. He and Margaret didn’t even try to hide their sniggering.
‘You two, stop it right now. Maddy, if we keep these here you don’t have anything to bring to school.’
‘That’s okay,’ said Madeleine. The thought of being laughed at even more than usual was worse than no one noticing her birthday. Her mother however looked deeply hurt and even a little resentful.
‘Do you want your presents now or after school?’ she said in a low voice.
Madeleine thought on this for a moment. ‘After school,’ she decided. She liked having something to look forward to.
‘Fine,’ her mother said, putting a bag with a large toy shop’s logo on it back in the closet, followed by the cupcakes.
After finishing her cupcake breakfast, Madeleine left for school without any birthday snacks to hand out to her classmates. Nobody paid much attention to her that day, which in itself was a birthday present to Madeleine.
Once she arrived back home, she noticed her mother had laid out a spread of birthday cake and bowls of crisps, all over the living room area with the cupcakes as a centre piece on a large, colourfully decorated three-tier tray in the middle of the coffee table.
‘How was school?’ said Madeleine’s mum, cutting her daughter a piece of cake.
‘It was fine,’ Madeleine answered, dropping down on the floor and picking up a fork. She sliced off a piece of her cake and closed her eyes as she ate it. It was delicious. When she opened her eyes, she saw her mother and father grinning at her.
‘Like it huh,’ her father said, holding his hands behind his back. Madeleine nodded, feeling grateful to both her parents for taking the afternoon off work to spend her birthday at home with her.
‘It’s amazing,’ said Madeleine, shoving another large piece of cake into her mouth as her dad hopped from side to side.
‘Are you ready for your presents?’ he said, conjuring up the same bag she had seen her mother put away that morning.
‘Yes, please,’ Madeleine replied with a mouthful.
‘Here you go,’ her father said as he put down the bag next to Madeleine on the floor.
Madeleine dove right in and retrieved three wrapped presents from it. Across the room, the backdoor opened and in darted her siblings, followed by their grandmother and grandfather. Her grandparents came straight for Madeleine and gave her a tight birthday hug and a kiss on each cheek.
‘Happy birthday, darling.’
‘Happy birthday, champ. We’re taking you to the toy shop tomorrow,’ her grandpa said winking at her. ‘We figured it was a better idea to let you choose than us choose for you. We’re not sure what the kids like these days.’
‘Neither does Maddy. Ooh, you’re unwrapping your presents,’ said Iain grabbing Madeleine’s cake from her. ‘I’ll have this then.’
‘Iain, give that back,’ said their mother cutting two more pieces of cake for her parents. ‘And be nice to your big sister.’
Madeleine put the three presents in front of her on the coffee table.
‘One from your dad and I, and one each from your siblings.’
Madeleine tore the wrapping with cartoon teddy bears off the biggest parcel. In her hands she held a large pink box with a big microphone on the front held by a girl her age with long, wavy brown hair and a broad smile. She stared at the box. ‘Pop, rock and R&B karaoke!’ it said in big bold pink letters.
‘She hates this too, mum,’ sniggered Margaret.
‘You don’t, Madeleine, do you?’ her mother said in a desperate voice.
‘No. No, of course not. I love it.’
‘Good. I’m glad,’ said her mother smiling.
‘Now open ours,’ said Iain.
So Madeleine did. The first contained a Lego model of a fire station and the second a set of beads and strings. Madeleine tried to fake a smile as best as she could, but her eyes pricked. Nobody seemed to notice. Iain had instantly reached for the Lego, Margaret for the beads and the adults for their chocolate cake.
‘Those are Madeleine’s,’ said their mother, but she made no effort to enforce the subject as Madeleine’s grandparents were already helping her siblings unpack her gifts. So instead, Madeleine quickly finished her cake and pulled the tray with the cupcakes towards her. She hesitated for a moment before reaching for the one with the witch’s hat.
‘Typical,’ Margaret sniggered, looking up at Madeleine from the bracelet she was creating with a grin. Madeleine was grateful Iain was too caught up in her Lego to notice his twin’s comment.
Madeleine ignored her sister and enjoyed and admired the cupcakes Miss Adkins had made especially for her.
Her father kneeled down next to Madeleine and asked her to pick out a cupcake for him. Madeleine thought on it hard for a moment before choosing a cupcake with a bat. They shared a fascination with the creatures.
The rest of the afternoon Madeleine handed out cupcakes as other members of her family dropped by to wish her a happy birthday.
‘So unusual,’ her other grandmother said after being offered a bleeding cupcake, raising an eyebrow at Madeleine.
‘These are so you!’ her older cousin Janey had said, giving Madeleine a big smile and birthday hug.
‘Well, these are a little… morbid,’ her auntie Maeve had said before quickly moving into the living room, leaving Madeleine standing at the front door holding a cupcake with a hand protruding from within.
When at last her family had left, Madeleine felt a little queasy from the chocolate cake and the handful of cupcakes she had consumed. When not much later her mother called her and her siblings for dinner, Madeleine regretted having eaten so much as her mother had promised to prepare her favourite meal: lasagne.
She plunged down in her seat and hoped she could find some room for it. But when her mother unveiled dinner, it was not lasagne.
‘Tadaaa, your favourite,’ Madeleine’s mum said, looking proudly down on a pan full of spaghetti Bolognese with Swedish meatballs. Which was Margaret’s favourite. As expected, Margaret found the mistake hysterical, much to her mother’s annoyance which at least Madeleine was pleased about.
‘I’m so sorry, Maddy,’ her mother said repeatedly throughout the meal. ‘I will make lasagne for you tomorrow, I promise.’
‘It’s okay,’ Madeleine had replied each time.
She had eaten half of her plate’s contents when she could eat no more. She dropped her fork and it clattered down onto the plate. As if it were a trigger, the doorbell rang.
With an overly full and almost painful stomach, Madeleine jumped up to answer it. As she ran to the front door, she heard her mother yell after her, but Madeleine ignored her calls and opened the door.
Before her stood a tall, ginger-haired man. Madeleine guessed he was around forty years old. Or was he fifty? The man was beaming down at her in a worn brown jacket with black trousers underneath.
‘Well, hello. You must be Madeleine,’ the man said, looking at Madeleine’s hair. His own red locks blew in the wind. ‘A very happy birthday to you, Madeleine. I have brought you a couple of presents. May I come in?’
Madeleine hesitated for a moment, knowing her mother and father would disapprove of letting a stranger into their home. But considering it was her birthday and she felt she was in charge of the guest list, she stepped aside and opened the door further.
‘I love your hair,’ the man said as he stepped over the threshold. Madeleine could not help but smile at the man, but blush at the same time.
‘Can I ask you something, sir?’ said Madeleine.
‘Of course,’ said the man. ‘Anything.’
‘Who are you?’
‘Oh. Yes, of course, where are my manners. My name is James Jameson. Yes, that’s really my name,’ he said as he bowed and offered Madeleine his hand. She giggled as she took it.
‘Nice to meet you, Mr Jameson.’
‘Please, James. And it is especially nice to you too, Madeleine Jane Raines.’
Madeleine stepped aside to let James Jameson into the hallway. ‘How do you know it’s my birthday, sir? Sorry, James.’
‘I’ve been keeping an eye on you for a while now.’
‘You have?’ replied Madeleine as she and the man entered the kitchen.
‘Hello, Mr and Mrs Raines. Mr Iain and Miss Margaret,’ James bowed once more, but did not offer any of them his hand. ‘I apologise for intruding on your family dinner, but this seemed the best time for me to visit.’
Madeleine’s mother and father gawked at the stranger in their kitchen while Iain and Madeleine held a spoon halfway up to their mouths. After glancing the man up and down they continued eating, while watching the scene before them play out.
‘Who are you?’ said her father, his eyes narrowing at the man.
‘My name is James Jameson. I have come to present Miss Madeleine here with two gifts and one offer.’
‘An offer?’ said her mother.
‘Oh, yes, Mrs Raines. This young lady here is indeed quite special.’ He winked at Madeleine which made her sister snort loudly and set off a giggle fit in her brother. It made James frown, which pleased Madeleine.
‘What do you mean, “special”?’ asked her father.
‘Well, even more special than all of you already think she is, of course.’
This made Madeleine’s siblings laugh even harder, which earned each of them an angry look from their mother.
‘Excuse me,’ said Madeleine’s father, putting down his cutlery. You come here unannounced, during our dinnertime, on my daughter’s twelfth bi -.’
‘Thirteenth,’ corrected James.
‘Thirteenth,’ repeated her father, ‘birthday and bring presents and apparently an offer. Yet we have no idea who you are. Forgive us for not being impressed or all too welcoming towards you.’
Madeleine looked down at her shoes. Was her dad really throwing out the one non-family member who had come to celebrate her birthday with her?
‘I fully understand your reservations about my sudden and unannounced appearance in your home this evening. Perhaps this might clear things up?’ James produced a parcel from behind his back. Madeleine looked at him in awe before peering behind his back to see where he had concealed it. She couldn’t find any sign of a secret bag or pouch. He handed Madeleine the parcel. She looked over at her mother and father. Her dad shrugged and her mother nodded, but with a deep frown on her face.
Madeleine tore off the brown paper wrapping and stared at the book in her hand. She did a double take on the woman on the cover. Was that… her? No, it couldn’t be. Of course not. This lady was in her twenties. Yet the resemblance was uncanny. She had the same bright red hair and blue eyes, the same cheekbones and the same wide, toothy smile. Madeleine read the title: The Magical Life and Tragic Death of Marjory Klein.
‘Do you know who that is?’ asked James.
Madeleine shook her head.
‘Show your mother.’
Madeleine turned the cover towards her mum. When her mother set eyes on the photo, she let out a little shriek.
‘That’s… That’s… How do you… What is this?’ She stood up, palms pressed on the table top.
‘Your grandmother, if I am not mistaken. Which, if I may be so bold to say, I rarely am.’ Madeleine giggled at the grin James threw her. Her mother was less impressed.
‘Yes, I know that. But what is she doing on the cover of a book and why are you holding that here in my kitchen?’ Madeleine saw a vein suddenly pop out of her temple.
‘Oh dear, I have a lot to explain I see,’ said James. ‘May we retreat into the living room so that I can explain the situation to you?’
‘No, we may not,’ said Madeleine’s mother. ‘You three, upstairs.’
‘But…’ started Iain.
‘No. Upstairs. Now.’
With a sulk Iain and Margaret dropped their cutlery into their plates and stood up. Madeleine turned around to lead them away. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder. ‘Not you.’
‘Yes, you also.’
‘No, no,’ said James firmly. ‘She needs to hear this.’ James turned around and ushered Madeleine out of the kitchen and into the living room, leaving her parents stunned.
When they had finally decided to follow, James looked across the room to make sure they were seated comfortably on the sofa, clearly overlooking the fact that Mr and Mrs Raines were not comfortable at all with having a tall red-haired stranger carrying a photo of their deceased ancestor on the cover of a book standing in the middle of their living room.
James cleared his throat. ‘Well, here we finally are,’ he said, spreading his arms. ‘Me, an Order 7 Wizard of the British Witchcraft Academy, and you, the Raines family, about to hear something that will change your life.
‘Di – did you just say “wizard”?’ said Madeleine’s mother.
‘I did,’ said James smiling at Madeleine, who was sitting in the corner on a children’s seat which by now was much too small for her. ‘Just like you’re a wizard, Madeleine. Or witch, if you prefer. Here.’ James produced another parcel as if out of thin air. Carefully this time, Madeleine unwrapped it. It was another book. Its cover was bright blue, like the sky on a mild summer’s day. On it in swirly red letters it said: Unlock the Magic Within – Volume 785. Madeleine stared at the book in awe and ran her fingers over the relief lettering.
‘What is that?’ asked her mother. ‘What did you get?’
‘It’s another book.’
‘Open it,’ suggested James. Madeleine did as she was told and opened the book. The page she had randomly opened it at was empty.
‘Start at the beginning,’ suggested James. Madeleine leafed back to the first page.
‘It’s blank,’ she said, looking up at James in confusion. In the pit of her stomach her intestines seemed to form a knot. What if this was all a prank? Or worse: what is she had let a crazy man come in to celebrate her birthday with her?
‘Look closer,’ said James, kneeling beside her.
Madeleine brought the book up closer until it touched her nose. She didn’t see anything. Or… Was that…?
With a jolt she dropped the book in her lap. She blinked twice at the message that had suddenly appeared on the page.
‘What do you see?’
‘It says.. It says: Hello, Madeleine Raines.’
It did. The book greeted Madeleine, right there the middle of the first page, in the same red ink that showed the title on the cover.
‘Sorcery,’ said James without a trace of sarcasm.
Her parents stared at the ginger stranger kneeled next to their daughter.
‘Eh… Hello, book,’ said Madeleine.
Happy 13th birthday wrote the book below its greeting.
‘Thank you,’ said Madeleine awkwardly. ‘But ehm… How do you know it’s my birthday?’ She looked up at James. ‘Or should I write?’ James smiled and nodded at the book. There, on the page, a new message appeared.
I know a lot about you, Madeleine.
A chill passed through her. But it wasn’t a chill out of fear. It was a chill of excitement and of possibility.
‘Book, how do you know so much about me?’
Madeleine waited. Half a minute later the red ink appeared once more.
Because of your ginger gene.
‘Your ginger gene,’ said James. ‘You are like me.’ He pointed at his head full of wavy red hair. ‘You and I both have the ginger gene.’
‘The ginger gene,’ giggled Madeleine. ‘What does that mean?’
‘That you have magic, of course.’
‘She has what?’ said her father suddenly.
‘Oh yes, your daughter has magic. And lots of it I expect, with a nan like her.’ James pointed at the book in his other hand.
‘What do you mean?’ said her mother. ‘What on earth are you talking about? I think you should go. This is all nonsense.’ Her mother stood up and James looked up at her with sudden worry in his eyes.
‘Mum, please? Can we hear him out? Please? Because it’s my birthday? Please?’
Her mother sighed. ‘Fine. But only for a short while longer.’
‘Thank you,’ said James with relief showing on his face and in his voice.
Her mother sat back down slowly, but eyed James suspiciously.
‘So, my mum’s nan?’ continued Madeleine.
‘Oh yes,’ said James who had seemingly been so worried he’d be thrown out that he had to refocus. ‘Your great-grandmother, or as we in the magical community call her: the Grand Witch of Magic.’ He made a grand gesture with his arms to go with his words. ‘You have inherited her ginger gene, Madeleine. You are her heir in our magical community.’
Madeleine stared at James from the side. ‘I… I don’t have magic.’
James smiled warmly. ‘Yes, you do. But it needs to be awoken. Hence, this book.’ He pointed at the one in her lap.
‘Dear Great Book of Magical Awakening, please show Madeleine Raines how to unlock the magic within her.’
A few seconds later, more red ink appeared: Turn the page.
Madeleine looked up and noticed her mother and father hovering above her now, their interests peaked. Or perhaps to make sure James Jameson wouldn’t do anything untoward. Or, Madeleine thought to herself, to find out how this illusion exactly worked.
Madeleine turned the page. Another message. It looked like a poem. At the top, it said: Read this aloud.
‘Go ahead,’ said James. ‘Don’t be afraid.’
Madeleine daren’t to look up at her parents out of fear they’d stop her, so she quickly cleared her throat and started to read aloud:
‘Once upon a time in a land long gone
When humankind was still and forlorn
A witch with red hair roamed the Earth
From seas far away to her own home turf
She spread her magic far and wide
Until one man made her his bride
And that one spark was all it took
For magic had finally found its hook
The descendants of Harryet and Pym
Find all magic within
All it requires is to be awoken
Through words otherwise unspoken
Say it loud and mean it well
For this is your personal spell
I, Madeleine Jane Raines, heir to the magical line
Will trust all sorcery that within me I can find
And promise to learn the magical ways
With an open heart and a curious gaze
From within I now ask
Let me in on magic’s bask
And I promise until the end of my time
I will follow my own magical prime.’
As she spoke the last line, Madeleine could feel something take over from inside her. It was the strangest sensation she had ever experienced. She looked down to see if her feet were still planted on the living room carpet. To her surprise, they were.
‘You feel it, don’t you?’ said James.
Madeleine nodded. ‘It’s… strange.’
‘What? What’s going on?’ said her mother.
‘The magic inside her is awakening.’
‘Awakening? What are you on about? There is no such thing as sorcery. How are you doing this? How are you making that appear?’
‘It’s magic. It truly exists.’
‘No, it doesn’t!’ said her father.
‘I can feel it, mum and dad,’ said Madeleine, looking at her hands.
‘What? What do you feel?’ asked her mother, now kneeling before her.
‘You might want to keep a little distance, Mrs Raines. Just for a moment.’
‘What are you doing to our daughter?’ Madeleine’s mother gave James a filthy glance and put her hands on Madeleine’s knees. As soon as her hands touched Madeleine’s skin below her dress, she was launched backwards across the room, landing against the sofa opposite.
‘Mum!’ yelled Madeleine, jumping up.
‘Madeleine, sit,’ said James, urging her back down.
Mrs Raines tried to stand up. ‘I’m fine. I’m fine,’ she said to her husband who had rushed to her aid.
Madeleine looked at the book in her lap. The lines she had just recited were still gazing up at her. She grabbed the book and suddenly noticed a warm, orange glow appearing from within the fingers that held it.
‘You’re almost there,’ said James, proud seeping through his voice.
‘Make it stop,’ said her father, approaching James. ‘I don’t know what you are doing to my daughter, but I order you to make it stop.’
‘Dad, no. It’s okay.’
‘You don’t know that,’ he said, hovering over James, ready to smack him.
‘I do. I can feel it. It feels… calming. And special. But in a good way.’
Madeleine’s father looked back at his wife who looked too stunned to speak. ‘It shot your mother across the room!’
‘Because this magic is mine, not hers. Not because it is hostile.’
‘Do you even hear yourself, Maddy? You’re talking as if magic is actually real! You’re scaring us now!’
‘It’s okay, dad. It really is.’ The orange glow slowly disappeared just as the sensation inside her seemed to die down.
James cleared his throat. ‘I am proud to announce that you Madeleine Jane Raines are now an official member of the Witchcraft Academy.’ James’ hand moved inside his jacket and he produced two letters from inside it. He handed one to Madeleine and one to her parents. Madeleine tore hers open instantly.
‘Dear Madeleine,’ it said. ‘We are pleased to announce you are hereby offered a place at the British Witchcraft Academy. Starting 1 September, you will be taught by great wizards and witches the ways of witchcraft and wizardry. Within this letter, you will also find your bus ticket to our school. On 1 September, wait outside your house at 11AM and our student bus will collect you. Your introduction will start at midday. We hope to see you. With the warmest regards, Dean Elvira Twain.’
In her other hand, Madeleine held up a piece of paper with a logo on it. It showed a pointy hat on top of a tall, yellow bus. Beneath, it said in the red letters she recognised from her book: British Witchcraft Academy. She turned it around. Her jaw dropped. On the back in black and white ink there was a photo of Madeleine. It was the most beautiful picture she had ever seen of herself.
‘Lovely, isn’t it,’ said James, still kneeled down next to her. ‘Georgia Addington designs our products. Best in the business.’
‘As I said, we’ve had our eye on you for a while now,’ James said with another wink.
‘No,’ a voice suddenly bellowed across the room as a letter fluttered down towards the carpet.
‘I’m sorry?’ said James.
‘No. My child will not be attending this so-called academy,’ her father said.
‘No.’ Her father stood up. ‘And I would like for you to leave now.’
‘You heard me.’
‘Quiet. I should never have allowed you access to our home,’ he said, pointing at James. ‘All this nonsense about magic. Out!’
‘But dad, I felt…’
‘Maddy, quiet, this is for your own good.’
‘No!’ said Madeleine. ‘No. It isn’t! I want to go.’
‘I forbid it.’
‘I can. I am your father and you’re only twelve.’
‘Thirteen,’ said Madeleine bitterly while her father hoisted James up and guided him towards the front door.
‘Madeleine, you can still…’
‘Quiet, you! Brainwashing my gullible daughter with this.’
‘Mum, do something!’ shouted Madeleine, tears pricking in her eyes.
Her mother walked over and, hesitating for a fraction of a second, reached out to stroke her ginger hair. ‘I think your father might be right, Maddy.’
‘But you felt it too! I know you did.’
‘Goodbye,’ said her father, giving the front door a firm shove so it closed with a loud bang.
‘You must surely understand that magic isn’t real and that this man is using your great-grandmother and loneliness against you.’
‘Well, if you know I’m lonely, why don’t you let me go and make friends? I’m sure Iain and Maggie think I fit into a school with witches and other freaks quite well.’ Tears were streaming down Madeleine’s face. With one swipe, she grabbed her letter and bus ticket from her chair together with her books and ran past her mother and father up the stairs. She slammed the door shut behind her and dove onto her bed amid her stuffed animals. After a few minutes there was a knock on the door.
‘Go away!’ shouted Madeleine, wiping her eyes and nose on the grey duvet.
‘No, go away! Go. Awaaay!’ Madeleine didn’t want to hear anything else, so she dove under her duvet and put her earphones in and listened to her favourite book for the rest of the night. Her mother had come in at some point, asking to see it from their point of view and to persuade her to come downstairs to eat more birthday cake, but Madeleine had ignored her until she had left.
After her birthday, Madeleine spent the rest of summer trying to persuade her mother to take a stand against her father and let her go to the British Witchcraft Academy to learn all about magic, but no matter how much she begged and pleaded and cried and shouted, her parents would not budge.
‘There is no such thing as magic,’ her father repeated one particularly hot summer evening. ‘You must know that, Maddy. Just because you want something to be real, doesn’t mean it is.’
‘And just because you don’t believe in something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist!’ Madeleine had retorted. ‘I felt it!’
‘Maddie, you wanted to feel something,’ her father replied.
‘Why can’t I try it? Why not even for one day?’ Madeleine tried to compromise.
‘Because we don’t want you to try a fake academy because a stranger visited our house and talked about magic and all such nonsense,’ her mother said.
‘It’s not nonsense,’ Madeleine said. ‘I felt it! You must have felt it, mum!’
‘That was just an electric spark, sweetie, nothing more.’
‘No. No, it wasn’t! You’re just too old to still believe in magic,’ Madeleine had huffed.
‘Young lady, you don’t speak to your mother like that.’
‘We must be way older than we are then,’ said Iain as he and Margaret came into the living room after a day at the local pool. ‘If not believing in magic anymore is the norm.’
‘And so you must be a real child to still believe in magic and fairy tales,’ Margaret said, giggling.
Feeling defeated, Madeleine had run out of the room and up the stairs to cry some more tears into her pillow.
Before she knew it, it was 1 September. Madeleine refused to talk to anyone that morning, much to her siblings’ delight who had been enjoying their older sister’s turmoil and had added to it by calling her either a failed witch or a silly, fanciful child all summer long.
‘Just when you thought you had found your people,’ said Margaret.
‘Just when you thought you could magic away that hair,’ said Iain.
Their jabs were the only reason Madeleine was glad summer was over.
Her mother dropped Madeleine off at school that morning and after a hug and a ‘have fun’ from her mother and a cold ‘thanks’ back from Madeleine, her mother drove off to work.
Madeleine waited until her mother turned the corner before heading back the way she had come. As fast as she could Madeleine walked away from her school, hoping she’d be home in time to catch a certain tall, yellow bus.
At five minutes to eleven Madeleine turned the street corner and attempted a final sprint towards her home. She needed to grab the books James had given her on her birthday and the pyjamas she had quickly packed the evening before, not being sure if she’d be going home at the end of the day. She had no idea about the goings on at the British Witchcraft Academy, so she felt it was better to prepare herself for every scenario.
Rummaging through her backpack as she sprinted up the path to the front door, she tried to get a hold of the spare keys she had nicked from beneath the flower pot behind the house two days earlier. Shaking with nerves and exhausted from the trek home, she reached for the keyhole.
Two minutes to eleven.
Finally, after several tries, she managed to fit the key in the keyhole. She turned it and dashed through the front door, up the stairs to her room. A loud bang made her halt as she shoved the pjs into her bag and hoisted it over her shoulder.
It was here!
Madeleine darted back down the stairs, through the front door, which closed behind her with a bang.
There it was. The bus on the ticket in her hand. It had arrived despite her parents disapproval. A tall, narrow but very yellow school bus was waiting for her. Waiting to take her to a magical school she knew all along had been real.
She hurried down the path towards the bus. Its front door hissed open and a woman with almost translucent skin and spikey bright red hair appeared.
‘Disobeying mum and dad, are you?’ she said, grinning at Madeleine.
Madeleine felt her cheeks turn red instantly.
‘No need to blush. James said it might go this way and luckily for you, we don’t require parent consent. What’s in your blood is in your blood, we say. Come on in, Miss Raines. My name is Dorothea and I’ll be your bus driver this year. Walk on through. We have ten other newbies to pick up, so we better get a move on. Have a seat, any seat and don’t forget to buckle up.’
The woman stepped aside and led Madeleine up the steps into the bus. What Madeleine saw next astonished her. The inside of the bus was nothing like anything she’d ever seen before. The interior of the bus was decorated to look like a cosy living room the size of a large classroom – the bus hadn’t been this big though, had it? – and it was adorned with floating paintings, books that realigned themselves on shelves and cookie jars that refilled themselves on their own. Tables with colourful table cloths on them stood this way and that with chairs and sofas in different sizes between them.
Dorothea sat down behind a ginormous wheel unlike any Madeleine had ever seen either. On the dashboard, a variety of panels and switches were blinking in all sorts of different colours. After staring at it for a while, Madeleine realised together they made up the strangest looking map.
‘Are you going to find a seat or do you prefer being rattled around the vehicle like a ragdoll?’
Madeleine blushed again and quickly looked for a seat until she spotted a particular chair. ‘Is it okay if I sit in the back?’
‘Whichever appeals to you, dear,’ said Dorothea.
Madeleine hurried to the back of the bus – several chairs seemed to moan as she passed them – and sat down in the most comfortable looking armchair she’d ever seen. When she sat down, she knew it would be difficult for her to ever get back up. It was almost as if it instantly adjusted to her body. Next to her a fire crackled in a hearth providing her with extra warmth. Which made her realise this bus seemed to have a whole climate of its own.
Next to her on a side table lay a stack of books. Just as Madeleine started to wonder if these books would stay in place – not to mention all the other furniture, glasses, mugs, vases with colourful bouquets and several paintings of rolling hills on the walls and hovering mid-air above her head – the bus lurched forward, throwing Madeleine back against the soft, brightly chequered fabric of the armchair. She was glad to be wearing a buckle.
The bus moved so fast she could hardly see anything out of the small windows on either side. To her surprise though, none of the interior moved so much as an inch. Stacks of books and lines of cookie jars stayed perfectly still and in place.
‘Stop number two,’ yelled Dorothea over the roaring engine as Madeleine recognised the bang when they came to a full stop rather suddenly and violently.
Quickly Madeline unclipped her buckle and made her way to the cookie jar on top of the hearth. It opened with a plop. She counted out eleven cookies before putting the lid back on and putting the jar back in its proper place. Madeleine frowned. She couldn’t discover what kept it sticking to the surface.
Hearing voices, she turned around to see a small girl standing in the entrance of the bus. The blushes on her cheeks were about as red as her hair.
‘Hello,’ said Madeleine making her way to the front of the bus. ‘Would you like a cookie?’
Dorothea smiled down on Madeleine. ‘Go on, find yourself a spot and make yourself comfortable.’
‘I’m Madeleine,’ said Madeleine as they walked through the bus while Dorothea sat back down behind the wheel. ‘You can call me Maddy.’
‘I’m Anouk,’ said the girl. Both girls strapped in and took a bite off of their cookies before once more the bus lurched forward to a third pick up point. Madeleine handed out nine more cookies as the other young witches and wizards-to-be climbed on board and she felt pleased with herself for feeling so at home in this strange bus with people she had never met before. All the heads full of ginger hair around her made her smile and feel even more at ease. Madeleine had never been in a room with so many people looking like her before. There wasn’t a single ginger hair on the heads of her parents or her siblings.
At midday they arrived at their final destination with another loud bang of the engine and screeching of the tyres. The red shade on Anouk’s face had been replaced by a worrying green hue as they stepped out of the bus and onto the lawn of the British Witchcraft Academy.
Madeleine took in her new daily surroundings. The path that had led them here was not much more than a dirt road among tall trees. It led up to a great green lawn, littered with students lazing about in the September sunshine. They all looked perfectly normal, except for one small thing: they all wore a blue pointy hat on their varying shades of red hair.
‘Children, welcome,’ said a voice coming from within the forest behind them. It belonged to a tall, dark-skinned woman with a similar hat on her head and red wavy hair going down her back all the way to her waist. It swayed behind her in the mild breeze. ‘Welcome to your first day here at our Academy. My name is Elvira Twain. I am the dean of this grand school. You’ve all met Mr James next to me here.’ James waved at the teenagers before him.
Suddenly, Madeleine felt nervous. Dorothea may have said it was okay to attend without parental permission, but how would her parents react if they found out she’d been skipping regular school?
‘Now, I know what some of you might be thinking,’ said James, which made her ears perk up. ‘Some of you did not receive approval from your carers to attend our Academy. Luckily for you, we see it as a birth right, so nobody but you has anything to say on the matter. However, we do appreciate their wishes for you to gain a formal,’ he rolled his eyes and made a grand sarcastic gesture which made all the new students chuckle, including Madeleine, ‘education, so we make sure…’
‘Oh no,’ whispered Madeleine. Did she also have to attend that school? How was she going to do that?’
‘…your other school thinks you are attending, doing quizzes and what not until your parents approve, so not to worry.’
Sighs of relief arose out of several throats.
‘Although I should make it clear that you will need to do your best here or you will be kicked out. Which means you’ll have to go back there anyway.’
The sighs of relief quickly turned back to sighs of dread.
‘But rest assured, that barely happens,’ James giggled. Dean Twain looked as if she was all too familiar with Jameson’s shenanigans and waited calmly for him to finish giggling before she continued, her hands folded in front of her.
‘So girls and boys, without further ado, let me present you with your Academy hats. Here you go, yes, that’s it, on your head, and let the tour commence!’
Madeleine frowned. Putting the hat that James had given her on top of her red hair, she wondered whether the Academy was perhaps holding its classes in the woods behind them. Maybe even in the middle of a toadstool circle. Then she gasped. As if looking through a different pair of glasses a massive building had suddenly emerged before her eyes.
With a quick hand movement, she took off her hat: just grass.
Hat back on: immense building.
No hat: grass.
How was this possible?
‘Quite magical, isn’t it?’ said James, hovering next to her. Madeleine didn’t know what to say and felt so overwhelmed that James helped her put her hat back on.
‘So we don’t get accidentally discovered, you see. Come on. Let’s explore. Let’s explore,’ he added more loudly the second time.
And explore they did. As they entered the large, red brick Academy building with large, tall windows, towers in various places and balconies all around, they were welcomed into a large lobby. From several banisters of a wide staircase students were rushing down and landing gently on the floor in front of them.
‘Yeah, we know, up is always a problem,’ James said, as the first-years passed the staircase and were led into a large and high ceilinged hall with lanterns on the walls and small chandeliers in the shape of snowflakes hovering over each table. Madeleine guessed there were about a hundred, each with its own coloured tablecloth with the Witchcraft Academy logo in the middle. She had noticed the same ones on the tables in the bus.
‘This is where you’ll have lunch every day,’ said dean Twain.
‘Splendid cooks,’ added James. ‘Serve whatever you’re in the mood for and you never even have to ask for it. Sometimes they even serve you a dish or drink you didn’t know you craved! And there she is, our grand lady of witchcraft and wizardry.’ James stepped aside and Madeleine’s jaw dropped. Before her, at the back of the hall, hung a giant portrait of the woman on the cover of the book James had given to her on her birthday. As she stood facing her great-grandmother, in colour, it struck her how much she really did look like her. The boys and girls around her stared at her, then back at the painting.
‘Exquisite, isn’t it?’ said James. ‘And indeed our very own Madeleine’s great-grandmother.’
‘I had no idea,’ said Madeleine apologetically to the dozen pair of eyes gazing at her.
‘No, she didn’t,’ said dean Twain. ‘Unfortunately Ms Klein had no time to tell her husband about her gift. Before…’
‘She died giving birth to my grandmother,’ said Madeleine, who had asked her mother about her great-grandmother during the summer. Not that Madeleine had been told much, giving that her mother claimed to know very little about the woman herself.
‘Indeed,’ said dean Twain. ‘A magnificent loss for our community. And your family,’ she added quickly when she saw Madeleine’s glare.
‘Come on, all of you,’ James said in his usual cheerful tone. ‘Lunchtime.’
After eating the most delicious – and largest – chocolate pudding for lunch she had ever had, Madeleine and her new classmates spent all afternoon roaming around their new school before lessons would commence the following day. Some of them had siblings or other family members attending, some dating back generations, so many of them had visited before and knew about the best spots. Madeleine understood their excitement completely as they bounced around the place. It was magnificent and homey and colourful and fun and Madeleine felt infinitely grateful that the group of first-years included her in everything. They showed her a room with a pond in the middle where she’d learn to turn lily pads into frogs and frogs into lily pads – and back again. Then they had visited a room full of books that tried to appeal to you as you passed them by, throwing key words at you or even whole paragraphs. Madeleine had never been in such a loud library before. Exploring further, they had discovered balconies that contained entire aviaries and animal pens and even one that was turned into the most colourful garden.
By the end of the day, Madeleine was sure she had made the right choice by racing home to catch the bus here and when she arrived home late in the afternoon – delivered precisely on time by school bus, which Dorothea parked around the corner just to be safe -, she was so cheerful that her siblings asked if someone had cloned her and sent the wrong Madeleine home to them. For the first time, Madeleine didn’t care about their comments. She had a new place to call home with classmates who had already become her friends after one day at the Academy and she had the best and nicest teachers while going to learn about magic in the most beautiful building she had ever seen.
The next day she told her mother she was getting a ride from a new friend’s father for the rest of the year and her mother was so pleased and busy getting the twins ready for their school day that she barely noticed Madeleine walked away from the house to wait at the corner for a tall and narrow bus and was never in fact picked up by a car.
A bang and there it was again in all its yellow glory. Instantly, Dorothea appeared, leaning against the bus’s entrance door. ‘Ready?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Madeleine, hopping on and darting to the back of the bus, grabbing eleven cookies from the refilled cookie jar and buckling up in her new favourite chair.
‘Here we go,’ announced Dorothea. And go they did. With a large grin, Madeleine bit off a piece of the cookie. She chewed happily as the bus lurched forward to pick up Anouk.
Each day after that one felt increasingly like a party to Madeleine as she learned about magic, discovered new rooms inside the Academy building and became friends with her fellow students. They learned spells, curses and hexes. She learned about the history of magic in the world and about magical musical instruments and songs invented and created by her great-grandmother. She learned about the intricate mathematics involved in sorcery. She learned about magical plants and animals and how to hide your magic from ordinary humans.
Her favourite subject was Cooking with Cauldrons. During those hours, with her nose planted above her cauldron as different aromas filled her nostrils, the chefs of the Academy taught her how to create the most delicious and magical dishes.
That day in early spring when Chef Beaumont had come up to her in the main hall during their lunch hour to ask her to help prepare the food for the graduation ceremony had been her favourite day at the Academy yet. Anouk had been so happy for her, she had conjured up a cloud above Madeleine’s head that rained confetti on her all day wherever she went.
But quickly Madeleine realised there was a problem with Graduation Day. It was a day when family and caregivers were expected to make the trip by bus to the Academy and join in on the magical festivities. By now, Madeleine was the only one whose family still had no idea about her actual daytime activities and no matter how often James had urged her to tell them, she had never dared to. What if they still disapproved and ordered her to leave the Academy? The thought alone made Madeleine’s eyes tear up.
How to go about it? She knew her parents wouldn’t even set foot in the school bus, let alone make it to the actual ceremony.
‘Do you want me to come over and talk to them?’ James had suggested.
‘No,’ answered Madeleine. ‘I think that might make it worse.’
‘You’re probably right,’ James replied with a giggle.
Madeleine had gone silent for a moment, until an idea hit her. ‘What if we turn the bus into any ordinary bus? Just this once? That way we’ll at least get them here.’
James pondered this for a moment and then nodded. ‘Very well. Just this once. For you.’
Madeleine had been grateful, but still felt incredibly nervous when Graduation Day arrived. She knew today would be the day her family would find out and the thought of having to leave the Witchcraft Academy and all the friends she had made there, made her panic, even though she herself had sent out the invitation. To avoid her parents getting to talk to any of the families of her fellow students, Madeleine had talked the entire bus ride to the ceremony. She had talked so much about all kinds of different subjects that when they reached their destination, her voice had gone croaky.
To her own surprise and relief, her family was still completely oblivious to what was going to happen next. As she guided her mother, father and siblings across the green lawn to the table assigned to them, she looked around nervously, looking for signs of magic. Her family sat down and looked around the area, approving of the green décor and the colourful decorations, not quite noticing most of them hovered in the air of their own accord.
But then, her father spotted James welcoming Anouk’s family three tables away. He jumped up, knocking over his chair. ‘You!’ He shouted across the lawn. Madeleine wanted to crawl underneath the table and hide for what was now inevitable.
‘Ah,’ said James, flashing his eyes from Mr Raines to Madeleine and back. ‘Welcome, Mr Raines, to the British Witchcraft Academy.’
‘What?’ her father said, his eyes narrowing.
‘Where are we?’ asked Iain.
‘Hello, young man, we never have been properly introduced.’ James hurried over and bowed before Madeleine’s little brother.
‘You’re the weirdo that came to our house a year-and-a-half ago.’
‘I’m not sure “weirdo” describes me best. I am your sister’s teacher here at the Academy.’
‘Do not talk to this man,’ said Madeleine’s father. ‘He talks nonsense.’
‘Dad,’ said Madeleine.
‘Bill,’ said Madeleine’s mother, grinding her teeth. ‘Sit! People are staring.’
Madeleine’s father looked down at his wife who put his chair back up for him. ‘You approve of this then?’ he asked as he reluctantly sat back down.
‘No,’ said her mother. ‘But you’ve seen how happy she’s been this past year. I knew there was something she wasn’t telling us. Now it seems she is ready to and we should at least hear her out and see where this is going. Maddy deserves that from us at least.’
Madeleine wanted to hug her mother for saying that, but her father was still fuming.
James nodded to Madeleine’s mother who smiled back at him, though not very warmly.
‘Thank you,’ said Madeleine who caught James’ eye. He now nodded at her and urged her over, so Madeleine excused herself and walked to the podium, her legs shaking and her breathing irregular. On the podium waiting for her, Mr Beaumont was standing in his cleanest chef’s uniform looking at her proudly. Dean Twain took the microphone as Madeleine saw a sea of red hair before her.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, witches and wizards and everyone in between and outside, welcome to our annual Academy’s Graduation Ceremony.’
Some older students cheered.
‘Thank you, thank you. It has been another grand and educational year for us all and I am pleased to say all of our students passed their exams.’
More and louder cheers this time.
‘I am also pleased to say that this year we have seen an even higher score on our family and fun scales,’ dean Twain pointed at four large scales behind her with four blue pointy hats in the middle holding the scales up with their tips. The first showed that ‘fun’ had beaten ‘boredom’ this school year and ‘family’ had beaten ‘strangers’. Madeleine was also pleased to see ‘bullying’ being outweighed in full by ‘friendship and acceptance’ and that ‘happiness’ led over ‘sorrow’.
‘Today it is time to celebrate our achievements of this school year,’ dean Twain continued. ‘All of our students will show all of you what they have learned over the past year, whether in a group or individually. But first, so that you have some tasty foods and drinks to enjoy during the show, be amazed by this wondrous meal, prepared for you by our cooks led by the magnificent Chef Beaumont, assisted by our very own Maddy Raines.’
A loud cheer came from the front of the lawn nearest to the podium where the first-years and their families were seated. Madeleine had deliberately not looked down at her friends and family, but the loud cheers made it irresistible. Anouk was wolf-whistling and cheering the loudest and to her delight she saw her family look around in astonishment at the cheers their daughter and sister received. Even Margaret seemed surprisingly pleased, showing a hint of a smile on her face.
‘Bon appetite,’ said dean Twain before leaving the stage, leaving Chef Beaumont and Madeleine alone.
Madeleine took a deep breath and looked at Chef Beaumont who gave her an encouraging smile and nod. Then she looked down at Anouk who was grinning up at her friend and giving her a double thumbs up. Madeleine closed her eyes and took another deep breath. The sensation she had felt for the first time on her birthday a year ago and that she had gotten so familiar with over the past sixteen months took hold of her again. She heaved her arms in the air and as the sensation reached the top of her head and the tips of her toes she snapped her fingers. When she opened her eyes, all tables were full. As soon as the guests started to notice the ooh’s and ahhh’s spread across the lawn.
Before them stood pies in the shape of castles, steaks as big as people’s arms, soups tasting after their favourite memories and cheeses turning colour depending on the preference of the person holding it.
Madeleine glanced over at her family’s table. Her father stared at the volcano-shaped pudding in front of him – strawberry and chocolate, his favourite – while Iain and Margaret had already started digging into their car and horse-shaped ice creams – hazelnut and lemon flavoured – with sprinkles. Her mother looked up at Madeleine and smiled. Madeleine had never seen her smile at her like this before. A surge of relief soared through her. She bowed before the guests and left the stage together with Mr Beaumont as James hopped onto it, giving Madeleine a wink and a pat on the shoulder in passing.
‘Isn’t it a wondrous meal, indeed?’ said James into the microphone, as Madeleine watched from the side of the podium where the first group of students lined up to perform. ‘While you enjoy your meals, please give the rest of your attention to this stage as our students show you the magical skills they have learned this year. First up, it is Daniel Whittigan and his incredible greenery skills.’
Madeleine smiled at Daniel encouragingly, who was swallowing hard and nodded at her before darting onto the stage. Madeleine had always loved his magical skills when it came to plants and trees. Seeing him grow a hundred tall trees from scratch and then having them tower above the lawn and filling the trees with thousands of fairy lights mesmerised her. And so it did the crowd going by the enormous applause he received, making him blush profusely.
After Daniel, there were dozens more performances. From turning fellow students into each other and back, to spells that made everyone belly laugh without a reason, to musical pieces by magical instruments invented by Madeleine’s great-grandmother, such as the frumpet and the elf-guitar that made you feel the sentiment with which the song itself had been written. Madeleine’s favourite performance though came from a group of fifth year students that performed mind-bending mid-air circus tricks that truly did defy gravity.
After all student had performed a magic trick, and the meal had been consumed, or rather when people were so stuffed no new desserts appeared on their plates, the dean and James called Madeleine and her academy fellows back to the podium. The other teachers made an arch and applauded loudly and cheered as their pupils made their way onto the stage.
Madeleine had kept her distance from her family all the way through, cheering on her classmates from the side of the podium and making sure all went well with the food and drinks, but she was now forced to look down at them as dean Twain requested a loud applause for her and Chef Beaumont. And an applause they received. A rapturous noise spread across the podium and the lawn. Her classmates were cheering behind Madeleine and their families were hurting their hands by applauding vigorously in front of her. Madeleine nervously searched for her family, but couldn’t find them. Her heart sank and her stomach tightened. Had they really left? Was this it for her at the Academy?
Then she felt a pull at the hem of her dress. She looked down and saw Iain jumping up and down in front of her while Margaret started to slap her bare leg in enthusiasm. Never before had her siblings been so affectionate towards her and for a moment she was too stunned to respond.
Then she noticed her mother and father standing behind them. Both were applauding, both were smiling. Her mother’s eyes were wet while her father nodded and clapped as if his life depended on it. He even seemed to mouth a ‘sorry’ in her direction. It was the best apology Madeleine had ever received.
‘There we have it, everyone, our graduates of this incredible year at the Witchcraft Academy. I hope you all enjoyed the show and your dinner. To those leaving us, thank you for your presence these past six years. We wish you well in the future. Do keep in touch. To the rest I say: enjoy your summer and all of us at the Witchcraft Academy cannot wait to see you all again in a few months’ time,’ said dean Twain.
As the entire lawn exploded in yet more cheers and applause, Madeleine beamed at her mother and father and mouthed: ‘Can I stay?’
Her parents looked at each other and then back at Madeleine. Then both of them nodded.
A surge of happiness and relief flooded through Madeleine. The surge was so intense that behind her she heard a ‘ting’. Madeleine looked around and saw the happiness scale had reached a new high. Turning back to her family, she smiled even more broadly at them and tears pricked behind her eyes as her family before her and friends behind her kept cheering each other on.
This summer was definitely going to be the best one yet.