August 1 2005

Before antibiotics ruled the world, there were onions and brown sugar. And sometimes there were sweaty socks, parsley and lemon juice. And charms.
Sore throat? Slice a Spanish onion, cover it with brown sugar and let it steep over night. Strain off the syrup next morning and take a teaspoonful or two as required.
Chesty cough? Tie a pair of well worn socks around your throat, lie back and think of England.
Freckles? Rub them with a mixture of parsley and lemon juice and watch them fade before your very eyes. (Don’t try this at home. My mother used this concoction on mine for several summers when I was young and all it achieved for me was a lifetime aversion to parsley sauce).
Warts? Send for Mrs D.
Old as the hills, toothless and thin as a nail, Mrs D was a charmer.
In a different time and a different place they would probably have called her a witch, but in South Walls in the late 40s and a good part of the 50s, she was the wise neighbour everyone relied on. And feared ever so slightly.
I remember her smile, but I can’t recall what the D was short for or her first name. More than likely it was Alice, or Edith or Ivy, because every woman of her age in South Walls was called Alice or Edith or Ivy. None of them, though, shared her skills.
When I was nine or 10, Mrs D was invited to charm away a clutch of warts on the back of my left hand, a result my Gran was convinced, of handling a toad or touching the inside of eggshells.
Whatever the cause, they were corkers; conversation stoppers in any language. Mrs D took one look and whistled, clearly excited by the challenge.
She didn’t mess about with incantations, potions and such. All that was required, she said, was for my mother to bury a slice of the Sunday joint in the back garden.
Reason, half a century or so later, tells me this was so much mumbo-jumbo.
But a couple of days after the deed, my warts had gone and Mrs D, not surprisingly, got the credit.
Goodness knows where her power came from, but power it was and she used it to great effect. Warts were only part of it.
She also read tea-leaves with breathtaking accuracy and she was unerring in her ability to predict the sex of an unborn child.
Her skills, though, were not all supernatural.
When there was a death in the street, it was Mrs D they sent for to do the laying-out. Her job was to make the deceased presentable to family and friends before the undertaker arrived to do the funereal stuff.
And, tidily, when Mrs D herself took to her bed for the last time, she saved anyone else the trouble by crossing her arms on her chest before shuffling off into eternity.
Her dark arts went with her and when, a few years later, I had a new crop of warts, the NHS was around to do her job. Efficient but charmless.


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