Three old hags with hooked chins and mottled complexions danced and cackled in front of me, rubbing their dirty hands and dancing in the most clumsy and uncoordinated fashion. It was the worst piece of overacting I had ever seen.
‘Thrice the blinded dog shall bark,’ said the first witch, producing a cauldron from the air and placing it on the path in front of me.
‘Thrice and once the hedge-pig ironed,’ said the second, who conjured up a fire by throwing some leaves beneath the cauldron.
‘Passer-by cries, Tis time, tis time!’ screeched the third, tossing something into the cauldron that started to bubble ominously.
‘I really don’t have time for this,’ I said crossly. ‘Why don’t you go and bother someone else?’
‘Fillet of a pickled hake,’ continued the second witch,
‘In the cauldron broil and bake; Lie of Stig and bark of dog, Woolly hat and bowl of fog, Fadda loch and song by Bing, Wizard sleg and Spitfire’s wing. For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble!’
‘I’m sorry to interrupt,’ I said, ‘but I really am very busy – and none of your prophecies have come true, apart from the citizen of Swindon bit and anyone with a telephone directory could find that out. And listen, you knew I was an apprentice so I had to be taking my jurisfiction finals sooner or later!’
They stopped cackling and looked at one another. The first witch drew a large pocket watch from the folds of her tatty cloak and looked at it carefully.
‘Give it ye time, imperfect waiter!’ she cried. ‘All hail MsNext, beware and heed the thrice-read rule!’
‘All hail MsNext, I before E except after C!’ cackled the second.
‘All hail MsNext!’ added the third, who clearly didn’t want to be left out. ‘Meet a king but not be one, Read a King but not —’
‘SHOO!’ shouted a loud voice behind me.
The three witches stopped and stared at the new visitor crossly. He was an old man whose weathered face looked as though it had been gnarled by years of adventuring across the globe. He wore a blue blazer over a polo-neck Arran sweater and on his head a captain’s cap sat above his lined features, a few wisps of grey hair showing from underneath the sweatband. His eyes sparkled with life and a grimace cracked his craggy features as he walked along the path towards us. It could only be Captain Nemo.
‘Away with you, crones!’ he cried. ‘Peddle your wares elsewhere!’
He probably would have beaten them with the stout branch he was brandishing had the witches not taken fright and vanished in a thunderclap of sound, cauldron and all.
‘Hah!’ said Nemo, throwing the branch towards where they had been. ‘Next time I will make mincemeat of you, foul dissemblers of nature, with your hail this and your hail that!’
He looked at me accusingly.
‘Did you give them any money?’
‘Truthfully now! Did you give them anything at all?’
‘Good,’ he replied. ‘Never give them any money. It only encourages them. They’ll coax you in with their fancy prophecies; suggest you’ll have a new car and as soon as you start thinking you might need one – BANG! – they’re offering you loans and insurance and other unwanted financial services. Poor old Macbeth took it a bit too seriously – all they were trying to do was sell him a mortgage and insurance on a bigger castle. When the Birnham wood and “no woman born” stuff all came true the witches were as surprised as anyone. So never fall for their little scams – it’ll drain your wallet before you know it.