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Hansel & Gretel – Mike Shepherd: The Goosewoman

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Read more on Hansel & Gretel – Mike Shepherd: The Goosewoman from the Kneehigh Cookbook archive.

As a child (and this is true), I’d spend many hours up a tree at the bottom of the garden. When it was in leaf no-one below could tell whether I was up there or not; I was in a world of my own away from parents and siblings.

It was from that tree that I watched the “Goosewoman”. I never knew what she was called but she was squat and moved fast, close to the ground, swishing a stick.

The geese were terrifying too: if you ever went into the field to fetch a ball or retrieve a paper glider they would come at you in a spear-headed phalanx – like Concorde.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, and it was this time of year, as an eight year old boy (and this is true), that I witnessed the deep, dark stuff of nightmares. From out of the goose shed came The Goosewoman. I remember her dressed in a faded blue thick canvas apron, fat goose gripped firmly under her arm, small shopper in her hand.

She made her way to an upright post, positioned the goose whose neck waved innocuously this way and that until it lined up, for an instant, above the post. In a flash the chopper flew and its head fell. Blood everywhere and I clung to the comforting branch which I straddled.

Then, in my shocked state, with a child’s logic, I decided that something had to be done to dispel this living horror just outside the comfort of my family garden.

I stuffed a hessian sack (and this is true) with dead leaves and newspaper, sneaked a box of matches from the mantelpiece, set fire to the sack of combustibles, opened the goose shed door, threw in the sack, slammed the door tight shut, and ran.

I ran from one end of St Austell to the other – this was in the says when St Austell had two ends and a heart in the middle – until I found myself in the middle of the woods: Menacuddle Woods.

There I hid as darkness fell, staring at my hoppalong Cassidy watch. I stayed there until midnight, the witching hour, the hour when time stands still, when time starts again, when, hopefully, there can be a new beginning.

Then I made my way home, the deed done, the hour passed. Home to worried parents, an ear-clipping policeman, and a scowling Goosewoman.

Why have I revealed this secret from the past? I’m sat in a reflective mood around the dying embers of our fire pit at the Kneehigh Barns. We’ve just finished a period of ‘play’ with the story of Hansel & Gretel. It’s a dark, elemental story: the children abandoned in the forest, and the old witch enticing them into the horrors of houses where children are cooked and eaten!

Of course these dark fairytales connect us to the dark fears of childhood: the terrifying realisation that life is finite, that there is a world to step into without home, without parents.

Mike Shepherd, 2009.

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