We were on our way home from school (oh, distant, much missed, and longed for days of Blondie liberty!), and The Boy was doing That Wiggly Walk that can only mean one thing.
Me: Do you need a wee?
The Boy: YES
Me: Why didn’t you go before you came out of school?
The Boy (in tones of desperation): Can’t. Bloody Mary.
BLOODY MARY! Oh my god. Bloody Mary… Did she exist at your school? She did at Avenue Middle. In the toilets at the back of the school hall, the ones you could only use during lesson time. The story went that she’d been a pupil at the school in the 1890s, and had died a horrible death. The generally accepted version of events was that she’d been messing about on the balcony overlooking the hall (teaching staff and visiting adults only), had slipped, and fallen to a messy, grisly demise on the polished wood floor below. Her ghost was destined to roam the school forever more, hoping to tempt the unwary to copy her painful and splashy death, but for some reason, her main choice of residence was a grotty girls toilet refurbished sometime in the 1960s, with a broken drinking fountain and lingering smell of Lysol.
No one ever really told you about Bloody Mary. We just sort of knew, like a kind of herd memory as soon as one reached Year 6. There was much whispered discussion of her in the bottom playground, what she looked like (long dark ringletted hair, Victorian clothing) who had seen her (always someone’s elder sister’s friend, who had, conveniently, moved away from Norwich and was effectively dead to us in the pre-internet age,) and who had dared to summon her.
Oh yes. She could be summoned. You had to stand in front of the ancient, agespotted mirror, stare deep into your reflection, and say aloud ‘Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary.’ And her reflection would appear in the mirror, standing behind your left shoulder, staring at you, blood on her face and in her matted curls.
However, the thing was, although she confined herself to the girls toilets, once you knew the story, then you could conjure her up in any mirror, because you’d looked at yourself in Bloody Mary’s mirror, before you knew the story (look, we’re dealing with the minds of 10 & 11 year old girls. It made perfect, logical sense to us, ok?). Yes. Any mirror in the world could be pressed into service to summon Mary from the wasteland of lost souls. No one did, of course. There were hideous stories of pupils from the dim and distant 1970s who’d done so, and had then gone on to leave their vital organs messily splattered across nylon carpet squares. Some of the louder girls claimed to have got as far as saying ‘Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary. Bloody Mar…’ before chickening out. But no one actually ever completed the trio. You’d have to be CRAZY.
Then I left Avenues, went to high school, and forgot all about Bloody Mary, other than in terms of an utterly foul vodka drink. More than twenty years ago. And in any case, The Boy doesn’t go to Avenues. And he’s a boy. What would he know about the girls toilets of a school he’s never set foot in?
It was bloody weird. Everything. Right down to the finest detail (like the fact that she slipped and fell because her boot wasn’t laced loosely enough). And of course, the ‘any mirror in the world’ summoning clause. The Boy was freaking OUT. Which he does on a fairly regular basis, to be honest, but I had to do something.
Problem was, that when The Boy freaks out, he becomes impervious to reason, an enemy to logic, and blind to rationality. So my carefully designed explanation of why Bloody Mary is a load of cobblers fell on deaf ears. Actually not deaf ears. That suggests he could have potentially heard at some point. No. He was in the grip of The Fear and nothing could reach him. The whispers of other nine year old boys held more sway, truth, and conviction than the words and experience of his 34 year old mother.
Realising just how far gone he was, I hit upon the solution in my head. I couldn’t explain it to him; perhaps I could prove it instead? Make him realise how illogically superstitious he was being? Hmm…
So as soon as we got home, and The Boy had hurled himself into the downstairs loo, I nipped in behind him, and stood in front of the mirror hanging over the sink.
'BLOODY MARY. BLOODY MARY. BLOODY MARY.'
There was a scream. Not from me. Not from Bloody Mary (oh, come on). But from The Boy.
‘See, The Boy? Nothing happened! She’s not real, just like I told you.’ I beamed fondly at him, fully expecting his grateful thanks and sheepish, rueful acknowledgement of his gullibility.
‘MU-UM! You’re a… You’re a… YOU’RE A WITCH!’ And with that he stormed out.
It would appear that in dispelling one silly, schoolboy superstition, I have inadvertently caused my son to fear me instead. Bloody Maryvellous.
Since the events of that happy afternoon, I've looked up Bloody Mary online, and there's a fair amount of folklore surrounding it, and plenty of variations on the story The Boy and I know. Quite how these became twisted and worked into two strikingly similar tragic former pupils of Norwich haunting middle school toilets is unclear. It's just the way the human mind works, I suppose.