Every book has a life changing moment. There are four in The Gift.
Lizzie ran, unsure of the consequences or whether she meant to. She ran, veering right over cobbles and tramlines until tall, more substantial buildings enveloped her. She imagined she heard her aunt’s penetrating shriek and ran all the faster, hurling herself into Lord Street and crashing into a middle-aged man who held her and laughed.
“Who are you running from? Have you stolen something?” He sounded amused.
Lizzie struggled in his arms. “Get off me. Let me go!”
He lifted her up so that her face was inches from his. She smelled tobacco and a sweet underlying fragrance that made her feel sick. His eyes, brown and compelling, bore into hers. “You think I will hurt you in a crowded street. I am not going to hurt you, and you are not going to run away.” His eyes confused, hard like glass, and a moment later drawing her into a brown swirling ocean.
He put her down gently and squeezed her left shoulder. “Now why are you running? I want to help you, Lizzie.”
“How do you know my name?”
He seemed surprised. “You fight back. Good. Now, you think it unfair that I should know your name. Well then, my name is Aleister Crowley, and we are on equal terms.” He shook her hand but didn’t release it. “So tell me who you are running from?”
From the end of the street came a high shriek. “Lizzie Tobin! Come here this minute.”
“That’s not my name,” Lizzie hissed. “It’s McBride. Lizzie McBride.”
“ McBride, a fine name. Do you want to go with her?”
Lizzie slumped at her aunt’s approach.
“Do you want to go with her?” Crowley insisted
“No. I hate her.”
“Hate can move mountains. Wait here. Don’t move.”
Crowley released her hand and moved, blocking her from Aunt Joyce.
“Will you excuse me, sir? Lizzie, come here at once!”
He bowed. Lizzie imagined him smiling, imagined his eyes. His voice was soft and she knew he was going to betray her. “I caught her just now. A wilful girl, if you’ll allow me.”
“I’ll allow you, Mr…?”
“Crowley. She is most wilful. Most wilful indeed. The sooner we’re at sea won’t be too soon for me!”
“It’s a pity they cannot be trained…like dogs.”
Lizzie tried to run but her legs wouldn’t move. She watched Crowley bend lower as though whispering something intimate, and then her aunt drop on to all fours, barking madly and turning her head as though guarding a bone. Pedestrians stopped, some forming a loose circle around the deranged woman, and Crowley looking almost as shocked as them. Lizzie began laughing and at once her legs regained movement. Then she saw Uncle Jim, hovering uncertainly at the far end of the street.
Crowley reclaimed her hand. “I think we should go now… Did you enjoy that?”
“I did. I did.” Lizzie felt guilty but she had enjoyed it. She wanted to turn back and see more. Was it bad to hate someone so much – her own mother’s sister? Her smile faded.
“Don’t feel guilty or sad, Lizzie. Those two things will kill you.”
There are many subplots in the Gift Trilogy, the most powerful of which is the slow but remorseless decline of Aleister Crowley. Born in 1875, he is a charismatic twenty-seven year old when he bumps into the fictional Lizzie McBride on a Liverpool Street.
Explorer, mountaineer, poet and magician he was approaching the height of his powers, and there are stories of him talking to otherwise sensible men, who suddenly and without warning, fell to all fours and began barking like dogs. He was associated with unexplained deaths and certainly destroyed the health and sanity of women who succumbed to him.
But even ‘the wickedest man in the world’ could not go on for ever. Magic, black or otherwise, and the corrosive effects of drug taking on an industrial scale, wreaked havoc on Crowley’s mental and physical health, so that by the end of World War II he had become an amiable, doddering shadow of what he’d once been.
To some an object still of veneration, to others a source of ridicule and perhaps disappointment. I like to remember Aleister Crowley as he’s first introduced in the book, and not what he’s reduced to in ‘Blood Fall,’ the final book of the Trilogy.