Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi

BOOK: Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi
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Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi

with
"The Beach of the Drowned"

John Grant

Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi

John Grant

Tarburton-on-the-Moor – just another sleepy Dartmoor village. Or so it seems to Joanna Gard when she comes to visit her elderly aunt here, until the fabric of the village begins, like her personal life, to unravel. The villagers become less and less substantial as she watches, the local church degenerates into a nexus of terrifying malevolence, siblings of a horrifyingly seductive family pull her inexorably towards them, elementals play with her terrors on the midnight moor ... At last Joanna is compelled to realize that a duel of wills between eternal forces is being played out – that nothing, herself included, is what it seems to be. In this uncomfortably disturbing tale of clashing realities, Hugo- and World Fantasy Award-winning author John Grant skilfully juggles a strange, fantasticated cosmology with images from the darker side of the human soul.

“The Beach of the Drowned”

He thought he was booking himself in for a day's idle sailing and lovemaking, and it would all have been fine except then a storm blew up out of nowhere, his girlfriend suffered a horrible death, and finally he himself was sucked under the waves. But death eluded him. Instead he found himself drawn to the beach where all drowned folk go, a place outside normal existence where the few people who retain their intelligence band together in the hopeless hope of finding their way back to the living world again. After all, legend says it was done once before ...

Published by

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© John Grant 2011

Cover image: a detail from
Regulus
by JMW Turner

No portion of this book may be reproduced by any means, mechanical, electronic, or otherwise, without first obtaining the permission of the copyright holder.

The moral right of John Grant to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.

Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi
was first published in slightly different form in 2002 as half of a Cosmos Double; copyright © 2002, 2011 by John Grant

"The Beach of the Drowned" was first published in slightly different form in 2009 in
Under the Rose
, edited by Dave Hutchinson; copyright © 2009, 2011 by John Grant

eISBN: 9781458005052

Electronic Version by Baen Books

www.baen.com

Other books of fiction by John Grant include:

Albion

The World

The Hundredfold Problem

Strider's Galaxy
(as Paul Barnett)

Strider's Universe
(as Paul Barnett)

The Far-Enough Window

Dragonhenge
(illustrated by Bob Eggleton)

The Stardragons
(illustrated by Bob Eggleton)

Take No Prisoners

The Dragons of Manhattan

Leaving Fortusa

Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi

see LoChi

girl-child LoChi

her back bends not for the heaviest load

she is

starwatcher

she is

cloudrider

she is

she who seeks to the ends of roads

—fragment found in West Street, afterwards

1: Qinmeartha

Looking out the window across Ashburton, Joanna caught sight of the reflection of her own face in the glass. Behind her Aunt Jill, sitting in the old yellow armchair that had come down through perhaps too many generations of the family, was neatly framed by the reflected image.

Joanna smiled. The juxtaposition seemed to be telling her that she and Aunt Jill were the last of a kind.

The bells of St Leonard's began unmelodically to lurch into sound. Ever since arriving in Ashburton – full name Ashburton-by-the-Moor – three years back, Aunt Jill had been fighting a losing battle against the bell-ringers, who practised every Tuesday night and Thursday night, very loudly, and apparently to no beneficial effect. Today the peals should have been in their Sunday best, but they sounded much as usual.

The reflected Aunt Jill was making little irritated movements, and Joanna turned away from the window.

"Bloody bells," muttered Aunt Jill. "Bloody, bloody bells." It was the strongest oath she ever used. She got to her feet and gestured at the littered tray in front of her. "More tea?"

"I'll make it," said Joanna, glad for something to do. They'd run out of things to talk about, but Joanna had said that she'd leave about five, and couldn't now say she'd go at four. She was awash with cups of tea drunk in a brittle silence interrupted by doomed attempts to find new topics of conversation.

In the little kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil, she wondered what it was that had created this new distance between herself and her Aunt. Joanna had been only fifteen when her father had died in a light-aircraft crash, eleven years ago, and two years after that her mother had died also – of grief, according to all the family friends, although Joanna knew there had been quite a deal of alcohol mixed in with the grief. Aunt Jill, her mother's spinster elder sister and Joanna's sole surviving relative, had moved into the family home, just off Seymour Street, near Marble Arch, and had taken over Joanna's life. She must have done a good job: Joanna's GCSEs had been screwed up by her father's death, but her A-level results were excellent. In a way, Joanna reflected now, Aunt Jill had been more of a mother to her than her real mother had been.

Except this weekend. Something was bothering Aunt Jill, and Joanna couldn't find out what it was. She'd tried subtle hinting and got nowhere. She'd tried unsubtle interrogation: likewise. The old woman – not that old, but a lot older than Joanna's twenty-six – would volunteer the information in her own time. Maybe.

Maybe Aunt Jill had a boyfriend? That could be it. She was the other side of sixty, but life didn't stop then – at least, according to all the over-sixty-year-olds Joanna knew. But surely Aunt Jill would have told her?
Maybe,
Joanna thought as she poured the steaming water into the pot,
maybe it's somebody "terribly unsuitable".

She grinned. Aunt Jill always seemed to get a bit of a kick out of Joanna's more unsuitable lovers, to be full of questions that often tottered over from the personal into the distinctly tasteless. It'd be funny if she came over all coy just because she'd fallen madly, passionately in love with the local poacher or someone.

The grin faded. No – it couldn't be that. However much they might pretend to each other, no two people ever know each other completely, but Joanna was certain she knew Aunt Jill well enough to be able to read that much in her. It was something more serious than – Joanna found herself subvocalizing the words in a pompous tone – an "unsuitable liaison".

The tea was ready. There was no excuse for not going back into the drawing-room.

Aunt Jill looked up as Joanna entered, a polite smile on her face, as if everything between them were just fine. "It's been a good weekend, hasn't it, Joanna?" she said brightly, for at least the tenth time in the past hour.

"Yes. A lot of fun."

"I never thought these old legs would take me to the top of Hay Tor ..."

Joanna smothered a sigh as she poured a thin stream of tea into the too-small, too-fragile cups. She was already bored with the subject. All weekend Aunt Jill had been busily prattling away about superficialities, anxious to bar the conversation from heading into deeper waters. She was running out of those superficialities now, beginning to repeat herself.

"I'll really have to get moving soon. The weather might get rough up nearer London." The excuse was valid, but didn't sound any the better for that.

Aunt Jill obviously recognized it as well, but seemed relieved. "Yes," she said, putting down her hardly touched cup abruptly, sloshing some tea into her saucer. "There might be rain. Or mist."

It seemed odd to be talking of mist when the sunlight was washing in through the window. Down here in Devon, October sometimes saw periods of weather that were better even than the summer, as if the world had arranged things so that the locals, swamped by grockles all through June, July and August, should be rewarded for their tolerance by some fine weeks to share among themselves. Joanna shivered at the prospect of London, which always seemed grey to her at this time of year.

"You've packed," said Aunt Jill. "Sure you haven't forgotten anything important."

Nothing except to talk
properly
with you,
thought Joanna. "I've got everything," she said. "Doesn't matter anyway, you old fusspot. I'll be back down here soon."

Which was a lie, and they both knew it. Joanna always intended to come to Ashburton every fortnight or three weeks to make sure Aunt Jill was getting on all right, but somehow things got in the way – commitments, overloads of work, things like that – and she was lucky if she made it down here three times a year.

Aunt Jill collaborated in the lie. "Yes," she said, "of course you will be. There's always that to look forward to."

~

The bells were still filling the sky with discord as the two women stood by Joanna's Mini in front of the Crafts Centre, Ashburton's main centre of social life apart from the pubs. It sold bad coffee, expensive wholemeal food, and a place where you could sit and talk.

"Are you sure you've got everything?" said Aunt Jill yet again.

"Everything," Joanna said, patting the roof of the car as if it were a parcel she'd just finished tying up. "Aunt Jill ..."

She paused, not knowing if she had the courage to press further.

"Yes, dear?"

"Is there anything" – Joanna found she was twisting her hands together, like people did in books – "anything you want to talk to me about?"

"What do you mean?" That dreadful artificial brightness again.

"Is there anything ... well, you know,
wrong
?"

"No, darling!" Aunt Jill was attempting to pass it off with a laugh. "What could there be to be wrong? We've just had a lovely weekend, and I'm happy because you're looking so well. Of course there's nothing the matter."

Aunt Jill, smelling of some perfume that Joanna was certain was no longer manufactured – something with a lot of lavender in it – leaned forward in the sunlight and kissed her on the cheek. Was the hug she gave a little too vigorous? Was Joanna's imagination running away with her? "All right," she said, rummaging in her jacket pocket for a cigarette. "Just so long as everything's OK. I do worry about you, Aunt Jill."

"I'm flattered."

"I love you very much, you know." Joanna found her cigarettes but her matches were playing harder to get. "It matters to me that you're all right. Do take care."

"Of course I shall," said Aunt Jill, looking up crossly towards the spire of St Leonard's. "Those bloody, bloody bells. I'll be all right, dear. You'll see. I'm a tough old boot, you know. I got through the war. I'll be all right."

Joanna shrugged. The lady was maybe protesting too much, but it was easier to believe her than to worry about it.

"OK," she said, climbing into the Mini, gripping her cigarette between her teeth, feeling vaguely inadequate but not knowing what to do about it. "So long as you're sure."

"Do call me when you get home, just to let me know you're safe."

Standing in the evening sunlight, Aunt Jill suddenly looked smaller than Joanna had seen her before.

"I will," said Joanna through the open window. "I promise."

2: Girl-Child LoChi

It would be Easter in a couple of weeks.

Joanna had had a good drive down from London, and was feeling relaxed rather than tired by it. Slowing down as she came in off the A38 onto Fleet Street – the road that led into Ashburton's centre from the east – for the first time she wondered how much of what had happened in the past six months she could tell Aunt Jill, how much would have to be censored.
Quite a lot,
she concluded.
There are some things that don't cross the generation gap, however much Aunt Jill is supposed to have been a bit of a goer in her young days.

She parked the red Mini in Ham's Lane, just in front of the Crafts Centre, as usual. Climbing out of it, she looked up at the windows of her aunt's flat, just above the Blue Horse. They were blank, like eyelids closed against the sunshine. Aunt Jill would be watching her from there, so she waved cheerfully, then dived into the back seat to fetch out her squashy grey bagful of clothes.

Greta appeared at the door of the Crafts Centre, smiling uncertainly. She was of middle age and looked it, despite a lifetime spent eating nothing that came out of a packet or tin. She claimed to cook everything served in the Crafts Centre from raw materials, no shortcuts, but her neat blue designer apron never seemed to show any food-stains.

"Hi," said Joanna.

"Hello," said Greta slowly. "You'll have come to see your aunt again?"

"Yes," Joanna said. It was an obvious question, and for a second it worried her. Greta wasn't exactly a conversational expert, but she wasn't usually as dim as this either. "It's been a while."

"Been a while," Greta echoed. She turned and went back into her shop.

Joanna hefted the bag onto her shoulder and crossed the road. The Blue Horse was open, even though it was the middle of the afternoon – Jas must have decided the grockle season had begun – and Joanna was briefly tempted to push her way in through the swing doors to the cool, friendly darkness. No – Aunt Jill must have seen her arrive. Later on, perhaps, Joanna would be able to drag her out of the flat for a drink or three.

The flat's entrance was through a concrete corridor and up a little flight of stairs at the back. Listening to the bell's ping-
pong
, Joanna saw that the tiny garden was a mess, with weeds already growing in a tangled mat across the earth. She frowned. Aunt Jill wasn't an enthusiastic gardener, but she was determinedly dutiful. Had she been ill sometime during the winter, and not said anything – not wanted to bother Joanna? It would have been like her.

Ping-
pong
again.

Not that Joanna could have done much about it, even if Aunt Jill had told her. There had been too much going on in London, too many emotional quagmires that had to be either navigated or circumnavigated. The things she wasn't going to be able to talk to Aunt Jill about.

The symmetry of the situation struck her as she stood waiting on the doorstep. When last she'd been here in Ashburton she'd been aware that there was something Aunt Jill was withholding from her. Now it was the other way around. Splitting up with Mike – well, that would be OK: Aunt Jill had shown something akin to impatience when Joanna's relationship with Mike had entered its third year, as if Aunt Jill herself, in her youth, would have ditched the man months before, just on principle. Yeah, and it'd be all right to talk about Peter, too – about most of it.

Ping-
pong
.

How long had she been standing here? Couldn't be more than a couple of minutes. Maybe Aunt Jill had gone to the loo after seeing her arrive.
Don't worry about things so much,
thought Joanna, pulling a battered pack of cigarettes from her handbag.
You're getting to be as bad as Aunt Jill. A fussbudget, Peter would call you ...

Yes, it'd been a bit of a mess with Peter, hadn't it? Three years of Mike had reduced everything to familiarity. Peter had seemed a good option – although, when Joanna thought about it, she realized angrily that a lot of what had made him seem so glamorous was just that he had a faster car. They'd driven north one day, up almost as far as Manchester, and in between being terrified of police speed-traps Joanna had felt as if she were throwing off the shackles of her staid, quasi-respectable relationship with Mike.

Peter had driven away very quickly indeed when she'd told him she was pregnant.

Ping-
pong
.

And the odd thing was, she'd hardly blamed him.

"Joanna, darling," said a voice at her elbow.

She turned to find the door had opened. A pale face looked at her out of the gloom.

"Aunt Jill?" she said hesitantly.

"Who else would it be?"

"Yes, but ..."

"I've lost a little weight since you were last here, that's all. Come in, child, come in. Don't just hang around there. There's a chilly draught, if you hadn't noticed."

Following Aunt Jill up the inside stairs, Joanna found her mind in a turmoil. If she'd met her aunt in the street she wouldn't have recognized her. Aunt Jill couldn't be more than half the weight she'd been last October, and she seemed twenty years older. This was somebody's grandmother who was pointing her into the drawing-room – somebody's rather old and decrepit grandmother.

"Aunt Jill," Joanna began helplessly, "you look so ..."

"So
what
?" There was still a strong light in the blue eye that peered up at her.

"So ...
changed
," said Joanna.

"I'm six months older, that's all." Aunt Jill settled herself into the yellow armchair, leaving Joanna to sort herself out however she would. "It's been a long six months. I don't suppose you've had too much time to think about your poor old aunt – not with all the things you young folk get up to in the city."

"I'm sorry it's been so long ..."

"No, don't apologize to me, Joanna." Aunt Jill waved a frail hand in dismissal. The skin between the fingers was pale-yellow parchment. "I was young, too, you keep forgetting. A long time ago."

"Not all that long," said Joanna brusquely, dropping the squashy bag and plonking herself down in the window seat. "You're not all
that
ancient, Aunt Jill."
But she
looks
it. She looks as if she's not far from the grave. She doesn't look sixty ... sixty-three, I think ... or is it -four?

"Long enough. Tea? You'll have to make it for us both, if you could. I seem to have been standing half the day."

Joanna put the kettle on, scuttled upstairs briefly to the loo, then filled the pot. The kitchen, normally as neat as one of those pictures in the colour supplements, was like the garden out the back: it gave the impression of being overgrown.

"What was Peter like, then?" said Aunt Jill as Joanna came back into the room, carrying the tray. "You never told me much about him on the phone."

She didn't sound very concerned. In fact, she sounded as if she were finding it an effort to formulate the words, like an actress suddenly thrust into a part without having been given the script, just told to muddle along as best she can.

"Not much to tell," said Joanna. And there wasn't. He had been fun to be with, but now it was an effort to conjure up even the image of his face or the sound of his laughter. Their brief fling had been somehow affectless, even at the time. And then, of course, he'd been abruptly out of her life – business had suddenly, by some astonishing coincidence, necessitated his departure to Glasgow for the next two years.

Leaving her, and a fetus developing inside her. And Mike – except Mike hadn't really come into it. Oh, he'd been
there
, of course: hanging around like a faithful spaniel, over-eager that they remain best friends, even though they were no longer lovers.

She hadn't had the heart to tell him that the child was his: he might have offered, in his gallant way, to marry her, or something embarrassing and
confining
like that. So instead she'd quietly arranged for an abortion.

She'd been surprised by how much of an argument the doctors and nurses had put up, pointing out that an abortion was a permanent thing: you couldn't change your mind about it afterwards. And then she'd been surprised by how completely they'd acquiesced as soon as they'd realized that her mind was set. She got the feeling that, even if she'd had second thoughts an hour before the op, they'd have been overridden by those now-impersonal persons.

The biggest surprise was the guilt, afterwards. It was as if it was only after the bond between them had been severed that she could start to recognize the fetus – the dead fetus, which she wasn't allowed to see – as a fellow human being. She didn't think of herself as a murderess, not quite; but she did have the haunting sensation, whenever she woke in the night, that perhaps she'd run someone over in the car and forgotten about it. Which was illogical, silly, a notion not to be entertained. But a notion which, alas, had gate-crashed, and showed no signs of departure.

Joanna didn't respond to her aunt's question. The
old
Aunt Jill would have seen her preoccupation, but the new one – this grandmother – didn't even seem to be interested.

"I had a good drive down," said Joanna. "The countryside always looks so gorgeous this time of the ..."

"You're looked after in my will," said Aunt Jill. "As you must have known you'd be. Say no more about it, now. Just so long as you know."

"Auntie!" She'd left the sugar in the kitchen. "Whatever brought that up?"

"I'm not as young as I used to was."

"You're not
old
."

"Amn't I?"

Looking at the pale face, with the bones of the cheek and jaw clearly demarcated beneath the wrinkled paper skin, Joanna could find no answer. Yes, whatever had happened in this past half-year, Aunt Jill was now indisputably old. No argument.

"I'll get the sugar," she said.

"As you wish, child." This time the arm on the worn yellow chair only half-rose, leaving the little dismissive wave uncompleted.

When Joanna located the sugar-lumps, tucked away near the back of the cupboard for the cleaning powders and washing-up liquid, she found they were stained and spotted with what she hoped was just old tea. On the spur of the moment she dumped them in the overflowing pedal bin.

"You're out of sugar," she said, back in the drawing-room. "I'll get some for you, later."

"Oh, don't worry about `later'. Tell me something about what's been going on."

A little of the vitality had returned to the old woman. She'd pulled herself more upright in the chair, and was drinking her tea black and sugarless.

"Well, they sacked me." When Joanna had first told her aunt on the phone there had been a shocked sucking-in of breath: in the old days people never got sacked unless it was for some gross breach of conduct. "They called it making me redundant, but it felt just the same as being sacked."

She'd been working for a publishing company, Rolfe and Baldwin. Mainly they published glossy novels with lots of sex in different countries that sold hardly at all in hardback but gained big paperback advances. Joanna had been an assistant editor for nearly five years, all the time telling herself that she was wasting her time – that sooner or later the
right
job would turn up at OUP or somewhere respectable, and then she'd be on her way. Instead, as Dave Rolfe had told her, the bottom had fallen out of the soft-porn market, and they were having to cut back. She'd got six months' salary and a big bunch of red roses.

"Well," said Aunt Jill, "you were never very happy there anyway. Not a great loss."

All at once Joanna felt an upsurge of fury. The last few months had been hell – Mike, Peter, the abortion, the redundancy, everything – and surely it was her entitlement to have some older person she could lean on, someone whose shoulder she could weep into, just like she'd wept into her mother's shoulder as a child. For almost a decade Aunt Jill had been that person: it was her
job
to be a sort of mother confessor, and she was failing to fulfil it just at the time Joanna most needed her to.

I should be sympathetic,
she told herself sternly.
I shouldn't be thinking about my own interests at all. I shouldn't be being so selfish. Aunt Jill's ill – she must be, and here am I worrying away about my own trivial concerns.

It was good advice, but the anger didn't go away. She watched her hand clenching on her knee.

"I'll go and make up my bed," she said. "And then I'll do some shopping. And clean the kitchen. You've been letting things get out of hand, I think. Have you seen a doctor?"

Aunt Jill produced a thin imitation of a snort.

"Doctor Grasmere? He gave me a prescription. The same prescription he gave me last year for my rheumatism. I think it's a special sort of medicine that's designed to make old biddies go away and stop pestering him."

It was the nearest to the old Aunt Jill that Joanna had seen since arriving here. She looked for the smile that should have accompanied the remark, but it wasn't there.

"I'll go and make up my bed," she repeated.

~

Aunt Jill was too tired to go out for a drink that evening – too tired to do anything much except keep her feet up in front of the television, not even clucking over the usual dreadful news about rioting in South Africa and further slaughter in Bosnia. Joanna, who had done some shopping, cleaned the worst of the kitchen and concocted a casserole to throw in the oven – all in a state of righteous fury – had no choice in the matter: she
needed
the drink, not for its own sake but just to get away from the funereal flat and its morbid occupant.

It's like the baby all over again,
she thought as she clattered too noisily down the stairs.
I'm already beginning to think of Aunt Jill as someone completely isolated from me, rather than just ... Aunt Jill.

The Blue Horse smelt of stale cigarette smoke and spilt beer, just the way it always did – but there the semblance of normality ended. It wasn't ever a
noisy
pub – not like the Customs House in Fleet Street, where the yobboes with bikes and leather jackets hung out – but this evening it was almost silent, as if the air were too thick to carry sound. The lights – fake gas-lamps that Jas had put in to replace the fluorescents his predecessor had installed – likewise seemed muted. There were a few other drinkers already there, one or two of whom she recognized enough to exchange nods with, but only Jas himself had any words for her.

BOOK: Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi
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