Title: The Lost Child of Lychford
Author: Paul Cornell
Published: 1 November 2016
Thanks to Tor.com, we are very pleased to share an excerpt from the second in Paul Cornell’s rural fantasy series! If you can’t wait a whole month, Paul will be doing a signing at Forbidden Planet London on October 15th and a small quantity of The Lost Child of Lychford copies will be available at that event for readers who want to get their mitts on it early.
The Reverend Lizzie Blackmore slowly blinked awake, and found to her surprise that she was, already, furious. She was furious as if she’d been angry in her dreams, oppressed and confined by something she couldn’t recall, and waking up was just one more damned thing. But why?It must be the sound, she decided, an irritating, whiny sound that was wheedling itself into her brain and then poking it.
She looked over at her clock radio and swore at it. ‘It’s still two weeks to Christmas, and you’re playing Greg Lake?!’
‘The song “I Believe in Father Christmas”,’ she continued to Sue and Oliver, her elderly churchwardens, twelve hours later, at their weekly meeting round the Vicarage kitchen table, ‘should be banned. It should be a crime to play it. What else has he recorded? “Valentine’s Day is Just to Sell Cards”? “Look Out for Wasps, It’s Summer”? Radio stations only play it because it’s got that nice bit with the jingle bells, but he’s doing that sarcastically. He’s doing sarcastic jingle bells.’
‘I did like him in Crosby, Stills and Nash,’ opined Oliver, who knew what he meant.
‘Wow,’ said Sue. ‘We’re still two weeks out. And you’re already that far gone.’
Lizzie realised the two of them were looking at her with newfound wariness. This was going to be her first Christmas as vicar of St. Martin’s church, Lychford. The churchwardens, however, had long experience of working with her predecessor. All vicars had a rough time of it at Christmas, but she was obviously setting off their alarm bells already. ‘Chris de Burgh can sod off as well,’ she said. ‘And I liked the Pogues the first eighty-nine times, but come on. Anyway, why are we talking about this? We’ve got a lot to do. Can we please get on?’
They did indeed have a lot to do. Lizzie most of all.She’d expected to feel daunted. She’d spent the year trying to attract new members into the congregation, and Christmas was traditionally the time when a whole bunch of people who wouldn’t otherwise cross the threshold of a church came piling in. The challenge was to somehow keep them afterwards, while running an ecclesiastical assault course. She’d already gotten over the first few hurdles of the season. The Advent Carol Service, which she’d insisted that this year was going to be by candlelight – despite Oliver’s misgivings that this would result in what he called a ‘Towering Inferno scenario’ – had turned out to actually be problematic in other ways. Lizzie had had to lead the plainsong while not being able to see anything. The congregation attracted by the poster hadn’t really sung along, and, as they filed out, Lizzie found them to be a bit bemused that the songs they’d just awkwardly picked their way through were what the Anglican Communion regarded as ‘carols’. ‘I like “Silent Night”,’ one young woman had said, ‘but perhaps that’s a bit too popular for you.’ Lizzie had nearly replied there was a little number by Greg Lake she’d probably enjoy.
Then there had been Christingle, which had meant more fire, and this time children were handling it, and which brought in very few people who understood why there were oranges with candles stuck in them. At times, Lizzie had wondered if the best way to deal with the added numbers might be some sort of video prologue. ‘Previously, in Christianity…’
But what she was feeling went beyond daunted, beyond useless, beyond stressed. There was a sort of… background anger, a feeling of being downtrodden. She really didn’t understand it, and it was getting in the way of what should be a season of joy. That’s what Christmas had always been for her in the past.
The morning after the churchwardens’ meeting, she went into the church to check the stocks of wine, wafers and hymn sheets, ready for the forthcoming onslaught. There were fourteen more days of frantic organisation and hopefully passionate delivery ahead of her, as well as all the other matters of life and death which, in the normal course of parish life, kept her really pretty damn busy. On top of all that was the sombre fact that Christmas killed people. Old folk tried to hang on for one last Christmas lunch and found that took a bit too much out of them. Or just about managed that then immediately expired. So she had a larger number of funerals than usual to attend to as well.
And still, beyond all that – the star atop Lizzie’s personal Christmas tree of stress – there was the wedding. For the last few months, she’d been meeting with a couple from Swindon who were deluded enough to believe that to get married on Christmas Eve was to be the stars of one’s own festive rom com. She’d tried to dissuade them, saying Spring was so much nicer. She’d pointed out that other parishes were available. She’d shown them just how many other services she’d have to fit in on that day. She’d shown them around the church, pointing out how small and drafty it was. But no. They were set on it. So that was yet another damn thing.
On the way to the vestry, she dipped before the altar, stopping a moment to check again the advent dressings placed on it. The low light through the windows gave the building an air of quiet contemplation. She wished she felt the same.
She heard a noise from behind her.
She turned and saw, standing some distance away, a child. It was a boy of about three years old. He had his back to her, his arms by his sides, looking at the ancient map of Lychford and its surroundings which was once again on display and featured on the list of points of interest in the church’s tourist leaflet.
This was a bit odd. There’d been nobody on the path outside, and she was pretty sure there was nobody else in the building. ‘Hi,’ she called.
He didn’t reply.
Lizzie walked down the length of the church toward him, not wanting to scare him. As she approached, she heard he was muttering to himself, in the way toddlers did. ‘Say hello, everybody.’
‘Hello,’ said Lizzie again. She’d put on her brightest voice. She didn’t want him running away. She realised that, oddly, some part of her was also feeling… afraid. There was something not quite right about… what?
The boy turned to look at her. His expression wasn’t the excited interest you normally expected from a child of that age. It was a look of terrible, lost, pain. It was an expression that should only appear on a much older face.
Since having the waters of the well in the woods thrown over her by Judith Mawson, Lizzie had seen some extraordinary things. She could now sense what those who lived in the everyday streets of Lychford seldom saw, the effects and creatures of… she hated to use the word, but of ‘magic’. She realised now that here she was seeing something else of that world. This little boy wasn’t quite here. She realised that, now she was up close, she could see through him.
This was her first ghost.
The feeling was almost of relief. That this wasn’t a real child who demanded her immediate care, but one for whom that care was… too late?But no. Here he was, right in front of her, his expression demanding… something. This was no Victorian urchin. This boy had a Thomas the Tank Engine pullover, and those tiny trainers with lights on them.
‘Not Mummy,’ the boy said. ‘Where’s Mummy?’
‘Are your Mum and Dad about?’ she said, helplessly. Did she expect there to be a ghost Mum and Dad? Wouldn’t that be cosy?
‘No hurting,’ he said. It was half a plea, half scolding.
He was literally radiating anxiety, a coldness she could feel on her skin. Lizzie squatted down and reached out to him, encouraging him to come to her. He backed away. She was scaring him. Was it just because she wasn’t his Mummy? A second later, without any sense of movement, he was gone.
Lizzie got slowly to her feet. She realised she was shaking. She herself had never wanted to be a mother, but the way that small boy had needed someone, to get him back to where he should be, wherever that was –
She jumped at the sound of the church door opening.
It was Sue, carrying an armful of candles. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Hope I didn’t disturb you.’
‘It’s probably not real,’ said Judith, who was sitting exactly where Lizzie had expected to find her, behind the counter of Witches: The Magic Shop. These days, the old lady seemed only to venture away from her post among the potions and unicorn figurines and crystal balls to reluctantly head home, and that was often late in the evening. The elderly witch complained bitterly, to anyone who’d listen, about her new situation as a ‘shop girl’, but spent so much time in that shop that Lizzie could only think she protested too much.
‘Those are not words I ever expected to hear you say,’ said Lizzie, who’d been relieved to have had provided for her a cup one of the shop’s more soothing herbal teas.
‘Well, of course it’s a bloody ghost. Your church is haunted.’
‘So by “not real” you mean…?’
‘A ghost isn’t often a person. It most probably don’t have feelings you can hurt or soothe. It’s just a… watchamacallit, a symbol. Like the green man on the traffic light.’
Lizzie tried to get her head around the idea that that frightened little boy might appear in her church as often as the sign at the pedestrian crossing did. ‘So… is it sort of an architectural feature, a recording of something that happened, or is it there because…?’ Because of me, she wanted to say. Where had that thought come from?
Autumn, who owned the shop, and was, as always, dressed as if she’d staggered out of an explosion in Next, brought the pot of tea over, a concerned expression on her face. ‘Ah, now, wait. I’ve read a lot of texts that say ghosts are the souls of people who are prevented from getting into heaven -‘
‘I don’t believe anything could prevent them,’ said Lizzie. ‘If there is a heaven, about which Biblical sources -‘
‘ – but I was about to add,’ finished Autumn pointedly, ‘that since I don’t believe in an afterlife, I don’t think that can be true.’
‘It’s not like there’s a vote on what’s real,’ said Judith. ‘It don’t matter what either of you believe, the world just gets on with it. Still, at least you’re agreeing on summat, which is that it’s probably not real either way. Might be a recording, like you say. Might be summat else.’
‘However,’ underlined Autumn, ‘I’m trying to train Judith in the correct approach to customers, and, Lizzie Bizzie, you are, at this moment, a customer.’
‘I haven’t bought anything,’ said Lizzie, feeling now vaguely as if she should.
Autumn ignored her. ‘Judith, what have I told you about addressing the feelings of customersfirst, before getting into the details of why they’re visiting us?’
Judith glowered. ‘Summat annoying, I should think.’
‘I am paying you to work here.’
‘Only because you’re now my apprentice and you want me here so you can learn from me.’
‘You still have to actually do the job. And I’m trying to teach you how. We have a Christmas rush on.’ Autumn gestured at the empty shop, completely without irony. ‘It’s time you learned about customer satisfaction.’
Judith carefully took out her hanky, spat into it in disgust, then put it back in her pocket, as if this was the epitome of etiquette.
‘Well, this has been informative,’ said Lizzie, just as exasperated by the impossible situation these two had set up for themselves as she had been on the last few occasions she’d visited. It was always good to see her friends, but it wasn’t as if they could understand her situation, when Autumn still sometimes referred to Lizzie only working on Sundays. And now they’d used her child ghost as just the basis for another row. She made her goodbyes, threw her scarf round her neck, and just about managed to avoid slamming the door.
That evening, Judith Mawson left the shop rather earlier than usual, and headed up to the market place, then up the road to St. Martin’s churchyard. At the start of December, the church had had a neon star put on the top of its tower. Now Judith looked up at it and snorted. ‘Bloody Christmas,’ she said. She couldn’t be having with the sort of uncontainable, over-excited enthusiasm the Reverend Lizzie displayed for such a tiring season. She pushed herself forward on her stick and headed for the church door.
Judith knew there were at least a dozen things a ghost could be, including, well, she didn’t like to call such things souls, that being ecclesiastical territory, but yes, summat that was still a person. She didn’t like being vague to just about the only two individuals in this town it was possible that in a few years’ time she’d get round to calling friends. However, there existed a worrying possibility about what this was, and she didn’t want to burden Lizzie with that thought until she was sure. It was possible that the Reverend had been cursed. Perhaps not with… something as personal as her own burden, but certainly with something that had scared her, badly. Despite her trying so hard to be Ms. Vicar and not show it. Bloody Autumn had, of course, remained oblivious. But the wise woman had seen.
Judith tried the door, found it to be still unlocked, and stepped into the empty church. She sniffed the air. Nothing she hadn’t expected. The flavour of the air was slightly different, as churches always got at this time of year, as different belief systems crowded in. Was that something sinister, right at the bottom of the range? Probably just the occasional deeply unrighteous individual, only to be expected in a big crowd. A village witch like her was always a bit lost when presented with people in numbers. She put that thought aside and addressed the air. ‘Right then,’ she called out, ‘what are you?’
She didn’t really expect an answer. Not in words. The tone of her voice had been calculated, through experience, to reach whatever had started roosting in this place. There was, in reply, just a slight movement of air.
It was hiding from her. Through fear or malice? Not sure. Judith tasted the air once more. She knew things that had been born out there in the dark beyond the bounds of the town could conceal themselves, could even lie about their natures, but she knew most of the flavours of that deceit.
She was startled to suddenly find a new flavour on her tastebuds. This wasn’t something that was… here… as such, this was a connection to something somewhere else. She flexed her old fingers painfully and drew it out of the air in more detail, rubbing it between her numb fingertips.She grew worried at what she felt. There was something of it that reminded her of Lizzie. So there was an association between the Reverend and this child, not a curse, but it was… complicated. Mixed-up. It would need a working to explore in more detail.
To Judith’s surprise, the ghost now appeared, looking at her from around the edge of a pew. That lost, demanding face. Judith looked sternly back. Yes, she could see how that would get to the soft girl. ‘You go on home, then,’ she said. It had come out more gently than she’d intended. ‘If you know where that is. I give you permission to do so and I give you strength.’ She winced as the little pulse of life left her. She hadn’t meant to give up so much of that, either. She’d regret that moment on her death bed.
However, the thing didn’t collapse into cold air, as she expected it to. It just kept looking mournful at her, and then, as if it had decided she couldn’t provide it with whatever it was seeking, it once more faded.
Judith found she had a catch in her throat. Half of it was that she felt tricked. Half of it was that it was the oldest trick of all. The trick of affection. She was getting soft herself. ‘Stupid old woman,’ she whispered to herself as she left the church. ‘Stupid.’
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