It's a period of turmoil in Britain, with the country's politicians electing to remove the UK from the European Union, despite ever-increasing evidence that the public no longer supports it. And the small town of Lychford is suffering.
But what can three rural witches do to guard against the unknown? And why are unwary hikers being led over the magical borders by their smartphones' mapping software? And is the immigration question really important enough to kill for?
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Marcin Przybylski was lost, and the voice in the cab of his lorry wasn't being much help. "At the roundabout, take the third exit, and continue ..."
He stared into the darkness of the tree-lined road ahead. "Where's the roundabout?" he asked his phone, helplessly. The phone was attached to a bracket on the dashboard, and illuminated as if to underline its importance. Because right now it ruled his life. Mr. Ofgarten, who right now would be asleep in his comfy bed, had some sort of beacon attached to each one of these phones. If, when he woke up and checked his enormous tablet over his delicious morning pastries, one of those drivers was not anywhere near, in this case, the brand new Tesco distribution centre at Pilning in Gloucestershire, however you were meant to pronounce that ... well, there would be a stream of German obscenities down the line. It was said that to be more than twenty minutes late meant automatic dismissal. At least then Marcin could tell him what he could do with his smoked sausages.
He'd got to the Oxford distribution centre for Sainsbury's with no problem. That was second nature by now. It was the combination of this new location and this "brilliant new crowdsourced navigation app" that Ofgarten had installed that was foxing him.
A sign loomed ahead in the summer night. "Lychford," he said to the phone.
"I do not recognise the location," the phone replied.
"Of course not."
"I do not understand the instruction."
"Oh, go to hell!"
"Changing route now."
"Stopping now." And the screen showed the moving circle that indicated it was waiting for further instructions.
Marcin managed to avoid bellowing at it, worried that might dig him in deeper. He was passing a new housing estate on the edge of this Lychford, woodlands on the other side. Was there anyone around here he could wake up at this time in the morning to ask for directions? How willing to answer their door would they be? And he didn't have much English. Did he trust his phone to translate for him?
Suddenly, the light seemed to change a little, and he jumped, worried that, despite being used to the night shift, he'd fallen asleep. But no. Still the woodlands. Maybe that had been lightning? Or was it getting light this early?
"Turn left," said his phone. Ah, it was back!
Only of course there didn't seem to be a ... no, what was that up ahead? He couldn't see it properly, did he need glasses? The road seemed to suddenly —!
Marcin had to haul on the wheel as abruptly, impossibly, the road he was travelling on turned almost at a right angle and headed upwards into ... what the hell was that?!
"I do not recognise this location!" yelled his phone. And it kept yelling it. As Marcin and his lorry skidded uncontrollably into what seemed like ... nothingness.
Autumn Blunstone woke up, and gradually realised she was lying face down, fully clothed, in her own bed, upstairs at her magic shop, Witches, in the market town of Lychford, in the Cotswolds. These facts came to her one by one, introducing themselves politely.
The sun was already up. A cool breeze was ruffling the curtains. It was ... really early still. Why was she awake?
Autumn felt ... bloody awful. Not actually entirely ... hungover, not yet. It was like the hangover was literally hanging over her, waiting to expand to its full dimensions, but had first just wanted to knock on her door to tell her it was getting ready to do its thing. We have a delivery for you, it was saying, and we will not hand it to a neighbour, but intend to unpack it in your every special place.
Knocking on her ... no, someone was actually knocking on the door downstairs. Really quite loudly and urgently. At this time in the morning. And there was distant music somewhere out there. The duff duff duff of dance music. What was that about?
Autumn shouted something incoherent, reached out to find her robe, realised she didn't need to and fell out of bed.
At the door she found PC Shaun Mawson, in uniform and definitely on business. In the air, from somewhere behind him, faded in and out that beat of some distant, ongoing rave.
"Miss Blunstone," he said, "can I come in? It's urgent." It must have been for him to call her by anything other than her first name, or more usually just a shy nod. Shaun was the son of Autumn's elderly employee and supposed mentor in the ways of magic, Judith, but he shared none of his mother's bloody-mindedness. Thank God. He turned down the offer of tea, and made Autumn sit down in the kitchen.
"Is someone ... dead?" she asked.
"We don't know. That's why I'm here." He got out his notebook and pen and held up a hand to gently halt her questions. "Let's start at the beginning. Can you remember much about last night? Can you remember where you got to?"
Why had he asked her to sit down?
No, come on, concentrate on the question. Where had she been last night? Autumn had always said there was a pub in Lychford to suit her every mood. If you wanted the good company of builders and town councillors, there was the Plough. If you wanted to meet people who were just passing through, or to sit and read quietly, there was the Market Hotel. If you wanted noise, youth, and the offer of drugs in the toilets, there was the Randolph. And if you wanted a fight, there was the Custom House. That was it for the pubs of Lychford these days. A couple had closed down recently. When Autumn had been a teenager, there'd been seventeen. Over the years, her range of options had narrowed, but, neatly, so had her range of moods.
"I think I was at ... the Custom House?"
The Custom House was the sort of pub that the town council kept wanting to find a good reason to close down. The dusty whitewash on the outside gave one a clue that here was an inn the carpet of which could have been the subject of a TV nature special by David Attenborough. As you headed for the bar, your footsteps crunched. The walls inside were bare, the cloth on the pool table ripped, though people still played on it. The fruit machine's soundboard had once had a pint tipped into it, resulting in strange, muffled, warblings. However, the landlord, Malcolm, kept the beer pipes clean, and for the Custom House's clientele, that was the only required saving grace. After you got to know people, the décor became a feature, not a bug.
But yeah, there were often fights.
"Why did you decide to go there?" Shaun's tone suggested that no nice young lady would. Autumn tended to end up at the Custom House having had a couple of drinks at one of the other pubs, become slightly angry with something someone had said there — but not enough to want to cause a fuss — and thus decided to move on. Her light complexion, what her best friend Lizzie had once called her "had clothes fall on her accidentally" sense of style, and, she supposed, the fact that she'd always been around, all distracted from the fact that she was, as they said these days, a person of colour. So she overheard things in those other pubs: perfectly nice people who'd never use the N word still saying "chinky" and, incredibly, "pikey"; people on her own social level knowing they were being risqué when they'd had a few, making jokes that started with "Jewboy and Mick walk into a pub." When she'd been younger, she'd always spoken up at that point, and had been pleased when there'd often been whoops of applause rather than dismissal. Some of it was "oh ah, here she goes again," but some of it had always been that feeling that she was to be congratulated for speaking up for "her own people." Not that she knew, apart from her extended family in Swindon, any of her own people. Not since her Dad had passed away. She was literally the only non-white person in the entire town. That, she suspected, was the only circumstance in which you'd get that welcoming reaction, when the majority thought of you as the sole representative, and therefore harmless. Of course, in Lychford, there were also Sunil Mehra and his employees, but she'd never felt they had much in common. Sunil was part of the "reception for the Prince of Wales" crowd in this town, who'd probably see himself as "one of them," while she was ... whatever class it was that owned magic shops.
She was aware that, as she'd gotten older and still overheard things in pubs, she'd stopped speaking up so much. Because when you stopped being a teenager, you started feeling less sure of yourself, and not everything seemed like it was life and death. And she liked fitting in. She was quite popular, wasn't she? And these were good people, really. Really. But it hadn't eased off like she used to think it was going to. It had gotten worse. It had gotten more normal. The ones being "risqué" seemed to find it easier to say.
And then last year, that bloody year.
The walk through the marketplace on the day after the Brexit vote had been like something out of a science fiction movie. And that was saying something, coming from someone who was getting used to seeing magical beings. Which of these people, she had thought, looking around herself on that market day, had voted to saw themselves off from the rest of Europe? Which of these people, in their heart of hearts, wanted a Lychford that was "just like it had been in the 1950s"? Which of the shops she spent money in were owned by people who wanted the full emulsion white paint job, corner to corner, maybe without even having thought about it enough to know that was what they wanted? Which of the coffee shops contained people who were cheering inside today? She'd never know, because this was Britain, after all, and nice people don't talk about anything that might cause trouble, and so all that day the town had been weirdly silent.
She'd gone down the pub that night, and people hadn't talked about it there, either, but Autumn had overheard things, a lot of things, and that had been the first time she'd found herself going down the road to the Custom House. In the weeks and months that had followed, she'd found herself going there more and more. And now the General Election was approaching. And she felt more worried and scared every day. She'd talked with Lizzie about how she felt, and that always made her feel better for a while, like going on the Women's March in Bristol after Trump's election had made her feel better for a while. But the trouble with talking about this with Lizzie was that Lizzie would never understand how much these things made Autumn feel like an outsider in her own town. It had been months now, and she still couldn't find a way to haul herself out of the pit that social media dropped her into every morning. She looked at the future, and for the first time in her life, the way ahead looked uniformly grim. There were such incredible things in people's lives now, like photos from space probes around Saturn, and such incredible things outside those lives, the magic only the three of them knew about, and yet still, still, these tiny bloody people with their pent-up little bloody fears — ! Even if she could have put it all into words, she couldn't be sure Shaun Mawson would ever understand.
"I don't know," she said. "I don't know why I went to the Custom House."
"Did anything ... particularly stressful happen to you yesterday? I'm wondering how worked up you were when you got there."
Yesterday had been a long, sweaty summer day, which had seemed to gather up anger within itself, ready for a storm. And, oh God ... yeah, she remembered now, the storm had broken. During that day, she had ended up having the row she was always going to have. And, horribly, it had been with the mother of the police officer who was facing her now. It had been with Judith.
They'd fallen into it by accident. The old witch of the hedgerow, as Judith liked to style herself, both mentally and in terms of grooming, had sat permanently behind the till that day, just like most days now, glaring at any tourists who might happen to come into the shop, setting quizzes about the occult history of Gloucestershire in the sixteenth century to any of them who might offhandedly try to strike up a conversation about crystals or the healing energy of unicorns. It was like Autumn was keeping a troll behind the counter, in every sense of the word. She had wondered hopefully, in the last few months, as Judith's attitude to people had got worse, if Judith might seem like the more challenging end of the real ale spectrum, that people might start to say that was the real thing at that magic shop, that, horrible as it tasted, it was the genuine experience. But no, after the third tourist yesterday had left without buying anything, at a speed which left the shop bell bashing against its hanger, Autumn had finally dropped the idea of monetising the degree of difficulty her employee presented to the world. "Okay," she'd said, "you can't keep doing that. What with Brexit, I need to start making some sales here —"
"What about it?"
Autumn had realised that, at the end of a tiring day, she had finally let slip what she had avoided talking about with Judith all this time. She had said the magic word. Ironically. Still, she knew that Judith's grasp of economics was usually that of an elderly aunt who every year tried to bet five pence each way on the Grand National.
"Any supplies I get in from Europe are now literally worth their weight in gold, and given everything that's happened this year, the council will be putting the rates up."
Judith had made a dismissive sound in her throat. "Things'll get better."
Autumn had paused, wondering if that had meant what she'd thought it had. Judith had made grudging eye contact, then looked away. And Autumn had recalled how, according to the polls, there had been a direct correlation between one's closeness to the cemetery and how willing one was to mess up the future for generations to come. It had occurred to her that it would be just like Judith to have done what a number of the folk down the pub seemed to have done: to have taken any yes/no question from any government as an immediate reason to burn down their own house and everyone else's. "Okay, you got me. You've been working hard today to separate my shop from its customers. I'm interested in how you feel about separating other stuff. Which way did you vote?"
Judith had glared at her. "None of your business."
Which nobody on the Remain side ever said. It was only the Leavers who wanted to hide it. "Oh no. You did, didn't you?"
"Vote's private. That's democracy, isn't it?"
"But you're not proud of it?"
"I don't talk about politics or religion."
"You're a witch, who works in a magic shop and, like the car sticker would say, your other apprentice is a vicar."
"I don't talk about politics. Stop going on. Do you want a cuppa?"
Which had been the first time in the history of their association that Judith had ever offered to make the tea. The enormity of this distraction might even have worked, if Autumn had been willing to let it. With the sun getting lower in the shop window, the row might have faded and Autumn might have decided to let it go, let her go, let her go back to her house and annoy her neighbours instead. As the song so nearly put it. But that had been the moment, Autumn remembered now, the moment she'd realised something huge about the situation she and Lizzie were in, something that had felt in that second like sheer complicity on her part. "Oh my God," she said. "That's what you're teaching us to do."
"What?" Judith had looked at Autumn like she'd gone mad.
"We're defending the borders of this town. We're here to deter the outsiders. That's what we're all about, isn't it? That's what we do."
There had been a long silence. There had been, even then, Autumn thought now, things Judith could have said.
But instead, Judith had slowly got to her feet. "Do you want me to keep on working here, then?" Those merciless old eyes had fixed on Autumn. Judith had done what she always did. She had boiled down the complexities of a situation to some ridiculous basics.
Autumn had wanted to say of course she wanted Judith to stay. She really had. But in the heat of that moment, she hadn't been able to get the words out. Instead, she'd said nothing.
After a moment, Judith had picked up her bag from under the desk, and headed for the door. Autumn had wanted to call to her before she got there. She had not.
So Judith had left, and the door had closed gently behind her.
It had taken Autumn a few minutes after Judith had left to move at all.
Excerpted from "A Long Day in Lychford"
Copyright © 2017 Paul Cornell.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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