‘She was the centre of any room she was ever in, even before she became the Queen.’
Extract taken from The Queen of the High Fields
By Rhiannon A. Grist
Published by Luna Press Publishing
Grey water slapped the side of the boat. We bounced as we cut across the waves, sending a salty spray up and into our hair.
‘We should go round. Cut across the waves,’ Corin shouted over the sound of the motor, squinting into the wind.
I shook my head and gripped the tiller handle tighter.
Trust me, I mouthed back at him.
I could alter the course, go with the waves, go round, but this is the only way. There’s no going round with the High Fields. There’s only through. Through the waves. Through the mist. No shortcuts. You have to fight the current to get there. The motor would handle it as long as I did.
The sky was grey.
Corin and his friend, I couldn’t remember his name, sat looking out the front of the dinghy. They shared talk I couldn’t hear over the wind and the motor. Corin’s hair fluttered like a moth’s wings. He turned a smile my way and I waved back, kicking myself for letting a pretty face turn my head like this. To think that was all it took to send me back.
I’d met Corin last night at the Severn’s End Inn, one of the last old man pubs left since the pilgrims and the tourists settled in, and the only place a local like me could be left alone with her pint. At night, the coastline glittered with new bars, clubs and tourists shops up and down the newly constructed boardwalk, decorated with fairy lights, flags and flowers. New hotels were in the process of being built further inland, past the wide expanse of the dunes, so most visitors had to make do with the traditional fishermen’s cottages and converted community buildings. Some of the older folks of Severn’s End had managed to hold onto their small stone houses, doggedly attempting to go about their days as normal, dodging the out-of-towners. But more and more of the crouching, shrugging buildings were being made over for holiday rentals, turning the community of the town quite transient. Every day the small fishing town was taken over by tourists from all over, walking up and down the boardwalk, following tour guides, taking the haphazard and wholly inaccurate ‘History of the High Fields’ ride built from the remains of the old ghost train in the now revived and reimagined Abergafren Fair, wandering through shops selling t-shirts, fridge magnets and phone covers saying ‘Chase the Light’. Then, when the sun went down, hundreds of revellers took over the black beach each night, wearing flower crowns and submersing themselves in vats of cheap wine and fucking furiously on the cold pebbles, hoping to recreate the moonlit bacchanalia they imagined on the other side of the water.
This morning, the tourist crowds and the remnants of last night’s shivering revellers had been beaten back by the unrelenting drizzle that came down in curtains of white noise, snaking in waves across the tossing surface of the sea. A small group gathered at the pier despite the rain, hoping to grab a photo of that famous glow on the horizon, to catch an air of that divine peace, inspiration, resurrection, destruction, whatever it was they were seeking, coming across on the wind. Sometimes you could smell incense, though that could have easily come from the multiple put-together shrines, with their tea lights and postcards and side plates of milk and bells and electronic musical boxes and fluttering petals, that dotted the volcanic rocks along the shore. When the rain cleared, many still would take a tour boat out onto the waves to get a closer look.
A few travellers each year would come here with a rowboat, dinghy or some other raft of their own creation and attempt to cross the sea to the promised shore, hoping their faith and determination would win them passage onto the High Fields themselves. I’d found where they shared their tips and advice online: The Queens Court Forum. I’d often considered shutting the site down, but the fascination was cute when it wasn’t entirely based on falsehoods. Some of them claimed you had to build your boat yourself to pass, but Hazard and I hadn’t done that. We’d rented ours. And who would know better than us? I even knew a few who had swum it. I remembered at least one from my time on the island. But that was… ten years ago? Had it really been ten years since I’d left the High Fields? How could a decade creep up on me like that? I supposed I’d become too used to the slow crawl of time in that unnatural place. Still, I’d had ten years to escape. I’d promised myself I’d head inland, start a new life in a landlocked city or on the top of a mountain, but I hadn’t gone far since coming back ashore. I was still here, stuck in Severn’s End, despite the tourists and the pilgrims, despite everything, clinging to this grey rock dotted with Christmas lights and hangovers.
‘Have you ever met her?’ Corin had asked me.
He had good hair, warm blond with a slight wave, and blue eyes with a ring of amber at the centre, like the penumbra of an eclipse. His voice lilted as he spoke, like his words were going up and down stairs and round corners, like his mouth was a house. His arms had a thickness and softness to them. The kind that said he’d never held an axe, but if he ever had to he’d have no problem splitting logs. He was younger than me, yes, but not annoyingly so, and he looked at me as if I was the only person in the room. That’s probably why I let him take the empty bench in my booth. I even dropped my usual tactic of denial, of avoiding any connection between me and the High Fields. God help me, I wanted to impress him, like I was a teenager again. I wanted to make him stay and talk to me a little longer, until he saw whatever it was people saw in the people they want to keep around forever.
I smiled, coquettishly I hoped, and said, ‘Met her? I know her.’
That’s how we ended up out in the strait, bouncing along in my dinghy in the grey of the early morning before the tour boats started their daily orbit, salt on my lips, head a-tangle with too much drink, hope and regret. I was always learning new things about myself. That day I learned that I could sell out a friend for a chance at a pretty, young man.
Or perhaps that—even after ten years of promising myself I’d leave—I’d take any excuse to go back.
A flock of terns screeched high above us, battling against the wind as I urged the dinghy on against the tide, their calls rattling my aching head.
I would make it a quick visit. There was no harm in that. And I was only bringing two ashore with me, so the increased level of ‘witness’ would be manageable. The trip might even be pleasant. Check in on the new batch of the Faithful, catch up with Hazard, impress my young admirer, then back to shore. Yes. Everything would be fine.
‘How long before we get there?’ Corin’s friend—what was his name? —shouted over the noise of the boat and the sea.
‘Peter, that’s not how it works,’ said Corin.
Corin explained that I was working to attract the High Fields to us through the use of higher vibrations, created through a strict paleo diet and a positive mindset. All hilariously wrong, of course, but his youthful confidence was so adorable I couldn’t bring myself to correct him. Where did they get these ideas, I wondered. It was like listening to children explain Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy or where babies came from. Sometimes it was better to let such innocent fancies be.
Peter frowned, looking between me and Corin, trying to figure out if he was pulling his leg no doubt. I was surprised to see him when I met Corin down at the harbour that morning. I didn’t remember Corin mentioning a friend, but was too hungover to push the issue. Peter seemed Corin’s exact opposite. He had a permanent frown line between his brows, and a head of dark curls with a sprinkling of greys peeking out from his temples. Thirties, I’d guessed, so more my age. Or perhaps a hard-lived twenties. He was wiry, quiet and observant; so different from Corin. If I hadn’t met them together, I would never have placed them as friends. But then again, I suppose anyone might have said the same of me and Hazard back in the day. She was the centre of any room she was ever in, even before she became the Queen. Whereas I…
The waves turned sluggish and slow.
‘We’re getting close.’
The Queen of the High Fields by Rhiannon A. Grist is published by Luna Press Publishing, priced £7.99.