Last weekend was spent, as I said last week, at the 9 Worlds convention at a large London hotel. It was a wonderful three days and I had a great time. I gave two talks, “Images of Trans in Fiction” and “Cavorite to Coaxium: Alchemy and Chemistry in SF&F” (unfortunately no photographs to show for it). I needn’t have been worried about having an audience. Despite the timings of my talks, the first late in the afternoon when everyone was ready for some relaxation, and the second early in the morning when most sensible people were still waking up, I had a good attendance at both. I felt the talks went well. The first encouraged a good discussion and people laughed at the correct points in the second. The only problem was that I had misunderstood the timings of the 9 a.m. sessions and had to finish inside the hour.
For the rest of the convention my time was my own, except when I did a stint on the independent authors’ bookstall on Sunday when I actually sold a few of my books. Apart from being a celebration of SF&F in all its forms (cosplay is popular!), 9 Worlds is a paragon of diversity. People of all backgrounds – ethnicity, sexuality, gender, disability (or should I say alternative ability) – are not just welcome, they are celebrated. There were numerous other attendees who were at various points in the middle of the gender spectrum (of course it is almost impossible to be certain if someone is a fully transitioned transman or woman). The hotel staff also, were fully into the spirit of the proceedings.
The convention has strict protocols to ensure that everyone is treated as they wish. Some people don’t like to be spoken to unexpectedly and obviously one’s language must be appropriate for the diverse nature of the attendees. This has got me thinking about freedom of speech, following on from Johnson’s ruckus last week. I hear that Rowan Atkinson has made a speech supporting “freedom of speech” and suggesting that there was nothing wrong with what Johnson said about Muslim women. I haven’t heard the speech but I have a few thoughts. Freedom of speech is a right, but it is also a responsibility. One should be able to espouse whatever views one has even if it causes offence, but that should not extend to promoting violence against any person nor to wilfully insult a person or group of people. By that measure I feel that Johnson’s piece was insulting and so irresponsible. On the other hand, to pick up the other great rumpus of the moment, I think the Israeli government’s attitude to Palestinians has for many years been racist and harmful but that doesn’t mean that I have anything other than sympathy for most Jews. That view may offend some right-wing, anti-Palestinian Jews, but I think I am justified in holding it.
Let’s get to the story. There’s a climax, if not a denouement, coming up in Negative, the latest Jasmine Frame prequel/sequel. Here’s part 9.
Negative: Part 9
‘Huh.’ It was a sort of response.
‘I’m a friend of Ceri’s,’ Jasmine said realising from the big youth’s dull eyes that she wasn’t going to get much chat from him.
‘The cops took her.’
‘So I heard.’
‘She didn’t do it.’ He shook his head vigorously.
‘Didn’t do what?’ Jasmine asked to be sure they were in the same conversation.
‘Hurt Tegan, even though she was nasty to Ceri.’
‘You’re sure Ceri didn’t harm Tegan?’
‘Yeah. Ceri did nuffin.’ He said it with a firmness that suggested that he considered that Ceri could do nothing wrong.
‘That’s right.’ Jasmine was sure it was true but had no idea who else could be responsible for Tegan’s death. ‘I’d like to speak to your mother.’
He shook his head. ‘Mam’s out.’
Jasmine felt stymied. ‘Is anyone in?’
‘Can I come in please?’
‘Er, I suppose so. Ceri’s friends can come in.’ He stepped back from the door allowing Jasmine to enter. She followed him into a small but tidy lounge. There was a large TV, a sofa and a couple of old but comfortable easy chairs. Alun slumped on the sofa. Jasmine sat on the edge of one of the single seats.
‘You know about Ceri’s troubles with Tegan?’ she asked as gently as possible.
The boy glowered. ‘Tegan said things to Ceri.’
‘What sort of things?’
‘She said Ceri wasn’t a girl.’
‘But you know she is.’
Alun lowered his head and spoke secretively. ‘Ceri used to be my brother but he’s a girl now. He wears boobs.’
Jasmine smiled. Like her, Ceri apparently had to boost her cleavage by wearing breast enhancers. Being Ceri’s brother didn’t stop him confusing the pronouns though. Despite Alun’s apparent support for Ceri he was obviously still confused by her transition.
‘Did Ceri tell you other things that Tegan said?’ Jasmine guessed that Tegan had not stopped at a simple denial of Ceri’s femininity.
‘Ceri said Tegan used rude words about her.’
‘You didn’t like that?’
‘Ceri was unhappy. Mam said I must look after Ceri.’
‘When did your Mam tell you that?’
‘When Ceri became a girl.’
A few years ago then. Alun, the older but simpler, brother had become Ceri’s bodyguard. Jasmine began to have fears about how far Alun’s protection had gone. The rotund but solid young man seemed placid now but what was he capable of if roused or if he felt he had to defend his sister? Jasmine stood and backed towards the door.
‘Um. Did you feel you had to defend Ceri against Tegan’s abuse?’
Alun looked up at her blankly. ‘Er?’ he said.
‘I mean, did you punish Tegan for what she said about Ceri.’
Alun nodded. ‘Tegan made Ceri unhappy. Mam said that no-one should do that.’
Alun obviously did as he was told, especially if his mother had something to say about it.
‘What did you do to Tegan, Alun?’
‘I met her when she finished work.’
Jasmine felt her skin grow cold. She was almost afraid to take her questions further.
‘At the hotel.’
‘This was last night, when Ceri was on her day off.’
It would still have been light when Tegan left the hotel. The hotel was in a quiet side road so there was a good chance that there was no-one about to witness the conversation between Alun and Tegan.
‘Did you meet her at the main entrance of the hotel?’
Alun shook his head. ‘I waited by the kitchen door like when I meet Ceri.’ Jasmine hadn’t explored the hotel fully but knew there was a driveway up the side of the hotel for deliveries and she could visualise where the kitchen was. Alun had met Tegan meeting out of sight of the road, or the hotel guests.
‘That must have been a surprise for Tegan. What did she say to you? I guess she knew who you were.’
‘She used a rude word.’
Jasmine could imagine the shock of being confronted by the large figure of Alun as Tegan left the hotel after a busy shift.
‘Did you speak to her, Alun?’
‘Yeah. I told her she had to say sorry to Ceri.’
‘Did you threaten her?
‘Did you say you’d hurt her?’
Alun looked blank. Either he didn’t understand or couldn’t remember exactly what he’d said.
‘Tegan said some rude words about Ceri.’
‘Was that all?’
‘She said, “Go jump off a cliff.”’
Ah, Jasmine thought. Perhaps that wasn’t the most sensible thing to say to Alun.
‘What did you do, Alun?’
‘I took Tegan up to the cliffs.’
Jasmine couldn’t imagine Tegan accompanying Alun for an evening stroll.
‘Did Tegan want to go with you?’
He shook his head. ‘She punched me when I picked her up. I had to stop her doing that.’
Jasmine bit her lip. She hardly dared ask the next question.
‘How did you do that, Alun.’
He shrugged. ‘I slapped her bit.’
Jasmine looked at the large, knobbly hands that rested in Alun’s lap. Those hands could do a lot of damage.
‘That made Tegan quiet, did it?’
Alun nodded. ‘She stopped whining.’
‘So you carried her up on to the headland, did you?’
‘Along the road?’
Alun shook his head. ‘No, the path.’
Jasmine had noticed that there were numerous footpaths climbing the steep hill. She wouldn’t have wanted to try doing it carrying the dead weight of a woman’s body, but Alun was at least twice her size. Tegan wasn’t very big. She’d be an easy load for the young man.
‘What did you do?’ she pressed.
‘We went to the Tud’s Leap.’
Jasmine shivered. She almost didn’t want to know the answer to her next question.
‘Is that overlooking the cliff, Alun?’
‘Yeah. That’s where she said to go.’
If you were really going to take a jump off a cliff, no doubt. Jasmine took a deep breath and asked, ‘What did you do with Tegan, Alun?’
He looked sad. ‘I put her down. She wouldn’t speak to me; so I went home.’
‘You left her there on the cliff top.’
Alun nodded. Jasmine’s heart beat faster
‘You said, she wouldn’t speak to you, Alun. Why was that?’
The young man shrugged. ‘She wouldn’t wake up.’
Tegan was unconscious, but perhaps not dead. Jasmine took a step towards Alun. She was eager for the answer to the important question. Perhaps too eager.
‘You said you left her on the edge of the cliff. Are you sure you didn’t kill Tegan, Alun?’
His expression darkened and he hauled himself to his feet.
‘Mam says it’s bad to kill things. Mam smacked me when I killed a bird.’
‘Yes, Alun, killing is wrong. But what about Tegan? Was she alive when you left her?’
‘She was sleeping.’
‘Sleeping or unconscious. Which was it, Alun? Was Tegan breathing when you left her.’
His body shook, the fat and muscle rippling under his loose T-shirt and jeans. Alun took a step forward. Jasmine backed into the hall.
‘I didn’t hurt Tegan.’
‘But you hit her, Alun. You carried her up the headland unconscious.’
‘Mam said look after Ceri.’
‘Yes, Alun, but your Mam told you not to kill.’
The man-boy’s lips wobbled. ‘I . . . I do what Mam says.’
‘Yes, Alun, but you may be responsible for Tegan’s death.’ Jasmine imagined what might have happened. Alun had left Tegan unconscious on the cliff edge in the twilight. The woman may have come around later, when it was dark, and confused and concussed, fallen from the cliff. She saw the image of the woman tumbling to the road below.
The blow caught her on her shoulder, slamming her head on to the doorjamb. She felt the bulk of the young man press her against the wall as she slipped into the black.
………………….to be continued.