The Lost First Chapter
A year on from the publication of my first novel, Haverscroft, I am deep into the writing of my second. I have a first draft, a rough thing written for my eyes only. It has holes in it, notes to myself to do research or to bring in other threads. It certainly isn't something for a reader or anywhere near a publishable standard but it does have a first chapter, and one I rather like. Which brings me to the point of this post.
I started writing Haverscroft in the winter of 2011. The first chapter came easily and got placed in a competition a couple of years later. It was championed (and still is) by certain members of my writing group. It remained there when I started submitting to agents and must have been doing all the things a first chapter should as several agents requested the manuscript. So what happened to it?
After a promising, but ultimately unsuccessful hunt for a publisher, an agent suggested I consider restructuring the novel. It was good she said, but it wasn't quite there. And it was too long. Thirty thousand words too long.
That is a lot of words to lose and one of the casualties was the much loved first chapter. I know now this is not such an uncommon thing for a novel, to start too early in the story or just in the wrong place altogether. Haverscroft starts a few months later than that first draft and I am making sure not to become too attached to my new novel's first chapter just in case - one just never knows what might happen in the editing stages.
Haverscroft was published in May 2019 but if you want to know where Kate Keeling really started her journey read on...
The Audi slews onto the verge, dirt and stones spit at its underbelly as we jerk to a halt.
‘Are we lost?’
Mark twists in his seat to roar at the twins sitting in the back.
‘We’re not lost! Ever since we left London, one or both of you has been moaning, complaining or bickering. I’m sick of it. Utterly sick and tired of it. Do you hear me?’
I imagine the astonished expressions on the children’s faces and fix my gaze on the road ahead. Nothing distinguishes it from any other we’ve travelled along in the past half-hour. Mile upon mile of early summer’s green tunnels punctuated with quaint villages and sleepy market towns. Nothing to interest two nine-year-olds.
I glance at my husband as he lumps back into his seat and snaps off the sat-nav. I should say something. A deep frustrated frown scrunches his features making him look older than his forty-two years. He stares further along the road at a turning and bobbing above the froth of cow-parsley, a sign post.
‘We’re not lost. We’ve come for a drive to get Mummy out of the house, just for a while. We’ve no particular destination, okay? I explained all this to you both before we left home. It’s not difficult to understand, is it?’
I will the twins to have the sense to stay silent, for Tom not to point out how wrong this statement is.
Mark flicks open the glove compartment and roots around in the debris of empty sandwich packets, parking tickets, pens and junk. The sweet smell of peppermint percolates the warm air. My husband’s relapse into the calming embrace of the nicotine sticks has been rapid.
‘There was a map in here. I’m sure there was. Have you seen it, Kate?’
The map is stuffed in a clear plastic carrier bag the police handed to me after the accident. All the broken, muddy contents of my car are in it. The carrier bag is buried in the back of the cloakroom cupboard under the children’s wellies where I dumped it out of sight seven months ago. I still can’t imagine being able to sort through it all, or admit to my husband it’s my fault we may be lost after all, due to the lack of a map. Mark clicks the glove compartment shut, taps my knee with his forefinger.
‘Never mind. We’ll head back in the general direction of home,’ he says.
The good thing about being mentally deficient is no-one expects anything of you, so I say nothing.
‘We’ve been past here already. I recognise this big old place,’ Mark says. ‘I wonder what the hell it was? That archway doesn’t look like it goes anywhere nice.’
He’s looking out of his side window at a grey brick building running the length of the road for about 100 yards or more. The arch is a monstrous thing. Nettles encase the feet of thick pillars rising to gothic style turrets. Double doors sag between them, shackled shut with a heavy chain. The building’s deep shadow leaches across the road and car, spreads over the hedge and fields beyond. I’d noticed it twice already as we sped by.
‘I don’t think it looks a very happy place, Daddy.’
Our son’s tone is falsely bright, trying to appease his father back to good humour. I feel bad for the twins. It’s not their fault we can’t find the barn, full of arts and crafts and a tea-room, Mark’s idea of a destination to winkle me out of our London home. I hadn’t the will to argue with him earlier, to say maybe another day when I didn’t feel quite so numb. Or explain it will bore the twins to naughtiness, even if we find it, which appears increasingly unlikely. It’s not the children’s fault we’ve been driving around for the last thirty minutes without any real direction, apparently, not lost. Not their fault their mother’s malfunctioned on most levels for the last seven months. Is it longer? I can’t remember. None of this is their fault.
‘No, Tom. I think you’re probably right. Just an old factory or something I expect,’ says Mark as he puts the car into gear and bumps back onto the road. ‘Last time we went straight on here, so I’ll take a left.’
We reach the turning and Mark slows the car. The signpost is partly absorbed into the hedge’s exuberant spring growth. We missed it when we hurtled past the last couple of times. The lettering, black on a white background, is bleached out and smeared with green algae.
‘Somewhere called Weldon. Maybe we’ll find a shop open to get a sandwich or an ice-cream. Kids, keep your eyes peeled. I’ll stop if we see anything, okay?’
Mark smiles at me and nods, his mood lighter now we have a destination.
‘Okay, Dad,’ says Tom in a quiet little voice.
I should insist we go straight home, not follow another expedition of Mark’s. That bit of me is still missing. After all these months will it come back?
The lane is steep, twisting and narrow. Mark slams the brakes, the car jerks at each turn. I grip the seat edge, dig my nails into cool soft leather, resist the urge to grab the dash.
‘For God’s sake, Kate! I’m doing less than twenty-five.’
Fat hedges invade the verge hiding on-coming vehicles until we all but collide. White hawthorn blossom blurs by, brambles whip and squeal against the paintwork. I close my eyes. Want to shout slow down, stop but I don’t.
Mark’s voice is sharp, impatient, the same tone when he’s annoyed with the children. I open my eyes, glimpse the village, a grey slate roof here and there. I dare not look at my husband, keep my gaze locked ahead. As we reach the end of the lane, it widens and the hedges thin. A few properties dot along the road, gather more thickly, run into a high street of Victorian cottages and shops.
‘Keep looking out for an ice-cream place, kids. There might be something, although Sunday opening doesn’t seem to have arrived here yet.’
‘I feel sick,’ says Sophie.
‘No, you don’t,’ says Mark.
The street follows a long wide bend, the village revealing itself slowly. Traditional family businesses tuck into buildings packed cheek by jowl, roofs higgledy-piggledy jostling for light and space. A post office’s darkened window plastered with small ads and faded posters for National Savings, a cafe, estate agents and valuers. Lovett and Lyle Solicitors has a gleaming brass knob, knocker and plate. The street is deserted. Not a soul to be seen. No sign of life.
‘I do feel sick, really badly.’
Sophie’s almost whispering. Not taken in by her father’s forced attempts at good humour, she sounds unsure of herself.
‘Please let her out, Mark. Can’t you pull over just beyond the church?’
The church is small, standing guard at the far end of the high street behind a low flint and brick wall. Weathered gravestones protrude above the brickwork like grimy smokers’ teeth.
‘Okay, fine,’ says Mark, jolting the Audi down the narrow rutted track beside the graveyard. The contents of the glovebox clatter as the car rocks and bumps onto the verge.
‘Come on, Sophie! Get out, now!’
Mark shouts as he gets out of the car. I hear Sophie fumbling to open the door behind me, watch in the wing mirror as she kneels in the long grass. We might be here a while. Her small face is pale, her lips white. My husband’s leather seats had a close escape. I want to get out to help her but the invisible hand presses me to my seat.
Mark taps on my window, ‘I’ll take a pee further along here. Shout if you need me. Or the horn,’ he adds, jabbing his forefinger toward the steering wheel. I nod, safe behind the glass of the car’s windscreen. He jogs off further along the track. I watch him until he disappears around the bend in the road.
‘Can I go with, Dad?’
‘No, Tom. Stay here. He’ll be back in just a minute.’
‘I want a pee.’
Tom’s blue eyes challenge me in the driver’s rear-view mirror.
‘I suppose it’s desperate?’
He nods and shuffles toward the door.
‘Don’t be long, Tom. We need to get home again soon, and don’t annoy your Dad, okay?’
He jumps out, makes a retching noise behind his sister’s back and races off toward the bend in the road.
‘Are you okay out there, Sophie? Shall I get out?’
‘I’ll be alright. I’m better now the car’s stopped.’
Sophie would like me to help her. Our roles as parent and child merged disturbingly after the accident. If she starts vomiting I must will myself out of here. Somehow. At least sit on the verge near her. Hopefully, she will feel better. The little tickle of fear at the thought of leaving the car creeps into the pit of my stomach.
Distraction works better than most things, other than the pills, focus on something simple. The strange little round tower stands separate from the church behind where we’re parked. I turn in my seat to see it more clearly. A crow swoops low behind the car, its caw caw the only sound to stir the silence. It vanishes beyond the hedgerow and into the churchyard. I’d like to get out, explore the church, read the gravestones, make a sketch or two. The old me would have done. But not today. The twins would be bored, Mark would think it weird to be interested in dead people I don’t know. My gut flutters, the fear grows stronger.
‘Mum! Dad says come and look at this house.’
Tom knocks on the window and I turn back in my seat. He’s startled me. My gut churns. I shake my head. Mark jogs toward the car. He tries the door as he pulls alongside. I have it locked.
‘Kate, you’ve got to take a look at this place. Open the door.’
I press the button, the window whirs down.
‘I’m fine here. It’s lovely and warm with the sun on the screen. And someone needs to stay with Sophie.’
‘You have to see it, it’s perfect. It’s only just beyond the bend there. No further. Unlock the door.’
Sophie pushes past Mark’s legs and rests her chin on the rubber cushion of the open window.
‘Can we, Mummy? Tom’s seen it already. I want to look.’
‘I thought you were ill?’
‘Not now. I’m good now.’
‘Come on, Kate. I’ll move the car around there if I have to.’
I should flick the door catch, climb out and go take a look. It must be quite something. Mark rebuffs discussions to swap city life for something quieter, more rural than our cramped urban terrace before they get started. Every property we’ve viewed over the last few weeks is a more spacious version of our London home. This place, though, is the back of beyond, more rural than I’d ever contemplated. But then, after all that’s happened, things are very different now.
Sophie’s small fingers pull the little button on the top of my door. The lock thunks as she grins. Uneven half grown front teeth are already too big for her features, colour back in her face, threats of vomit, forgotten. My head says get out and take a look, somewhere else within me says to curl up and hide. I press my eyes with the heels of my hands. Retreat to the blackness. I don’t want to go there anymore, can’t make myself leave its safety either.
‘We’ll take care of you, Mummy,’ Sophie says.
‘I’ll move the car, find a spot where you can see it without getting out.’
Mark’s shoes crunch on the road surface, he opens the driver’s door, the car sinks with his weight. I press my eyes so hard silver flashes sparkle like shooting stars across my vision. Anger stirs somewhere distant inside me. I want to let go of this place, return to my family, but it seems impossible to even look at them. The blackness is hypnotic, warm, secure.
‘You go. Take the kids. I’ll follow you all in a sec. Just give me a sec.’
I can’t take my hands from my face and my voice wavers. Mark must think about what I’ve said for a moment as he does nothing. I hear nothing.
‘Come on, Mummy.’
‘Shhhh, Tommy. If Mum wants to come on her own, let’s leave her to it. The keys are on the dash, Kate.’
Haverscroft is published by Salt Publishing
Click on cover image below for a link to Haverscroft's Amazon Page.