The First Four Words….
One of the most interesting and useful tips I gained from a recent creative writing workshop was the ways in which the writer can catch the reader’s eye. After all, without these, it would be impossible to differentiate between all the books being sold and read. Generating sufficient curiosity in the reader to turn to the next page, and the next, and the next after that is what commercial writing is all about, surely?
Of course there is also the dramatic book cover that leaps at you from the bookseller’s shelf, the neat little back-cover synopsis that intrigues you enough to want to look inside, and sometimes a heart-stopping book title which challenges you to find out the reason behind it. The former seem to me to be eyecatchers after the fact, the domain of the publisher when all is said and done. Those are all, as far as I can gather, very useful ways of SELLING a book but what about READING the book once you have it. The tip I latched on to was simplicity itself but not easy in practice.
My course teacher, a wonderful gentleman by the name of Christopher Lee (not of the blood-sucking vampire clan in case you were wondering), suggested that it is actually the initial four words on the very first page that grab the reader’s attention. Those words should elicit some form of response; whether that is raising a question in the reader’s mind; invoking an involuntary emotion or shocking the reader with their impact. Those first four words, from a commercial point of view, could be the most important ones you ever write.
So, with that in mind, I have been making a stab at a different type of subject matter (for me) and wanted to share my first chapter with you here. Look at the first four words – they took me the longest to consider. They’re intended to grab your attention. I’m not a published novelist, so these are my own unedited jottings. For anyone who doesn’t already know, I like to scribble a bit! I hope you like them and the rest of it. Please let me know if you do or you don’t – all feedback gratefully accepted!
The house was unremarkable. It looked like any other in the road save for the heaviness of the net curtains at the windows, preventing any outsider from looking in. These and the printed wooden sign by the front path denoting “The Presbytery”. The numbers on the door said seven and five; the boy knew this because he and his mother had been learning him his numbers. He could remember all the way to ten now without stopping or getting stuck so he recognised the seven and the five – he knew those.
His brown leather shoe had a large hole in the sole, and the ground scraped harshly through his threadbare sock against bare skin right where the black spot was. He had a few of those on his feet and sometimes they ached and pinched something awful. He had no shoelaces because he had swapped his last one for two blackberries his friend had found poking through the fence in the lane behind the lodge. He didn’t miss the lace because those berries had been so tasty and nice. Like happy in his mouth. He still remembered them. But it meant his shoes were a little loose and he dropped the heels as he walked.
His scuffling feet kept time with the click-clack of his mother’s wooden ones. She wore clogs, not shoes, because they stopped her slipping in the laundry, she said. But the boy saw as she rubbed her feet with a rag dipped in water at night to soothe away the angry red marks left by the clogs; to try to stop them blistering and getting infected by the pesky flies that were always in the bedsheet; buzzing and mithering, keeping them awake. His mother said them flies was a pain; he was to show them no mercy and kill them on sight but the boy struggled to catch them at all most times.
The door to the house was black with the seven and the five, and a shiny brass claw for a knocker. He wasn’t tall enough to reach so he pestered his mother to lift him high enough so he could grasp the claw firmly and give a sharp rat-a-tat-tat. The sound echoed harshly in the quiet street, so much so that a woman kneeling to scrub her doorstep opposite looked over but didn’t smile or acknowledge them in any way; just turned back to her bucket, her carbolic soap and brush.
They waited, fidgety, near a full two minutes before the sound of approaching footsteps came from inside the house. An older woman, probably around fifty years old but to the boy she may as well have been a hundred, answered “Yes?” in a flat clipped voice through a crack in the door. She opened it a little wider and cast a cursory glance at the boy; his shabby shirt with the ends missing from his frayed collar.
“Father Rafferty is expecting us.” His mother muttered quietly, her eyes cast down at the doorstep and not on the woman herself. His mother did not seem to be happy to be on a visit, thought the boy, she had hardly said a word on the walk here. But he did like being out of the lodge for a while. His mother said they lived there because she didn’t have a husband. He didn’t know what a husband was and had never really been concerned enough to ask. The lodge fed them and provided a set of clothes to wear; that was all he knew.
“Come in.” The woman opened the door wider to allow them to enter. “Mind you wipe your feet, young man.” She admonished, motioning to the rag rug on the tan and ochre tiled floor. As she pointed, he noticed she had only half a finger on the third finger of her left hand – it ended just before the knuckle. He wanted to look closer, fascinated by the knarly end of it, but she ushered them on into the house.
Again, the click-clack of his mother’s clogs reverberated in the silent hallway as they were led to a drab parlour. The room looked dull and brown, thought the boy, like it had been dipped in too much tea. It was warm in there and smelt funny, making him cough a little. The same net curtains the boy had seen outside now prevented his view of the street. There was a cross above the mantelpiece with the Jesus man looking sadly back at him.
“Father will be with you shortly.” The woman turned her back on them and left the room. She had not invited them to sit and, indeed, the boy and his mother did not expect to be asked. They stood awkwardly in the centre of the room, their breathing the only soft sound. The boy reached tentatively for his mother’s hand; the quietness and the sad Jesus man making him uncomfortable.
“Now stop all that baby stuff, you!” His mother snapped at him. “You’re not a baby anymore, are yer?” She batted his hand away. He put both of his hands in his trouser pockets instead. In the right one he had a hole all the way through to his leg, and he fingered the skin anxiously.
“Ma? Why are we seeing a Father?” He asked. He had decided he didn’t like it here after all and hoped they were not staying long.
“None of your business” His mother hissed sharply. “Now, shut up…just…hush up a minute and let me think!” Her voice cracked a little and glancing up at her, the boy saw that her eyes seemed wet; her hand agitated, smoothing and smoothing the same spot on her tatty old coat where her new belly bump was. For all that, it didn’t seem to smooth the wrinkles out, he noticed.
“All right.” He said softly and fell silent. He didn’t like seeing his mother upset. Maybe the belly bump was hurting. The next moment, the door opened and Father Rafferty entered. A stocky man: he was not much taller than the boy’s mother. Two, sometimes three, chins strained his collar below a waxy complexion; he had very little hair left on his shining head. His head looks like the moon, thought the boy, but he didn’t laugh. He didn’t think he should.
“Good afternoon.” Boomed the Father, his voice fullsome and too loud for the small confines of the room. “Come….sit.” He pulled forward a straight-backed wooden chair and indicated to the boy’s mother that she should be seated. He did not offer the boy a chair but instead plunked himself down at a small, wooden bureau; taking out some pre-written papers and an ornate fountain pen.
“You understand why you are here?” He attended to the papers, but the question was directed at the boy’s mother.
“Yes.” She answered quietly, her hands tightly clasped in her lap. She did not look at the boy.
“Normally, there would be a notary with me, you understand?” The Father continued. “But he is detained on business inLondon, so we will obtain his signature later. It’s of no consequence.” He shuffled the papers together and placed them on the edge of the desk.
“Can you read?” He asked, peering at the mother directly for the first time.
“Some.” She said.
“And the boy?” He asked, his eyes sliding to the boy’s face.
“No….not yet.” She replied.
“I can!” The boy blurted suddenly. “Your door says seven and five.” He finished triumphantly.
“So it does, young man, so it does.” Father Rafferty looked him square in the eyes for the first time since entering the room. He reached out and took the boy’s hand, drawing him forward so he was eventually pressing against the Father’s knee. The Father’s hand felt warm and damp; almost sticky. The boy did not like it much, especially when that hand tightened uncomfortably around his own. The boy was unsure whether to cry out. He was not a baby anymore, after all. He looked sideways at his mother but she was not looking at him or the harsh squeezing hand; she was staring at the floor.
“But you’d do better to remember your manners and not interrupt your elders and betters, hmmm?” The Father squeezed even tighter; the boy’s hand reddened in his grasp. Suddenly the Father let go, snorted a laugh and chucked the boy under his chin, for all the world as if the previous few moments had not occurred. The boy blinked hard, trying not to cry. Still his mother’s eyes remained focused on the floor.
“Don’t look so concerned, boy. A spot of discipline and education is probably just what you need, eh?” The Father smiled slightly at the mother and turned back to his papers, all professionalism once again.
“Now then.” He addressed the boy’s mother, leaning his lunar face towards her. “Just so there is no misunderstanding later on, you understand…..Repeat after me, all right?” He picked up the first page.
“I certify that I have…” The boy’s mother repeated the phrase, her voice dull, tone subservient.
“…..handed over my son to custody.” The Father intoned. The mother dutifully repeated it.
“I surrender him completely to charge.” He continued his sermon-like delivery. “I solemnly promise that I shall never…”
“….I shall never…” She replied flatly.
“…..interfere with him in any way in the future.”
“…..in the future.” The mother finished and bit down hard on her lip, drawing a little blood, as the Father passed her the pen and she signed her name in a shaky hand – once, twice, three times – on the pages in front of her. Still, she did not look at her boy.
“Now…remember you have made this promise before God as I am his servant.” The Father paused, then went on quieter. “And to be sure, don’t you have enough sin heaped on your shoulders already without breaking a promise, hm?” He looked pointedly at her midriff for some moments. Then he stood up. “Let him be now. Go on back to your work. We will take it from here.” The boy’s mother stood. Even now, she wouldn’t look at her boy; just stared at the Father for a moment, mouth slightly agape as if to say something then changed her mind and moved silently to the door. The shadowy figure of the woman who had let them into the house earlier stood in the opening, and handed something to the boy’s mother as she passed. She did not once look back. The boy called out, “Ma?!” in some confusion, but all he heard in reply was his mother’s choked sob, the front door close softly and then only the fast and fading click-clacks back down the street from where they had come.
The parlour door was closed quietly from the hallway side. Father Rafferty turned back toward the boy, who stood with eyes huge in his little face. He had not expected to be staying here without his mother.
“So, you know your numbers do you?” The Father asked, placing a hand on the boy’s shoulder and turning him full face towards him. “Do you know how old you are?” The boy nodded slowly.
“Four.” He mumbled, his lip trembling a little as he realised he was here alone. Sad Jesus still looked on.
“Four.” The Father repeated. “Is that right? And such a beautiful boy…all that God-given yellow hair…” He murmured, his other hand reaching to brush a forelock of the boy’s hair back from the anxious blue eyes. The boy tried to pull away but Father Rafferty’s hand stayed firmly on his shoulder, his fingers digging into the soft skin beneath the thin woollen shirt, pinning him there. The silent room waited. The Father cleared his throat loudly.
“Come now.” Father Rafferty’s tone returned to its usual booming volume. “Let’s get you something to eat. Do you like jam?” The boy looked puzzled for a moment. He didn’t know what jam was, rationing not extending to such luxuries in the unmarried mother’s home where he had been raised. “What’s that? You’ve never tasted jam? Well, you’re in for a treat, son!” The Father coaxed him toward the door, one hand on his back propelling him forward. “Come now. Then we’ll have a little chat, eh? There’s something I want to show a clever young man of numbers like you later. Downstairs.”
(C) Sarah Stratton 2011
Photo credit: oilersnation.com