Where (and How) Does a Book Start?

This is not “Where do you get your ideas?”

It can take a long time to write a book, but they all start somewhere – with an idea, an observation, something the writer wants to say. I’m not talking about the question every writer gets – Where do you get your ideas? I always answer that question by saying, ‘Honestly, I haven’t the faintest idea,’ and “honestly” doesn’t really belong in that sentence because I do know where I get them, but it’s just too complicated to go into. No, what I’m talking about is the moment we, the writers, start to move the idea out of our minds and onto the page.

The Making of Billy McErlane was unusual for me, because my first draft of the first sentence and, in fact, the first chapter was still there the day the book was published. Usually, those first few pages are the scaffolding that supports the book as it unfolds and they have disappeared by the time the file is laid out for the printer. In the case of Billy Mac, the first sentence I wrote was:

All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers

and that sentence, along with the sentences that made up the rest of the first chapter, made it into the finished book. But, as I say, that’s unusual.

What made me think about this was a conversation I had today with one of my favourite writers, Ali Bacon, about places to stay in Gran Canaria. The reason that’s relevant is that I wrote the original first chapter of my latest book, Darkness Comes, on holiday in Gran Canaria. I’d gone out for a walk immediately after breakfast and I didn’t get back until lunchtime (although I did stop for coffee twice, and on one of those stops I also had apple pie and ice cream). As I walked, I started to have an idea for a book about a theme that has been in my mind for as long as I can remember. And when I got back, lunch had to wait because I had constructed the whole of the first two chapters in my head and I needed to get them on paper before I did anything else. Just in case I forgot them.

I compose my best stuff while I’m walking

The book originally had a different working title. It took a long time to finish, and when it did come out (as Darkness Comes), those first two chapters were gone. I didn’t need them any more. They were on the writer’s equivalent of the cutting room floor. But they still – I believe – have something to say, and so I’m appending them here. Anyone who has read Darkness Comes will recognise what’s going on here. And that theme I mentioned is set out quite clearly.

Read it. I hope you enjoy it. If it makes you want to read the book, you’ll find it here.

The Original Opening of Darkness Comes

Chapter 1

He sees her standing in front of Alno’s as though she knows this is his spot. Michelle sees her too. She stands close in the cockpit, not speaking the words but asking them anyway. Does he know her?
‘Her name’s Sarah. Haven’t seen her for years.’
Michelle absorbs this. ‘You expecting her?’
‘Hell, no.’
Michelle is looking up into his face. She wants more.
‘I loved her like I never thought I could love anyone.’
Michelle’s face now is like he’s hit her.
‘It’s over,’ he says. ‘Been over a long time. Well. How long have we been together? She was the one before you.’
The one before you. Michelle stares at him. Whatever’s in his mind, it hasn’t reached his face.

They’re making almost no way at all now. He turns the wheel slowly to the right and watches Sarah realise that this is it, this is the meeting she wanted, this boat is his boat. He sees Sarah’s eyes pass over him with barely a glance and come to rest on Michelle. The two women watch each other in that way women do.
‘She must have been a looker,’ Michelle says. ‘When she was young.’
He doesn’t respond. Michelle steps lightly up onto the bow, then onto the dock, tying off expertly to the bollard. He should be securing at the stern, but he stays where he is. She glances at him as she skips down the floating pontoon and finishes his job. He cuts the engine and the boat floats at ease.

Sarah hasn’t moved. Michelle steps back onto the boat and shouts down into the saloon. A girl’s head appears above deck. He watches Sarah take in the newcomer, sees her calculating. Ticking off the years on that calendar women carry around in their heads.
‘I’m going to put Tammy to bed,’ Michelle says.
He nods.
‘You want to eat in?’
He shakes his head. ‘See you in Alno’s.’
‘Okay. Would you rather be alone?’
‘Alone?’
‘With her.’
He smiles. ‘No, Michelle. I would not rather be alone. With her.’
‘For old time’s sake?’
‘Put Tammy to bed and come to Alno’s.’
‘Okay. If that’s what you want.’

He says no more. Michelle takes her daughter by the hand and leads her away. He watches her go, the way her arse moves in the tight shorts. She’s got a lovely arse, Michelle. That was one of the first things he noticed about her, way back at the start. When he was about to be between women once again, and he didn’t know who the hell she was, how she came to be sitting beside him on that sea wall in San Pedro de Alcántara. When she offered to fellate him and had the chance to take every peseta he had on him, and didn’t.
Funny, the things that attract him to a woman.

Chapter 2

Sarah steps forward to meet him as he steps off the boat. She offers her cheek and he kisses the air beside it.
‘Nice looking child,’ she says. ‘Yours?’
She follows him towards Alno’s. The outdoor tables on the wooden decking over the marina are warm in the evening sun. He sits at a table for four. Sarah takes the place opposite. Alno himself bustles up. ‘Senor Bailey, how are you this evening?’ He begins to remove the surplus place settings.
‘Leave one, Alno.’
‘Ah. The senorita is joining you?’
He nods. ‘When the bambina is asleep.’
‘Bueno. Something to drink?’
‘Rioja.’
Alno snaps his fingers, speaks in rapid Spanish. A waiter brings a bottle. With a flourish Alno draws the cork, pours a little for Bailey to sniff, smiles at Sarah. Bailey nods and Alno fills Sarah’s glass, tops up Bailey’s, leaves the bottle.

‘The senorita,’ Sarah says. ‘You’re not married, then?’
‘How did you find me, Sarah?’
‘How? Not why?’
‘How.’
‘Why is more important.’

‘This woman, Sarah,’ Parkinson says. ‘You hadn’t seen her for ten years?’
‘Something like that.’
The stone-faced woman in the front row settles back. This is what she wants to hear. Stories of men betraying women. She turns for a moment to look at the overweight, balding man beside her. She glowers.
‘Let me get this right,’ Parky goes on. ‘When she came back into your life…’
‘When she appeared at the marina. Completely unannounced and unwanted.’
‘…she was forty-three. You were fifty. And you were living with Michelle, a woman not much over thirty.’
A hiss goes round the ballroom. It’s a gender-related hiss. From most of the men, it’s a hiss of approval. From most of the women, it isn’t.
‘And her daughter, Tammy,’ says Parky. ‘Who was not your child. Have I got that right?’
‘Spot on. Look, can I have a drink?’
‘Is that wise? In your condition?’
‘I’m dying, Barry. I don’t think a Remy’s going to make much difference now. Do you?’
He nods at the justice of this, and a waiter steps briskly up to the table. On his tray is a brandy balloon half full of warm water, an empty shot glass and a bottle. He tips the warm water into the shot glass, pours a generous slug of cognac into the warm balloon and hands it to me. I thank him. He smiles and steps back towards the bar.
‘All of this was about ten years ago?’
‘Nearer fifteen, Michael. I’d be drawing my pension in two years if I still lived in England.’
‘And if you’d been paying tax.’
‘There is that. Nice brandy, by the way.’
‘You don’t see Sarah any more? Or Michelle?’
I let my head swing round to face him. How does he do that avuncular bit? His face is as brown close up as it is when you see him on the screen. Bugger gets more sun than I do, and I live here.
‘Little Tammy is a woman now. Older than that girl your dying body is crushing as we speak. Wherever she’s done her growing up, it hasn’t been with you?’
I say nothing. I let my baleful glance bathe him. He is bathed in bale. That usually has an effect on people. Makes them mind their manners. Doesn’t seem to be working tonight.
‘You do have children, though? Tammy wasn’t yours, but there are some little Baileys out there?’
‘There’s one. If there are more than that, I haven’t been told. ‘
‘And that one has very little reason to commend you to God’s care when she kneels to pray at night. Is that right?’
‘That’s a little hostile, Michael.’
‘Is it? Look, I came here at a moment’s notice. Dropped everything when I heard you were dying.’
‘Fucking myself to death, as it were.’
‘Don’t use the F word on my show. This isn’t Kilroy. I was busy. I was watching one of my old Freddie Truman videos, if you want to know. But you got into difficulty, the call came, I dropped everything and here I am. You can expect a hearing, Ted. A fair hearing. What you can’t necessarily expect is a friendly one. Okay? Understood, Ted?’
‘Understood, Michael.’

‘All right. Since that’s what you want to tell me, why are you here? And why are you vacuuming up that rioja? You never used to drink like that.’
‘I’m nervous, Teddie.’
He puts his hand on hers. Something is stirring and he knows what it is. It’s stirred many times before. ‘You always called me that when you wanted something.’
‘It still makes you smile.’
‘I’m smiling because Michelle does it, too.’
‘Michelle. That’s the senorita?’
He takes his hand away. ‘What is it you want, Sarah?’
She empties her glass. He refills it and she drinks deeply again. He signals to Alno to send a second bottle.
‘Mac’s left me,’ she says.
‘Mac?’
‘You know perfectly well who Mac is.’
He says nothing.
‘The man I married after you threw me out.’
‘After I…’ His mouth stays open but for a moment no words come. ‘Your memory fails you. You ended our relationship. Not me. Don’t bite your lip.’
‘You and that girl were arrested for lewd conduct.’
‘You’d already gone.’
‘Just. I might have come back. If you’d shown any sign of wanting me. If you’d got yourself off the bottle.’ Her voice has risen an octave. People are looking uneasily at them. She comes bolt upright. ‘That’s her. Isn’t it? That was her name. Michelle. That’s the little tart who got you arrested.’
‘Your husband’s left you.’
‘How could you stay with a scrubber like that?’
‘Why don’t we talk about why you’re here, Sarah?’
‘I’m going to lose the house.’
‘The same house? The one I bought you?’
She nods.
‘You mortgaged it?’
‘Mac said he wanted to start a business. He needed capital.’
‘And the business failed.’
‘There wasn’t a business. It was a way to get at my money.’
Bailey starts to laugh. ‘You married a con man?’
She looks nervously at the nearby tables. ‘I’d been with you, hadn’t I?’ she whispers. ‘You’re a crook, aren’t you?’
Bailey’s smile disappears. ‘I never deceived you. I gave you that house so you’d be safe. Didn’t I? Well, didn’t I? How much do you need?’
She reaches for the bottle. ‘Shit,’ he says. ‘It can’t be that bad? Can it? I only paid fifty thousand for the place. Cash.’
She won’t look at him. ‘That was 1985,’ she says. ‘Ten years ago. You’ve been out of the country most of that time. You’re out of touch. It’s gone up eight times since then.’
‘How much?’
‘I mortgaged it to the hilt for that bastard.’
‘I said how much?’
‘Three hundred and fifty.’ In a low voice.
‘Three…three hundred and fifty? Thousand? Pounds?’
She nods.
‘You’re crazy.’
‘That’s what love does, Teddie.’
‘A fucking imbecile.’
‘I’m sorry.’

Parkinson says, ‘So you helped her?’ The crabby woman’s face has softened. All of Parky’s guests have an inner goodness. This one’s not so bad if he handed over three hundred and fifty thousand for love. She wonders what three hundred and fifty thousand would look like, all gathered together in one place. Without thinking, she lets her hand steal out and slip into her startled mate’s.
‘I didn’t give her three hundred and fifty thousand quid,’ I say. The woman snatches her hand away, looks furiously at her husband.
‘But you helped her?’ Parky looks round at the guests, inviting them to approve of this reprobate with the heart of gold. It is clear that, by and large, they do. I decide to address them direct. My eyes fall on a German, early seventies, the generation that worked like heroes to rebuild a nation their fathers had destroyed.
‘She’d behaved like a stupid bitch,’ I say. The German nods sagely. For all his age he sits upright in the plush chair. His neck sags less than many in the room. His dark red jacket is spotless, his blue shirt well pressed. A man of presence. Integrity. He wouldn’t be upstairs, dying on top of some poor kid who’s only naked because she needed the money.
‘And she must have told a few lies,’ I go on. ‘You don’t get a mortgage just by having the equity. Not for that kind of money. She must have signed something to say they had the cash coming in to make the payments.’ Righteous indignation seeps into me with the brandy. ‘Look,’ I say, ‘She ended our relationship, she finished with me, and I gave her a fifty grand house. Which was a lot of money at the time. I didn’t owe her anything.’
Interestingly, the heads nodding in agreement belong largely to the women and not the men.
‘So what did you do?’

‘Will you help me?’
‘Is the mortgage with your bank?’
‘No. It’s a separate company.’
‘Good. Give me your bank details. A cheque, give me a blank cheque. Don’t sign it,’ he says when she gets her pen out. You have to smile. ‘I only want the sort code and the account number. And tell me how to find Mac.’
‘Teddie, I don’t know…’
‘Don’t treat me like an idiot, Sarah. You’ve got some way of getting hold of him. You must have.’
‘A mobile phone number. That’s all.’
‘It’s enough. Write it on the back of the cheque.’
She does so. ‘Why is it important for the mortgage not to be with the bank?’
‘Because then the bank would just take the cash and put it against the loan.’
‘But…that’s what we want. Isn’t it?’
‘I’m not paying your loan off, Sarah.’
‘But…I thought…you said…’
‘I’ll help you. I’ll set you up again in a new place. I’m not paying your loan off.’
She looks lost.
‘Everything you do has a price, Sarah. And you have to pay it. Your parents try to tell you that when you’re young, but you don’t listen. You don’t find out it’s true till it’s too late. You did what you did and now you’re looking at the bill. I’ll put two hundred grand into your account. That’ll buy you somewhere, right?’
‘A flat, maybe. Not a house. Not like the house I lost, Teddie.’ Her voice is mournful, sing-song.
‘Write that off to your own stupidity.’
She nods. ‘When will I get the money?’
‘As soon as I’ve made contact with Mac.’
Her face looks as though she’s just been told she has days to live. ‘What if he isn’t on that number any more?’
‘Sarah. If I don’t find Mac, you don’t get the money.’
Ashes. Crestfallen. She picks up the blank cheque, turns it over, draws thick lines through the phone number she has written. Then she writes another.
‘Will you hurt him?’
‘Terminally. And any cash he’s still got will be returned to you. Less two hundred thousand.’
‘I love him, Teddie.’
‘Well, sweetheart, make up your mind. Take this back, we’ll forget the whole thing. Including your two hundred thousand.’ He pushes the cheque across the table towards her. She looks at it. She fidgets with the hem of her top. He lets the cheque lie on the table. Then he picks it up, folds it, slips it into his shirt pocket.

Michelle arrives. Bailey stands up and kisses her on the lips. ‘Tammy okay?’
‘She’s fine. She had some pasta, a quick bath, now she’s reading in bed.’ She sits down, smiles at Sarah, ignores the tears trickling down her cheeks. ‘Do you have children?’ she asks brightly.
Sarah shakes her head. ‘No. No, I don’t have children.’

Later that night, Michelle lies in bed, her face flushed. ‘Were you generous to that woman tonight?’
‘I think so. Why?’
‘You’re always especially horny when you’ve been generous.’

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