Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people around the world are currently taking part in the annual November write-off ‘NaNoWriMo’ (National Novel Writing Month) a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. I am taking part for the fourth time. Not sure if I will quite make the deadline by November 31st this year, I may be a few days late. But, hey, I’ll still have written a whole book, so – wow!!!!! Currently my word count is up to 22,000 words, it should be about 26,000 or 28,000 – so who knows, i might make up the shortfall. In previous years I’ve written two fantasy novels and one mystery. This year I’ve gone to the mystery genre again. I already had an idea in my mind, and in October I did a little background research so I wouldn’t bog down during the crucial period. I got my sparkly new notebooks ready, along with my list of potential character names and a few other bits and pieces, and on 1st November, away I went. I have given the story the working title of @Night and Day’ though I’m not sure if I will keep that when the book is polished and revised and finally (I hope) released on an unsuspecting world. There are a number of novels with that title already, sadly. But whatever it ends up being called, here is a little from the opening chapter. The setting is London, November 1933. This is the first draft, completely unrevised, so it’ll be somewhat holey. 🙂
Dottie Manderson had planned to walk the short distance from the theatre to her sister’s house, but as soon as she came out of the warmth of the theatre and stepped out onto the pavement, she realised it was raining again. She put up her hand to hail one of the waiting cabs, all queuing to catch people as they came out into the miserable November evening in London’s West End. One pulled up. With a profound sense of relief, she got in.
‘327 Mortlake Gardens, please,’ she said and sank back against the leather. It was so nice to be out of the weather even though a moment ago she had been far too hot in the theatre, but the rain was coming down in torrents, and her fashionable but tiny hat virtually useless, her hair was already dripping. It was also good to be off her feet. She stretched one elegant foot out in front of her and regarded her neat ankle with a mixture of satisfaction and concern. Being on your feet all day may be good for the figure, but it played havoc with your ankles. If she wasn’t careful, by the time she was thirty she’d end up with fat, bulging ankles like Mrs Carmichael, and the only model the old dragon would allow her to show would be the longest, most-covering up ones, the floor-length gowns and the lounging pyjamas.
She looked out at the rainy street. It would be rather late by the time she arrived of course, but she had warned Flora about that. And Flora never cared about that sort of thing, she wouldn’t throw anyone out before midnight at the earliest—later if they were all having too much fun.
In spite of the weather—or perhaps because of it—the normally quiet residential streets were just as busy as they were at six o’clock in the evening. She gazed out of the window at the glistening world of night-time London, but her mind was elsewhere, remembering the show, remembering her companion. She hoped she would see Peter again. He was such a nice chap and danced beautifully. And he was the only chap in their set who didn’t smoke cigars. Dottie hated the smell of cigars.
She had thought of asking him to come back with her to Flora’s but in the end had decided it would be better not to: she didn’t want to make more of it than it was, and Flora was always the last person you introduced a young man to—unless you wanted her to start ordering the rose petals and white satin that is. Just because she was married, she seemed to think everyone else ought to be married too.
‘327 Mortlake Gardens, Miss,’ the cabby called as they halted outside a fashionable villa. ‘Mind your step now, the pavement’s more like a river just here.’
Dottie handed him his fare plus a modest tip. And he came round to help her to descend. As she did so she looked about her properly. This wasn’t it. The cabby slammed the door. And Dottie immediately realised what had happened. ‘Oh my goodness, did I say 327? I’m such an idiot—I meant 237. That’s the second time I’ve done that this week. Really I shouldn’t be allowed out on my own.’
‘I can easily go back a bit Miss, you jump back in. It’s no bother…’
‘No, please don’t worry about it. The rain’s stopped and it’s not far—I keep getting the number of my sister’s house mixed up with my aunt’s. Really, I must try to remember.’
‘If you’re sure Miss?’
‘I am, thank you. Goodnight.’
Dottie stood there for a moment then set off back along the street. Although it wasn’t so very late, the street felt deserted and a little unfriendly. One of the lamps was out a few yards away, and the stretch between the one behind her and the next one along seemed to yawn blackly in front of her. She bit her lip and told herself not to be a ninny. The canopy of a large tree added to the general gloom. But feeling determined, she fixed her gaze on Flora’s house further along. The house was all lit up and even from here she could hear the sound of voices, laughter and music all spilling out on the night air.
If she hurried, she shouldn’t get too wet. She had been hopelessly optimistic when she told the cabby the rain had stopped. It hadn’t. Dottie drew her fur coat more tightly around her and held onto her hat, now not much more than a bit of limp lace and ribbon. But almost her first step took her an inch deep into a puddle and she couldn’t help a little yelp at how cold the water was, and the shock of it.
‘Blast it,’ she grumbled, and leaning against a nearby gate-post, she shook the worst of the water from her silver sandals. Almost new, too, she thought ruefully, and almost certainly ruined. At least her dress hadn’t seemed to suffer too badly. She hitched the skirt up a little higher and made to continue her short but eventful journey.
A sound came to her ears. A soft shushing sort of sound but almost melodic. She paused a moment. Listened. Her eyes, growing accustomed to the darkness, made out a shape on the pavement not ten yards ahead. Her heart gave an odd lurch, as if a cold hand gripped it.
‘Idiot,’ she muttered to herself, and forced herself to keep going. She really shouldn’t read gothic novels late at night, it made her jumpy. No doubt all she would find was the pages of a newspaper all spread about by the wind and made to look odd by the streetlight behind her casting odd-angled light and creating shadows.
The sound came again. A little louder, a little more insistent. It sounded almost like…
There was someone—a man—lying on the pavement. She felt a little shimmer of fear. Could it be a drunk? Perhaps she ought to step into the road, walk round him very carefully, keeping her distance but…
The head moved very slightly. And she saw that the lips moved too. It was him making that odd noise. So it was a drunk, after all. He was singing to himself in a soft sibilant whisper. Her ear caught the rough melody of it, and even then, just as she saw the blood on his shirt-front, one part of her mind was saying, I know that song.
She forgot her fears and ran to his side.
‘What happened? Are you all right?’ she asked, then berated herself for asking such a stupid question. Because it was all too obvious he was not all right. She knelt beside him and put out a hand to take his grasping one.
He was quite young, a little older than her own age, and clearly well-to-do, although she didn’t recognise him. No more than in his early thirties. Fairish hair, slightly receding, and dark from the rain. One of those moustaches that were all the rage at the moment. Blue eyes, very blue like a child’s, wide and astonished-looking. The blood—oh the blood. So much…
‘What h—happened?’ she repeated but he seemed barely able to take in what she was saying. With infinite gentleness she lowered his head to the ground again, laid his hand on his chest and picking up her skirts she raced the last few yards to pound on Flora’s door, screaming for help. And without waiting for a response, she hurried back to the man’s side, taking his hand again.
‘Someone will come,’ she promised him, promised herself even more, ‘they’ll be here in a moment, just hold on a little longer.’
The door was opening and George’s head poked out. Thank God it was George. She yelled, ‘Oh George! Help! There’s been the most terrible… he needs a doctor. I c-can’t stop the b-bleeding.’
George, bless him, was perfect in any crisis. ‘Right ho, old girl,’ he said and disappeared back inside. She could almost hear him going around the house trying to find someone Useful. No doubt there was a doctor present among his many cronies. George was not only a dear, he was a sensible man, and she could quite see why Flora had married him.
The street seemed so quiet. The other houses were all mantled in darkness, not one light, not a sound. The houses along this part of the street might have all been empty. The music and the laughter from Flora and George’s party seemed worlds away under the other streetlight, and here, in her little oasis of shadow, nothing touched her and the man on the ground. Dottie could hear the laboured sound of his breathing, gasping, as if he was snatching at air too thin to breathe. Yet he was still singing that song in that peculiar soundless whisper.
It came to her now what it was. She had been to see the show only last week at the theatre with George and Flora and a couple of other friends. Gay Divorce. The divine Fred Astaire, and Claire Luce in her gorgeous dresses that Mrs Carmichael was already offering copies of to her best clients.
Dottie looked into the wide blue eyes.
‘What’s your name? Can you tell me anything? What’s…’ She heard the sound of a door slamming and running feet clattering on the wet pavement. ‘Help’s coming, hold on,’ she said. He gripped her hand in a tight, painful grasp, tried to raise his head a little.
‘Night and d-day, you – you – are the one, only you be – neath the- moon and under – the s-sun.’
‘Please, save your strength,’ she begged him. George and a couple of others were there, Flora opened the door again and had come out to stand on the steps looking anxious, a little knot of other crowding behind her to see what was happening.
‘Whether – near to m- me or far, makes no – diff – rence darling w – where you are…’
He wouldn’t stop, he wouldn’t let go of her hand even as the doctor tried to pull him back onto the ground to see to his injuries. George’s hand was under her elbow, trying to raise her and guide her away, but the man clutched at her, his fingers digging into her arm, refusing to let her go. She could see it in his eyes, the determination to hold onto her, there was something he simply had to tell her.
‘I think – of – you…’ his voice was less than a whisper, she bent her head to catch the sound of it even though her memory was reminding her of the words, and as his eyes lost their focus and glazed, his final breaths telling her, ‘night…and…’
He was gone without finishing the line. A slight convulsion had him jerking then falling back onto the wet ground, and she sat back on her heels, her free hand covering her mouth, then George was pulling her up and leading her away, his arm warm about her shoulders. ‘Oh,’ she said, and once again felt foolish for saying something so pointless. George waved to Flora who hurried over, gasped at the sight of the man, the pool of blood where he lay was, as Dottie now saw, huge. The doctor and the other man were still with him, two pals of George’s, she knew them so well and yet just for now their names were a mystery to her.
‘Come away, dear,’ George said, and he and Flora drew her into the house, past the staring guests.