for as usual having been ridiculously overoptimistic about how long this novel (that's Dynamite No. 1) would take me to write. I started this blog in May 2004--I was about 90% finished with the first draft & cheerfully predicted that I'd use the blog to describe my progress towards completion and publication. Well, it's 12 months later--I finished the draft in June 2004, I did a minor rewrite in August 2004 and major rewrites in October-November 2004, January-February 2005 and March-May 2005. I never say anything about the novel because I don't want to jinx it! (Not until I have a book contract will there be any details here. I will say, though, that I've just sent the latest--I hope sort-of-temporarily-final--version to the genius agent, and will wait to hear what she thinks.) If you're interested, there's a description of the whole project if you scroll to the bottom of this interview; and I thought I'd paste in a few paragraphs as well. This scene comes in chapter five:
At half-past seven, Sophie changed into a faded pink cotton frock and a soft gray cardigan she had reclaimed from the rubbish after Peggy pronounced a verdict of moth. She found the sitting-room downstairs full of ladies of all shapes and sizes. None of them noticed Sophie come in, and she was able to stand by the door and review the room in peace.
Her eyes kept coming back to a large woman in black who sat by herself in the corner, holding her heavy body upright like someone not sure of her welcome. The oppressiveness of her presence, together with the dense jet beading of her bodice, persuaded Sophie that this must be the medium.
As the mantel clock struck eight and Great-aunt Tabitha began to round up the guests and herd them into the dining room, Sophie was surprised to find the woman’s eyes meet her own. When Sophie smiled and gave an awkward half-nod—she didn’t want to but she couldn’t help herself—the medium simply stared at her, not turning away until Sophie’s great-aunt arrived at her side to escort her in to supper in the next room.
Supper was the usual ordeal, food-wise, though lots of the women swallowed their spoonfuls of haddock soup (its gelatinous consistency beyond rational explanation) in a calm way that betrayed a familiarity with institutional cooking.
For pudding, there was a choice of gooseberry fool or stewed fruit. Sophie asked for the apricots, which were bland and inoffensive. She decided not to take a sponge finger from the biscuit barrel when it came round. Sophie’s great-aunt insisted on Peggy making them at home rather than buying the packets of ready-made ones at the shop, which she said were low-class. When they weren’t soggy, which they quite often were, they had a texture like corrugated cardboard. As Sophie watched, the lady across from her picked one up and dipped it into her pudding before taking a small bite, then put it hastily back on the side plate, a funny expression on her face. Had she broken a tooth?
As the maids came in to clear the table, Sophie’s great-aunt stood and announced the order of affairs for the rest of the evening. Great-aunt Tabitha would examine the medium in private, in the presence of two fully paid-up members of the Caledonian Guild of Spiritualist Inspectors. Meanwhile Miss Gillespie would organize the others into a sitters’ circle in the conservatory at the back of the house.
Sophie had already got up from her chair and folded her napkin when her great-aunt appeared beside her, looking worried.
“Sophie, this is quite irregular, but Mrs. Tansy has asked for you to join us upstairs for the examination.”
Sophie could not help looking over at the medium, whose impassive face and folded arms did not conceal the fact that her eyes rested directly on Sophie. Sophie couldn’t imagine why the woman wanted her there, but there was no good reason to say no.
She followed the other women up the stairs, Great-aunt Tabitha leading the procession like a brisk but demented mother duck. They made their way to a little-used bedroom on the top floor, directly opposite Sophie’s. It was wretchedly cold and damp and the fireplace looked as if it hadn’t been used for years.
Though she had read about this kind of thing, Sophie had a bad feeling it would be quite different in person. What happened next was absolutely awful. Under Great-aunt Tabitha’s penetrating eye, the two inspectors stripped the medium completely naked. One woman searched her—Sophie blushed and looked away when the medium was asked to bend over so her body cavities could be checked for the concealed lengths of muslin used to fake ectoplasm—while the second inspector carefully examined each item of clothing.
Sophie had never seen a grown-up person without any clothes on. She couldn’t take her eyes away from the vast expanse of flesh: the enormous breasts, yellow and goose-pimpled in the cold, the folds of fat over the woman’s hips and abdomen, the imbalance between her bulky thighs and skinny calves. Worst were the raw red marks where the woman’s steel-boned corset had printed her body. In places the chafing had actually broken the skin.
Sophie dared not look at the woman’s face until the inspectors had given her back her undergarments and a cloak to cover herself. What she saw there puzzled her. Instead of the humiliation or anger you might have expected, the medium wore an expression of calm satisfaction. As Sophie’s eyes met hers, the woman’s face broke into a disturbing smile like a person gloating over a private victory.
When they reached the conservatory, the medium’s wrists were tied with tape, the knots sealed with wax and the ends of the tape tied to the chairs on either side of her. Eight chairs had been arranged in a circle around a black-and-gold lacquered table of vaguely Japanese provenance.
They took their seats, Sophie choosing one as far from the medium as possible. The maid dimmed the lamps and stood waiting by the door in case they needed anything else.
“Join hands,” Great-aunt Tabitha intoned, “to promote the energy-flow between the sitters. Spirits of the Great Beyond, we are gathered this evening in the company of your servant Mrs. Patricia Tansy in the hope that we will be honored by some sign of your presence. We will hear anything you wish to impart about life on the Other Side. We await your instructions.”
Most of the women had closed their eyes, but Sophie opened hers a crack, just enough to sneak a look round the table. The sitters’ hands were clasped together, each pair of hands resting on the table in front of them. The medium was absolutely motionless, her glassy eyes staring off into the middle distance.
When the voice came, Sophie jumped and almost lost her grip on the hands on either side of her.
“Who calls me here?”
It was a man’s voice, and it seemed to emanate from a point in mid-air several feet above the medium’s head. The accent was lightly German or Scandinavian, Sophie couldn’t tell which, altogether unlike the medium’s lowland brogue.
“I do,” said Great-aunt Tabitha, her voice not faltering at all.
“I cannot tell of life on the other side,” said the voice, “for I speak to you from limbo. Though my body has long since fallen to dust, my soul is not yet able to leave its shell. I answer your call for another reason. I am here to speak to the youngest one amongst you, whose help I require to release me from my mortal coil.”
The table rocked slightly beneath their hands. Several women gasped.
To Sophie’s dismay, she felt a slight breeze and the sensation of a hand touching her face, a feeling so real that she could hardly believe the message of her eyes that nothing was there.
“Sophie, dear child,” said the voice. Its disembodied use of the endearment was frankly disconcerting. “Do not be afraid. I come to warn you of great danger and to tell you to be careful whom you trust in weeks to come. A journey lies ahead of you, and I count on seeing you myself before too long. I have arranged for help along the way. Your future depends upon your past, but the way from the present to the future is cloudy. Meanwhile you must follow the one your heart inclines to, and keep your own counsel.”
The hand brushed through her hair and then left in a whoosh like air rushing to fill the space at the top of a jam-jar when you first pop open the lid. Sophie wanted to scoff but her pulse was racing so fast she thought she might faint.
Most of the women had opened their eyes now, though the dim light made it difficult to see much. The medium groaned. Then her face convulsed into a rictus so horrible it reminded Sophie of a gruesome illustration in a book she’d once seen, a police photograph of a dead woman lying on the floor of a grand Paris apartment with her throat cut. The shadow cast by the fastening of the medium’s cloak exactly mimicked the gaping hole of that wound.
To be continued....