Dead darlings (DDs) come in many forms. It can be a line of description, a snippet of dialogue a whole chapter or even a character (at which point it really starts to feel like murder).
Today is about dead beginnings.
I’ve always struggled with knowing when to begin a story. Chapter 1’s are often where I get stuck, and while the rest of a novel may get 5 or so drafts the first chapter will get at least 20. Many of my writerly friends have said I’m lucky that I write good middles and endings easily, as fixing a beginning in easier than fixing a dud ending. I’m still not sure if I agree, but either way, the way I work results in a mass grave of DDs from the start of every story.
Today’s DD is from a YA novel called The Headstone House that I have been working on for a couple of years now. The story is currently undergoing its fourth full re-draft and has had a least 10 different chapter 1s. The one below is a version I was very happy with in terms of many aspects, however it was just slowing the story down too much starting from this point. In a way this still happens, just off screen and the reader now enters the story at what was chapter 3. Either way, after re-writing this scene several different ways and work-shopping it several times, it was bloody hard to kill.
To set the scene here is the blurb I wrote:
The Headstone House
“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.” – Headstone
Recently Jade lost what was most important to her. Now all she has left is a half-brother no one can find and an uncle she’d never heard of. But now he’s going to take her to live with him at the Chateau de Reves – The Castle of Dreams. And there are others who live there too. Others who have strange habits, secrets and rules.
Life with her new uncle is not what Jade expected. And she has so many questions, like why can’t she walk up the road? And what’s wandering lost in the bush? And why was this place once called The Headstone House? What she does know is that it’s a house where children forget: losing a little of themselves every day.
Can Jade remember not only who she is, but how to find the way home, before it’s too late?
And here is the Dead Darling itself:
Chapter 1 — The Rules and the Clown
Jade sat on Mrs Jenkins’ couch making a plan for her new life. Her dad had always said ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’, so she knew if she had a plan everything would all be alright. Even though thinking about her dad made her chest hurt and she had to blink really fast to stop the tears coming again. She fought them off, but more memories came rushing in like a wave. His laugh that sounded like a kookaburra. His clothes smelling of dirt and grease even though his hands always smelt of soap. His loud sudden sneezes that scared strangers. And his big rough sausage fingers that could tie tiny, delicate knots.
She wrote as fast as she could before Mrs Jenkins came in to tell her off. She wasn’t sure what she was doing wrong, but there was always something. Putting a pen too close to the faun leather couch. Risking spilling ink on the perfect white carpet. Sitting too long and making a cushion too flat.
Jade figured having Mrs Jenkins as a foster-parent was okay for a while. She didn’t spank her, or yell at her, or make her do all the chores. And at the funeral when Jade was crying so hard she couldn’t see, Mrs Jenkins had hugged her, handed her tissues and said nothing, which was just what Jade needed. But still, life with Mrs Jenkins was one long set of rules. Don’t run, don’t shout, don’t put your feet on the couch, take your shoes off when you come inside, put your shoes on before you go in the backyard, chew with your mouth closed, put your clothes away, don’t burp, cover your mouth when you cough. The house had no computer, no Wi-Fi and no TV. Instead there were hundreds of tiny porcelain bears and clowns arranged on shelves. They stared at her now as she wrote and the feeling of being watched prickled her skin. Whenever Mrs Jenkins’s wasn’t watching she turned as many as she could to face the wall.
Mrs Jenkins’ had also taken Jade’s mobile phone saying it wasn’t a toy for a little girl. Jade had insisted she wasn’t a little girl and stolen the mobile back from where Mrs Jenkins’ had hidden it in the pantry. She’d stashed it in the garden in her Dad’s old tackle box. Mrs Jenkins was petrified Jade would put a hook through her finger or, even worse, the faun couch. It didn’t matter to her that Jade had been fishing for forever. Jade’s dad had never bothered with this stuff. He laughed when she burped and they watched sitcoms and action films together while eating dinner with their feet on their faded green couch. The memory made her chest ache.
Jade has made lots of plans in the last few weeks. When she’d first come to Mrs Jenkins house she’d planned to run away and search for her brother, Ben. But then she’d found out she wasn’t staying here because she had an Uncle. Mrs Jenkins said he was her mother’s brother and he wanted to take care of her. Jade hadn’t known her mother had a brother, but Mrs Jenkins and her social worker insisted. And right now, Jade needed family like a fisherman needed bait. So she sat and wrote a new plan for her new life with her new uncle.
The doorbell rang: a tinkling rendition of Green sleeves that Jade always found depressing. But still she dropped her pen, leapt up from the couch and ran to the door. It was going to be Ben this time. She was sure of it. He’d always popped up just in time before, so it had to be him, and then they could meet their new uncle together.
She opened the door to find a clown.
He was a real, proper circus clown: like one of Mrs Jenkins’ figurines comes to life. He was short; barely an inch taller than Jade, and everything about him was loose and saggy like a kid wearing his dad’s clothes. A once-yellow shirt, baggy red pants with blue patches, and an enormous blue bowtie. His face was caked white with enormous red eyebrows that curved all the way up his forehead and back down again. Black triangles sat above and below his eyes making them the twinkles in a dark diamond. Frizzy red hair stood out from either side of his head, and a big red smile was painted right up his cheeks, level with his big red nose. He clutched a battered and bent blue top hat in front of him like it was a shield.
“Um, I think you’ve got the wrong house,” said Jade. She shut the door. Or at least she tried. The long red clown shoe stuck in the doorway. When the door bounced off it made a squeaky sound like a chew toy.
“Yu-you’re Ju-Ju-Jade, right?”
Jade thought he was going to choke on her name.
“Yes,” she said hesitantly, wracking her brain trying to remember if her dad had known a clown. She didn’t recognise him, but with the makeup it was hard to tell.
“I’m your U-un-uncle Rufus,” he stammered. He pulled at his collar like it was chocking him and then absent-mindedly flicked his bow tie. It spun like a propeller, buzzing like a weary bee giving up hope.
“Shut that door, Jade. You’re letting flies in,” said Mrs Jenkins, coming out from the kitchen. Then she saw the clown. “Who’s this, then?” Hands on hips she towered over both Jade and the clown. Mrs Jenkins was built like a rock from stone hedge with a grey perm and she gave him her best no-nonsense stare.
Rufus looked up at her and his hands trembled. His lips moved and his Adams apple bobbed up and down but he couldn’t a sound out.
“Now you listen here,” said Mrs Jenkins pointing at him. “Whatever you’re selling I’m not buying. You understand me young man?”
Mrs Jenkins looked down at Jade. “Is he trying to say something dear or is that supposed to be an impression of car that won’t start?” She shook her head. “I never did understand clowns.”
“He said he’s my Uncle Rufus,” said Jade, feeling a little sorry for the poor clown and what was about to happen to him as she saw Mrs Jenkins’ face shift into hostess mode.
“Oh, well, why have you got him standing out there on the steps like a vagrant? Invite him in, invite him in!”
Jade gave the clown a sympathetic smile then ducked out of the way. Mrs Jenkins clucked and fussed like a giant mother hen, herding him inside.
“Yes, this way, Mr…How did you say that again?”
“Uh…Au—Auguste,” he stuttered. “But p-p-please, just Ru-Ru-Rufus will do.”
“Oh bless, you’d think your parents would have given you a name you could say. Okay, you sit here. No, not there, here. Now make yourself comfortable. Jade, get that pen off the couch. Now you sit too please…Sit up properly, there’s a good girl.” Both Jade and Rufus did as they were told. There was just something in Mrs Jenkins voice that rang of every teacher you’d ever had, so your knees were bending and your bum was on the seat before you thought about it.
Once she had them seated across from each other, she clasped her hands together and said, “Well isn’t this a nice surprise?” Even though Jade knew she hated surprises. “We weren’t expecting to see you until next week. Jade, you just chat to your uncle for a moment and I’ll get us some refreshments.” She hurried off to the kitchen.
The rules were bad, but the other downside to living with Mrs Jenkins was the food. She didn’t like normal people food. Oysters with soy sauce and liver with gravy were her favourite things.
But right now food was the furthest thing from Jade’s mind. She studied the clown, drumming her fingers on her notebook, trying to see if he looked like her mum. He was about the right height and had brown eyes but that was all she could tell. Underneath the makeup, wig and baggy clothes he could look like anyone. He stared at his hands, moving them like he was shaping invisible clay.
She wondered if he was going to take her to live in a circus. She hadn’t planned on that. She imagined a life of sleeping in caravans and travelling to a new town every week and wondered if she would make a good tightrope walker. That was way more exciting than a life of no TV and eating cauliflower and kidney surprise soup with Mrs Jenkins.
There were a million questions Jade wanted to ask. She spat out the first one that came to mind. “Why haven’t I heard of you before?”
He looked up surprised, then quickly looked away to study the lamp next to his chair. He flicked his tie again and gave a weary buzz. “Um, your ma-ma-mother and I haven’t spoken in a wh-wh-wh…some t-time. I used to, um, t-t-travel a lot.” He spoke like every other word got stuck behind his Adams apple. It jerked up and down like a yoyo, and his head bobbed as each word was released. With his big frizzy hair and small body he was a like one of those bobble-heads that nod at you from other people’s cars.
“Do you live in a circus?” said Jade, hopeful.
“N-no-not anymore.” He sounded sad. “I l-l-live in a house. By the s-s-sea. It’s a s-sort of b-b-boarding house.” Flick, buzz went his tie. His stuttering, stumbling speech reminded Jade of her Dad’s old Toyota. It had panels in three different colours, red, yellow and blue, and stammered and sputtered when it started or whenever they drove it anywhere new. She’d loved that car.
“So there are other people living there to?” she asked.
“Yes, and t-they have c-ch-ch…kids too.” His gloved hands left his tie and went back to his lap, twisting and turning like they were shaping air.
“Oh, did you hear that, Jade?” said Mrs Jenkins coming back, making Rufus jump. “You’ll have a whole bunch of new friends in no time.” She put a tray laden with devilled eggs on the coffee table between them. They smelled like off-curry and looked like someone sick had sneezed into half a ping pong ball.
But Jade was too excited to be put off by their stench. She scooted forward on the couch, kicking her heels against the base as she thought of running down to the beach with a pack of new friends. Mrs Jenkins frowned and tutted, but Jade didn’t care. Earlier she’d been so nervous about meeting her new uncle, but the idea of living with other kids in a house near the sea sounded better than anything she’d planned. Ben had always been much older and she’d always envied her friends who had brothers and sisters they could do stuff with. Now she’d have a house full of people to go swimming and fishing with: and fishing with her new uncle had definitely been part of her plan. “And can Ben come live with us too?” she said.
“Jade! Don’t be so presumptuous,” said Mrs Jenkins.
Jade didn’t know what that meant, and Rufus looked confused too.
“But he’ll be back. And he’s my brother so he’s your family too.” she explained to Rufus. “I’ll show you. I’ve got a photo” She pushed her self forward to leap off the couch and her foot clipped the edge of the tray, sending the devilled eggs flying.
Rufus copped the worst of the flying curry-snot. It splattered his hair, shirt and big wobbly chunk stuck to his bowtie.
“Oh, Jade, you silly, silly girl. Oh, no Mr Auguste. Don’t get up. You’ll tread it into the carpet. Jade – stay where you are,” said Mrs Jenkins before she rushed out of the room in a flurry.
“I’m sorry,” said Jade. Her cheeks blossomed little embarrassed roses. She picked up the tray and started to clean up the stray eggs wobbling on the white carpet
“It’s a-a-all…okay,” he said. “Though I’m used to b-being the one t-t-throwing food.” He picked up one that had survived and studied it. “But usually it’s much b-b-better t-to use cream p-p-pies. They make t-the b-b-best s-splat. Always gets a l-l-laugh. But, you n-never know…” He popped off his red nose and put the snotty egg on instead. “These could be f-f-funny.” His face screwed up as the off-curry smell struck. “Phwoar…” He pulled it off. A bit stayed stuck giving him a huge egg-booger. Jade laughed for what felt like the first time in forever. A huge smile filled Rufus’s painted one. It gave her hope her plan would work and her life with her Uncle could be like the one she’d had with her dad.
“You h-have your mother’s l-l-laugh, you know,” he said, he flicked the wobbly chunk off his bow tie and it spun, buzzing.
Jade thought that was strange as everyone always said she had a loud kookaburra-laugh just like her dad.
“Oh, whatever are you doing?” said an exasperated Mrs Jenkins. She’d returned armed with rubber gloves and two buckets, one full of cleaning products in neon colours, and the other full of water. She even had a dust buster tucked under one arm. “I told you to leave it.”
Rufus stood, brushing egg off his hands onto his shirt. “Well, um, I-I’m sorry. But we really do need to h-hit the r-r-r-road.”
“Really, so soon?
“Yes, we have a l-l-lo…far t-to go.”
“But you just got here. We can’t go right now,” said Jade. She wasn’t ready. He wasn’t supposed to have arrived for another week and she had planned on that.
But the adults were nodding and Mrs Jenkins grabbed Jade’s hand to take her upstairs to pack.
Jade pulled her arm out of the rubber glove grip and ran to the backdoor. She had to make sure she got her tackle box. She shouted she’d be back in a sec. Both the clown and Mrs Jenkins shouted after her.
The garden was neat grass and pot plants with gnomes perched on their edges. They were fishing and surfing and pushing barrows looking ponderous and their still frozen eyes creeped Jade out. She ran past their stares all to the back of the garden. Under a stack of old pots was her dad’s tackle box. She freed it and hugged it to her chest. As long as she had this, her dad would always be with her because he said ‘not even death could separate a fisherman and his lures’. It also had her mobile, her dad’s favourite old t-shirt, her mum’s watch and some photos of her parents, Ben and her friends and she wasn’t going to leave it behind for anything.
Then someone grabbed her arm and spun her around. Jade just managed to keep a hold of the tackle box.
“D-d-don’t you d-dare run away,” Rufus spat. His eyes were red he was puffing.
“I wasn’t. I was just getting this.” Jade held up the box.
“You were t-t-t-told….” He suddenly looked tired and scared. His hands were shaking “You b-b-better l-l-le…start t-to do as you’re t-told quick smart or t-the others w-w-w-will—.”
Jade glared at him and stepped back, hugged the tackle box to her chest.
Rufus held up his hands. “I’m so-so- sorry,” he said. His shoulders slumped he licked his lips. “I’m just so t-t-tired…and h-hungry.”
“Is everything alright?” shouted Mrs Jenkins from the back door.
Jade ran back to the house and Mrs Jenkins. “I just wanted to get this.”
“Oh, that box. It’s not safe,”
Jade gripped the box even tighter. The plastic dug into her hand like it was trying to fuse with it. Jade took a deep breath, ready to argue, but then Rufus said, “It’s o-okay. Sh-she can br-br-bring it.”
“Well, I suppose it’s okay if Mr Auguste supervises,” said Mrs Jenkins, even though she didn’t look happy about it.
Jade exhaled, and gave Rufus a grateful look.
“It’s just that she’s been through a lot lately. But you will take good care of her, won’t you?”
“Of c-course. The b-b-best. We’re f-f-family after all,” he tugged at his collar and then flicked his tie. Its tired buzz matched his face. He looked like the run across the garden had been a marathon.
And that was that. Before Jade knew it all her things were packed, with plenty of fuss from Mrs Jenkins about how messy she was. Then Jade was buckling up her seat belt in an ancient rusty brown car.
Mrs Jenkins gave her a bag through the window.
“For the drive.” A scent wafted out of the bag and Jade knew it was the one thing that Mrs Jenkins cooked that she liked. Rosemary and cheese biscuits. The smell of the rosemary reminded her of mother. She didn’t remember much about her, but her dad had always told Jade how she put rosemary in almost everything she cooked.
“Call me and let me know the minute you arrive, okay?” Mrs Jenkins dabbed at her eyes with a hanky.
“I’ll call,” Jade promised. She was sad to leave the woman who’d helped her while she cried for days after her dad’s funeral. But she was also thankful never to have to eat Mrs Jenkins’ tofu and sprout tart or be told off for putting her feet on the faun couch ever again.
Rufus mumbled something and put the car into gear. It came to life with a smoker’s cough.
“Bye.” Jade waved and watched as Mrs Jenkins’ and her house of rules disappear behind them.