The Chaos Of Silence

January 27, 2014 § 22 Comments

Opening chapter of a novella…




Twice a day the cows swayed down the lane like tethered boats in a sea swell. They sauntered, their stretched udders bouncing between their legs. An hour later they’d be back, jostling to be first to the fresh green of the field: dung-covered tails swishing at horseflies, bags dangling empty like burst balloons.

Jessica rounded the bend, jammed on the brakes and skidded up the bank. The cows took no notice. A few stragglers foraged under the hedge, their tongues curling around the long grass. The early mist rolled along the hollow of the lane, cleared over the cows in a dense, breathy mound; then, as the animals passed, settled back into its blind silence. A collie slid silently from deep within the herd and goaded the dawdlers: crouching, panting, nipping at heels as the cows joined the queue to pass through the five-bar gate into the milking yard. Jessica yawned, switched off the engine, and began to scratch at the raised, silver scar on her wrist.

She drove carefully after that, her chin brushing the steering wheel so she could see through the mist and dodge the cowpats splattered along the single-track road. Tufts of spindly couch grass and yellow sow thistles forced their way through the thin layer of tarmac. ‘How apt,’ Jessica remarked sourly. ‘Nature always takes back what is hers.’

She reached a line of pale lime trees, their tops hovering as if suspended above the swirling mist, and looked for the sign. Tied to the rickety fence with a length of pink baler twine, it read, Bloomsbury Cottage. It was painted carelessly in black and red in the flamboyant style of someone keen to appear both original and eccentric. She recognised Bonnie’s handwriting. Lying on the ground beside it lay a much older sign – it read Rose Haven, in neat, dark green lettering.

Jessica pulled up by the sign, turned off the engine, and inspected her face in the rear view mirror. The entrance to the cottage was across a plank of scaffolding timber that spanned the ditch into what once had been a garden. A small, black sheep, with unkind yellow eyes and four horns growing out of its head at rakish angles, stopped nibbling the tips of a stand of stinging nettles, and stared as she crossed the bridge. She liked sheep, but this one made her nervous, until she saw it was attached to a metal picket by a leather collar and a short length of chain.

She pushed her way through the overgrowth that spilled onto the brick path, feeling the cold dew on her legs. The rose that had once graced the porch was now stained grey with mildew and threatened to creep through the cracks between the doorframe and the crumbling wall. Chunks of rotten render had peeled off the walls and lay in pieces amongst the weeds either side of the doorway. This house is being swallowed up by nature too, she thought. Jessica felt the unexpected warmth of the sun as the final wisps of mist burned away. One part of her wanted it to stay misty all day.

 Bonnie held a large mug of coffee in one hand and an untidy rollup in the other. Thomas had made space for himself on the cluttered table, and was spooning cornflakes idly into his mouth as he leafed through a copy of Gertrud Franck’s Companion Planting. Bonnie slouched in the worn leather armchair next to the unlit Aga blowing smoke rings at the rafters. Neither spoke.

Bonnie and Thomas had lived together for ten years: first oscillating between their own flats in London, now living in the cottage Bonnie had bought from the proceeds of her apartment in Fulham. Thomas had kept his own flat in the city, which they used often, albeit separately. Bonnie had discovered she needed a bolthole where she could spend some time away from Thomas, and for her regular fix of the city life she was beginning to miss.

She was in her early thirties and childless. Thomas, twenty years older, had a teenage son with whom he had never lived for longer than a week. They were estranged for a reason that he could no longer remember. The boy was the result of a brief and unsuitable coupling at a spiritual commune in Scotland. Gabriel, as far as Thomas was aware, still lived with his mother growing vegetables and, in Thomas’s opinion, pointlessly meditating. They described themselves – rather smugly Jessica thought – as writers, although she had seen no evidence of literary productivity since they had moved to Bloomsbury Cottage. In short, Jessica concluded, they had gone to seed. Their minds, she decided, had taken on the characteristics of the garden they had inherited: unproductive and disordered.

The cottage, partly 16th century with Victorian additions, was, historically and architecturally, unimportant; but nevertheless had been a well-kept and pretty farm labourer’s home. It was now, quite simply, neglected. An elderly man had lived there before them. A retired cowman, he had let his beloved garden go after his wife died. House maintenance had been far from his mind, and he had left clutter and chaos in his wake. As the old man’s mind had slipped painlessly into dementia, so had the cottage. After he had been persuaded rather forcefully by Social Services to move to the council-run care home in town, the cottage had lain empty over the winter. It had been duly colonised by a particularly fecund strain of field mouse, and a ginger cat that would climb in and out through a small pantry window that would no longer close.

Bonnie and Thomas had arrived the following spring full of plans and enthusiasm. At that stage, the cottage had been ripe for restoration, and crying out for someone to lavish time and money on it. What it got was two rather idealistic city dwellers who had no idea how to make up a render mix of sand, cement and lime, or the correct way to lay a damp proof course.

Six months had passed, and they had picked away tentatively at the fabric of the building. It was as if they were afraid of it. Thomas, in particular, seemed increasingly incapable of finishing any job he started, and the reality of the relentless, physical grind, and the absence of necessary skills, steadily dulled their initial ardour. Not that they were short of money – they could easily have afforded the services of a builder – but they had never considered this option. This was their project, and no one else was allowed to touch it.

This, coupled with the rapid deceleration of the pace of life that had drawn them to the idea of rural living, was steadily binding them both to a state of gloominess. They increasingly sat in silence. Not the comfortable stillness that comes from years of concord and a sure knowledge of what the other was thinking, but more a sense of disquiet and helplessness that sprang from knowing all was not well between them, and they didn’t have a clue what to do about it.

Jessica took a deep breath and knocked at the door.

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§ 22 Responses to The Chaos Of Silence

  • mikesteeden says:

    Love it! You have packed so much in with this piece with such precision and artistry.

  • ninamishkin says:

    So far — which admittedly is not very far — I am beginning to wonder why you begin with Jessica’s POV rather than Bonnie’s or Thomas’s. But I await further developments…. 🙂

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      Good question, Nina, which I understand you posing in view of the early appearance of Bonnie and Thomas’s back story. The only back story we have so far of Jessica is the ‘raised silver scar on her wrist’ – just a few words, but much more significant (I hope).
      The only explanation I really have for my choice of POV is that I intend Jessica to be the main protagonist, and so the story will revolve around her. What we learn about the couple will be largely by inference, and through J’s eyes.
      An interesting comment, and it got me thinking…:-)

      • ninamishkin says:

        I did notice the raised silver scar, but since it was “silver,” I assumed it was the result of something that had happened a long time ago. In any event, questions about it and interest in learning more were soon overshadowed by the back story of the next two characters. But, as I said, it’s still early in your novella, and matters of balance will become clearer as the story progresses. I’m sure you’ll be able to fine-tune the sequencing once you reach the end.

  • This is rich in detail, not too much that it overwhelms but just enough. You have built up the characters expertly and you have a great talent for making people invest immediately in the world you have created with your beautifully poised words. I love all the imagery of old buildings gone to seed and I like the hints of social commentary, I am hooked and would love to read more…
    Sent from my BlackBerry smartphone from Virgin Media

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      Thanks, John. I was thinking that I overdid the imagery and description – it’s something I have to be careful about, but I’m pleased that it grabbed you early. The writer, Sue Gee (eg. The Hours of the Night, The Mysteries of Glass, etc.) writes very much in this rather gentle, rambling style. I like it, although it’s mostly only women who do, but it is perhaps an acquired taste.

  • I love the way that, beneath your wonderful description (which, incidentally, is perfectly pitched so as not to be too wordy or florid) you have created the sense of ‘nature’ reclaiming what was/ is hers. This, I feel, creates a sense of anticipation which runs alongside (or , perhaps, beneath) the development of your story’s characters. As so often with your writing, I find myself drawn in by something a little deeper and darker than that which appears on the surface. Great writing, Rachael.

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      That’s a great critique for my self confidence, Chris! I think it may be on the verge of being too wordy – the original version certainly was! It will be a dark story – the only real clue so far is the scar on J’s wrist.
      Thank you for your comments, which as always, are much valued.

  • timethief says:

    I’m spellbound. The imagery woven throughout this piece and the theme of buildings and lives gone to seed is captivating. Jessica is at the door and I’m eager to read what happens after it opens.

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      That’s some compliment! Thank you. I was always taught that you have to grab your reader from the outset and hold them there! Now where does it go next… 🙂

  • Miranda Stone says:

    You are obviously in your element here, Rachael. The descriptive writing at the beginning of the story is superb; I love the way “the cows swayed down the lane like tethered boats in a sea swell.” I also like how you begin the story with a peaceful pastoral image, which abruptly changes with Jessica’s arrival. Seems like it’s a sign of things to come with Bonnie and Thomas, and how Jessica will cause similar disruption in their lives. I think you did well to mention ever so briefly the scar on Jessica’s wrist. That does a good job of letting the reader know that all is not well with her. My only suggestion is that you might want to use asterisks or some other means of showing that there’s going to be a POV change from Jessica to Bonnie, and then back to Jessica again. I think it’s perfectly fine to switch from one POV to another, and all that’s needed is an indication that the change has occurred. This is a great start, Rachael! Very well written and an enjoyable read. I look forward to finding out what happens next!

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      Thank you for your sensitive and invaluable comments Miranda. I would like to say that the switch in POV was deliberate – but it wasn’t – I didn’t know I’d done it. I’ll have a look at the piece later, but if I can’t see where I make the switch, perhaps I could ask you. I’m not a fan of shifting POV – it just confuses me!

      • Miranda Stone says:

        Okay, I went back and read the story again, and I was mistaken about the solid POV change. I can see after reading through it another time that you’re trying to show Bonnie and Thomas through Jessica’s eyes, but I think I became confused when the action abruptly shifted to Bonnie holding a mug of coffee. Since Thomas is eating cereal at the table, I assumed they were inside the house, and since Jessica is still outside, she can’t know what they’re doing. Also, you move over to Bonnie’s POV when you write that she “had discovered she needed a bolthole where she could spend some time away from Thomas, and for her regular fix of the city life she was beginning to miss.” That’s something only Bonnie would know unless she specifically told Jessica. I think a lot of the POV confusion could be remedied if you have Jessica enter the house and then describe, from her POV, what Bonnie and Thomas are doing. Just be careful not to allow her to know too much. If this is intended to be third person limited, you’ll want to stay completely in Jessica’s head and out of Bonnie and Thomas’s. Their characters can be portrayed through action and dialogue.

        • Rachael Charmley says:

          That’s immensely useful, Miranda. All of it. I couldn’t put my finger on the problem until I remembered that I’d had J peering through the window before she knocked in the original draft. That, or as you say, Jessica going into the house, solves the POV dilemma. In the original, she didn’t actually go indoors either – Thomas came out to meet her and Bonnie went to shower.
          As you say, the ‘bolthole’ can be resolved easily. Reading through the rest – which is about five thousand words and maybe a tenth of the way through – I do seem to have written it ‘third person limited’, which as you imply means the reader can only know by inference, action and dialogue what’s going on in their heads.
          Thinking about it, I’m not convinced I can sustain that successfully in a longer piece without it going rather flat, but I’ll see how it pans out.
          Thank you for giving your time so selflessly – you’re lovely. 🙂

  • renobarb says:

    Thank you, Rachel, for following my blog, my dearest cassandra. I love the serendipity of blogging, because now I’ve discovered your blog!

    I enjoyed “The Chaos of Silence”. The photo reminds me of one I took last summer outside Tipperary as we slowly drove behind a herd being moved to a field across the highway. Your descriptive style of writing is a pleasure to read. I look forward to reading more.

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      Thank you for your kind words. The photo is a pretty typical site here in rural Norfolk!
      As you say, blogging is amazing! There are so many talented, interesting people out there, and it’s lovely to find yet another. 🙂

  • InfiniteZip says:

    Love the details, can close my eyes and picture being a part of it all:)

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