First chapters are a hard sell. You’ve got to pack a lot into them: enough to engage the reader’s interest; enough to get your premise established; enough to build a novel on. I rewrote this chapter a dozen or so times. Here’s the final version, as it appears in the published book (The Walker’s Daughter: Firedance Books). I hope you enjoy it!
Frost. There was frost sparkling round me on the icy doorstep. Like diamonds. Breathe.
‘Where is she?’
‘The ambulance took her to St Mary’s in Paddington. You didn’t answer your mobile. I came straight here.’ Sue leaned down to lift me from my knees. ‘We have to go, Cora. I’ll drive you there.’
I raised my eyes to her blanched face.
‘Cora. Get up, please,’ she pleaded.
Reality flooded back to me. I jumped to my feet, grabbed house keys from the hallway and slammed the front door. ‘Let’s go,’ I said, running towards Sue’s car.
I stared out of the window as we pulled out of Gregory Square into Finn Street and a line of slow-moving traffic.
Too slow. Too slow.
‘Can you speed up?’
‘I really can’t, Cora. There’s too much traffic, and this ice. You’d think they’d have gritted the roads.’ Her voice broke.
‘How bad is it?’ My own voice sounded eerily calm.
‘I don’t know. We were outside the school gates heading for my car. She was running ahead. Dancing, actually. You know Grace. She couldn’t wait to get out of there. The van mounted the pavement — there was nothing I could do.’ Her hands shook on the steering wheel.
‘Of course there wasn’t,’ I said.
‘She wasn’t moving when they put her in the ambulance. But she wasn’t dead — God, no Cora! She was unconscious. She was breathing and everything.’
I curled over, my arms around my stomach, willing myself not to hear the thud of metal against my daughter’s soft, yielding body, not to see her flung into the air.
‘Cora — ’
‘It’s okay. Please, just get me there.’
You can get there quicker.
No! Where did that thought come from?
You could be there right now. You know how to do it.
I gripped the edge of the seat, feeling the gorge rise, willing myself to concentrate on being. It took forever, an endless white purgatory of not knowing, of having to sit still.
Finally we pulled into the car park.
‘Go, go,’ urged Sue and I leaped out of the car and ran through the ice and slush.
It was like dream running — working my legs as fast as I could, but getting nowhere. A revolving door, a help desk, long white corridors and signs, voices and questions and finally, finally a large room, a curtain, a cubicle — and a child on a bed.
The world shrank to a pin-point: this time, this place; this child.
I laid my hand on her unblemished forehead and stroked back her brown curls.
A tired voice came from behind me. ‘Are you the mother? The doctor will be in shortly to talk to you.’
My eyes were busy examining Grace’s face. ‘Has she woken at all? Did you give her something?’
‘She’ll wake when she’s ready.’
‘Should she be unconscious? Is this normal?’
I heard the sound of creaking shoes as the nurse shifted her weight from foot to foot. ‘Everything looks fine. The doctor will be here soon.’ She might as well have said, ‘How should I know? Accidents happen everyday.’
I turned now and met her disinterested eyes. ‘What do you need from me?’
‘The school’s given us all her details. We need you to confirm them, but we can do that later. Talk to her. Let her know you’re here.’
She turned and left us.
Grace’s arm shook under my trembling hand. ‘Shush,’ I said, more for myself than her. I felt utterly helpless.
You’re not helpless. Get on with it.
I was aware of sweat pooling under my arms. I looked at the strip lighting; no windows. It was already dark outside but in here it could have been any time at all.
I squeezed my eyes closed and took in a deep breath. Grace. ‘I’m coming, baby.’ I withdrew my hand and went to draw the cubicle curtains tightly shut, leaving no chinks. Then I pulled a chair to the bedside, sat down and laid my head against Grace’s body for support.
‘Oh God,’ I said. ‘Oh God.’
Before I could go any further, the curtains parted and Sue came in.
I clapped my hand against my hammering heart. ‘You made me jump.’ Grace hadn’t moved; the machines went on beeping.
‘Sorry. How is she?’ Sue’s mascara was smudged and her eyes were red.
I nodded towards the machines with a mute shrug. Sue sat down on the other side of the bed and took Grace’s free hand.
‘Do you want me to call someone?’
‘I could call your sister.’
Just what I needed. ‘No. I’m fine. Really. Sue, you don’t have to stay.’
‘I would never leave you alone!’ she said in horrified tones. She was hunched in her chair, buckling under the weight of her guilt — because she’d been the grown-up in charge; because she was relieved it wasn’t her daughter lying here.
It was all I could do to stay polite. Go away! I can’t do this unless you leave us alone!
She wouldn’t. Nor would anyone else. Grace was like Eros in her own Piccadilly Circus, with a troupe of uniformed staff whirling around her. They took her pulse. They gave her injections and measured her blood pressure. They raised her eyelids and shone lights into her eyes. They pressed her tender white belly so that the breath came out of her mouth in little gasps.
The pain in my chest made it hard to breathe; every breath made the room around me swim.
Excellent. Pass out, Cora, why don’t you? That’ll help. You know what you have to do.
‘Shall I find us a hot drink?’ said Sue.
I nodded vigorously. ‘Yes, please. That’s exactly what I need.’
Sue left, happy to be useful and, grasping the chance to be alone with Grace, I clutched the arm of a hovering nurse. ‘Can you give me some time with my daughter?’
‘I’ll be done in a minute,’ she said, ticking something off a chart.
‘No, I need a few minutes of privacy now. I need to talk to her.’
This nurse smiled kindly. ‘She looks a lovely little girl. How old is she — eight? She’s going to be all right, you know. You’ll have plenty of time for all the things you want to say.’
‘No. Now. Right now. Can you do something?’
The nurse put her hand on mine. ‘It’ll be okay. You should go with your friend and get a cup of tea. Take a break.’
The minute she’d gone, Sue returned, followed closely by a doctor. I clasped my hands tightly and bit another hole in my lip.
‘We’re fairly sure there’s no internal bleeding. Everything seems to be okay, only a few cuts and bruises. Which is why…’
‘We’re not quite sure why she’s still unconscious. There doesn’t appear to be any damage to her head, but we can’t rule out concussion. Or even coma, although that’s unlikely…’
I don’t know what else they told me. I don’t know who else came and went, or when we were moved into a tiny room off a larger ward. I only know it seemed like hours before everything quietened down, Sue went home, and we were alone.
This room had a window. Despite the streetlamps illuminating the hospital grounds outside, darkness pressed up against the glass as if it had noticed us.
Get on with it, coward. No one’s looking.
My fear for Grace was a living, breathing thing inside my heart, clawing at me. In comparison, my other fear — the driving fear of my life — paled into insignificance. I hadn’t walked for twenty years. Most of that twenty years had been an agony of not walking, yet here I stood, on the threshold, feeling as if I were about to die — wanting to die if Grace didn’t wake up.
I peered into the ward, quietly closed the door of our little room, and then sat down and popped — at last! — leaving my body in the chair, half-lying across Grace’s body.
It had been so long, but this was like breathing — no practice required. I hovered over Grace.
Baby. Are you in there? Grace? It’s me.
Nothing. No flutter of the eyelids, no stir of a Self behind her face.
Are you there?
It didn’t look like anybody was home but I knew nothing about serious injury. The machines wired to her chest said her body was still alive, but where was the rest of her? I would have to go in and look.
I slid a tentative hand into Grace’s shoulder, leaned over her face and sank against her — then pulled up sharply, chilled, terrified.
Grace was absent. Her body was as empty as mine.
I shot up to the ceiling in confusion, looking down at the two of us, her neat and wired to the machines that showed her beating heart, me slumped over her like Raggedy Ann. She’s dead. I’m too late.
The chart at the bottom of the bed flew up and slapped onto the floor, the pages fluttering at the lash of energy created by my despair.
I would disappear. I would leave my body with hers and I would dissolve…
Did it work like that? Could I simply vanish?
Grace, I wailed. Come back!
The air around me chilled as my mind focused, sharpened into the point of an icicle. She couldn’t be dead. No. She wouldn’t be breathing. I would have known. I would know.
I snapbacked into my body and lifted my head as Sue came into the room.
‘I thought you went home.’ My voice, raspy and harsh, sounded as torn as my heart.
‘I did but I couldn’t sleep knowing you were here alone. Won’t you let me call your sister? How are you holding up? Did something happen?’
‘I don’t want Rebecca. Nothing’s changed.’ Go away!
‘She hasn’t woken up yet?’
I shook my head, my mind beginning to race. She isn’t dead. But she’s not in her body. Is it possible — ? She can’t be. Can she?
‘Don’t cry Cora,’ said Sue, beginning to cry herself. ‘This is a very good hospital. They’ll do everything they can for her.’
I should have hugged her; we should have traded small words and gestures of comfort. But I couldn’t let my guard down, so I found a blanket instead and laid it over her, ignoring her protestations. Then I sat staring at Grace’s empty face as the machines ticked over and Sue dropped into exhausted sleep amid the background clatter and stress of the busy hospital.
And then, quiet as a whisper, gentle as a kiss, Grace slipped into the room.