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Unseen Unsung

by Hilary Custance 

Posted: 17 January 2009
Word Count: 1193
Summary: This is the opening of the novel I published last November. Four years ago I posted a much earlier version of this and the comments helped to sort many things. I am trying to feel ready to put up the beginning of the one I am working on now, so this is just to get back into the habit again. Hilary

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Chapter 1 London: Luca

Luca stopped shouting, not because someone had moved the weight off his chest but because his voice had been stolen; snatched out of his mouth and silenced before it reached his ears. Or perhaps it was the other way round, perhaps his ears...? Not deaf, surely not deaf?
He lay rigid, ears aching with effort, willing himself to hear the feathers rustling in his pillow. Nothing. He tried to touch his ears. Nothing moved. Then faintly, through the walls, came voices singing.
Not deaf then.
Thick, dry air pressed down on his face. Something heavier than a duvet lay on his chest. He took a breath and held it, listening again. No singing this time, but in the distance familiar sirens wailed. He concentrated on his fingertips; under them lay something familiar. The ridge of seam on his jeans? Between one heartbeat and the next, he was awake, his body shaking and all sound obliterated by the drumming in his chest.
The voices again; not singing, but crying. ‘Mama? Dad? Mama? Dad?’ Then, nearby, the screeching of furniture dragged across a bare floor. Luca opened his mouth to call out, but could only cough. Dusty grit filled his throat. He spat and retched, suddenly furious. He had never planned to be this uncomfortable. Someone had got it wrong.
Opening and closing his eyes, he found only darkness and with it the smell of old earth. Underneath him lay wood or – he scratched with his fingertips – tough carpet perhaps? A solid object lay across his chest pinning his arms to his side. He lifted his head, suddenly the weight of a cannonball, to wipe his mouth on his shoulder and groaned. Far away an animal gnawed at his ankle, the pain travelling in sudden snatches through his limbs.
The distant whimper began again. ‘Mama? Dad?’
Pushing his chest against the weight that lay on it, he filled his lungs and bellowed: ‘Is anyone there?’ Silence. Into its emptiness crept the notion that he had made a fool of himself. In more moderate tones he called out, ‘Hello! Can I help?’ A burning sensation shot from ear to hairline as he tried to move his head.
‘No, sorry, I’m Luca - Luke.’ Silence. He raised his voice a notch. ‘My name’s Luke. I’m stuck. Can you move at all?’
‘Ssh! Don’t speak so loudly! Yes I can move a bit; I’m frightened of things falling.’
Luke listened, distracted by the strange timbre of the acoustics, both clanging and flat. Things falling? Not speak loudly? What kind of room was this that failed to resonate normally? At least the voice sounded like an adult, not the child he’d been imagining. Would she be strong enough to release him?
Her muted shout came again. ‘Hello? Luke? Say something and I’ll try and find you.’ She added, as if needing reassurance, ‘It is dark isn’t it?’
‘Yes, totally!’
‘Oh!’ Several seconds passed. ‘Can’t you see anything?’
‘No. Can you?’
Another pause. She laughed softly, disconcertingly. ‘No, I can’t see a thing either. Keep talking. I can’t come fast because of the glass.’
He was silent, dragging his mind from the pleasing quality of her laughter to the confusing statement about glass. ‘Glass? What do you mean?’
‘Well... it’s all over the floor – the glass from the windows. I don’t want to cut myself. At least things seem to have stopped falling now.’
‘What happened to the windows?’
After a moment, her voice came again, hesitating between a shout and a whisper. ‘Don’t you know? I suppose they broke when the explosions came.’
Explosions? He reached into his memory but, like the sky meeting the sea, nothing emerged. ‘Where are we?’ His voice pitched a shade higher than he expected.
‘I’m not sure. The waiting area has gone.’
The echo of her voice reminded Luc of the tomato packing warehouse where he worked. What did she mean, waiting? ‘What waiting area? I mean what was it in?’
‘Don’t you remember? The post office.’
‘No...Yes. I’m not sure. I think I may have been asleep or, ... What post office?’
He twisted his neck to orient himself to the sounds of her approach then gasped at the pinching pain in his forehead.
She called out, ‘Keep talking so I know I’m heading the right way.’
Luke took a breath and the dust caught again at his throat. He hesitated. ‘I don’t really like to, the dust is a problem for me.’
‘What’s that? The dust is hurting you?’
‘No, just my vocal cords.’ He was astonished to hear another spurt of laughter.
‘Sorry... I don’t mean to be rude. I wouldn’t worry about your cords. I’d settle for getting out alive.’ He flushed in the dark; people never understand about a singer’s throat. His mind flipped to a smoky pub and a girl – Penny, or was it Pam – lighting a cigarette and blowing smoke in his face. With this image, his mind drifted out of the present.
A startled cry from the girl jerked him back. Luke called out, ‘Are you all right? Did you hurt yourself? I’m sorry I can’t come and help; I’m stuck – tied down, I think.
‘I’m all right, but I can’t get through this way.’ He felt a moment’s impatience. She went on, ‘I think I’ve just... I think there’s a person here... I think it’s a dead person.’
A dead person? He didn’t really know where to start. The sum of his experience brought inappropriate images to mind: limp birds hanging from the cat’s jaws, the body of Christ on the banner of his local church. ‘Is the person warm?’
‘Not really.’
‘Then there’s probably nothing you can do to help – Oh God. It’s not your... it’s not someone you know, is it?’
‘What? No. No it’s not my Mama or Dad.’ She sounded strangely certain.
‘I should leave it then. Can you find another way through? I may not be much use, but we can talk until…’ Until what? He had been in an explosion, or so she said, and he – they – needed rescuing. He listened for sounds suggesting rescue; he could hear only the girl’s soft scrabbling. Far away, in another world, machinery hummed and groaned. Here were only brief noises: metal on metal creaks, the whoosh of sand emptying from a cup. And sensations: inhaling air like flour, the cold rap on his knuckles as he knocked at the barrier on his chest.
The girl sounded much nearer now. He tried to give the exploded structure a mental image, but he could not remember the building in the first place. If you had no rooms, how could the spaces fit together? What if this space was the only one, in the middle of a gigantic heap of rubble? Which post office? What if his voice was affected? He began to sing quietly. His voice sounded as it always had. Calmed by this reconnection with himself, he lifted the volume gradually, concentrating on the sounds, trying to work within the constraint of the burden on his chest.

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Comments by other Members

Heckyspice at 16:55 on 18 January 2009  Report this post

I know you posted this as a marker to get back into the swing of things, so I know you are not expecting a lot of feedback.

It is a very strong opening and sets a compelling scene. Proabably given more empahsis due to the news we have seen coming out of Gaza recently.

I would like to see what new stories you have to tell.


Hilary Custance at 21:39 on 18 January 2009  Report this post
Thanks David, I find the news tends to walk in and out of stuff I write (or maybe it is vice versa). The stimulus for this book was probably the Turkish Earthquake in the 1990's. I had the first chapters written by 9/11 and found this so uncomfortable I stopped work on it for a year after that. I was sending the MS of Unseen Unsung out to agents when 7/7 happened and when people were searching for their relatives afterwards it too close for comfort.

With my first novel one reading group were quite incensed because they thought I had written about a local couple. I had never seen or heard of these people.

Yet if you actually write about the really peculiar things you come across in real life no one would believe you.

Thanks for reading, cheers, Hilary

scamp at 21:00 on 10 February 2009  Report this post
To me a powerful and intriguing opening. I was not sure whether this was conventional or sci-fi therefore wanted to read more.
All the best with it. Ian

NMott at 00:28 on 11 February 2009  Report this post
I really liked this
Half way through was wondering if the explosion was from the London Blitz, so the Luke is in the present - maybe halfway between a dream-state and this rent between the two time periods caused by the explosion - and the other person is crawling out of the bombed building in the 1940's.

I know, I've been watching too much Torchwood.

- NaomiM


Maybe the other person crawls into the present?

Hilary Custance at 09:07 on 11 February 2009  Report this post
Ian and Naomi, thanks for the feedback. Sorry - it is conventional, not sci-fi, though Luke's injuries mean that his grasp of his situation may not be reliable.

You have both confirmed the comments by the Literary Consultant that the first chapters are slightly misleading in style. However, although I was urged to change the title to something more literary (hence Unseen Unsung), I was advised to keep the text as it is. It is out there now and seems to work, so maybe these consultants are worth the money.

Cheers, Hilary

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