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A Small Rain Chapter 1

by Hilary Custance 

Posted: 28 April 2003
Word Count: 3499
Summary: Anna, I think I have pasted Ch 1 here. (NB this come after the Prologue.) It's a long haul unless you are planning to read the book. Dip perhaps? (There should be italics in the childs conversation, but will have to leave that).

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Thursday - July 17th
Stella gave a small sigh of pleasure. She was sitting in the basket chair beside the bookshelves in her bedroom. She reached up to the shelf above her chair and her fingers located an open sweet tin. Out of the tin she picked a neatly cut slip of paper and placed it in the page of her book of poems. Looking at the circle of open volumes around her chair, she wondered that their disorder didn’t disturb her, as any other kind of mess would have done. Images from all the poems lingered in her mind, spreading and blending like vapour trails. She reached up to the shelf again, this time selecting a pencil from a mug. She scribbled an R – for Rosheen – on the slip of paper and read out loud but softly from Miroslav Holub’s poem, Pantheism
Incidentally we’re here
only due to the fact
that no one
has hit the target yet

Stella turned away from the bookshelves to the bed beside her, covered in her husband’s meticulously arranged clothing and equipment. She sighed - more heavily this time. The equipment, which involved climbing, geology and photography gear, took up by far the greedier amount of the coverlet. The new miniature video camera, snug and shiny in its tailor-made bag, blinked at her. The bag alone had set them back seventy five pounds - the worth of ten or more books - all for some canvas and Velcro affair knackily stitched together. It stretched her credulity to see this as a necessary expenditure, but Robert had always demanded perfection in the hardware he used, while happily wearing a frayed jumper, or eating tinned meat. She smiled, remembering the time when she had served him a bowl of bland stock instead of the mushroom soup she had prepared; he never even noticed.
She swiftly restored her own books, each to their rightful place in the shelves, and crossed the landing to her son’s room. Here also the bed lay piled with clothes and, in Tom’s case, music paraphernalia; all laid out with unchildlike neatness. She cast a practised eye over the clothing and added two more pairs of socks and pants. Pursuing this theme she returned to Robert’s clothing and, after some searching, found and added another three pairs of the same. She then extracted Tom’s suitcase from the top shelf of the fitted wardrobe, and started to pile his assembled items in to it.
As Stella’s hands automatically set about the packing, her thoughts reverted to the poem she had found ... Only due to the fact that no one has hit the target yet ... Even if you got into the firing line - became the target - that wasn’t necessarily the end of it. Rosheen and Guy were targets but they were still here. Perhaps it was simply that the whole world was a potential target. Perhaps an incidental meteorite, light years away, was at this moment whizzing through space at incalculable miles per hour with Earth as the target. On the other hand, hovering far closer than this menace, was a much sweeter prospect, freedom. Tom would be away for a week; Robert for a whole sacred month!
Stella’s thoughts returned to practicalities again as her hands encountered a misshapen lump of nylon fur on Tom’s pillow. Did he want to take Puddy with him? She went over to the window. Tom, at the far end of the narrow garden, was putting golf balls through what looked like a giant pinball machine. This dangerously spiky construction had occupied both Robert and Tom for the last four weekends. Seeing Tom so happily absorbed on his own did marginally reduce her irritation over the unmown lawns. She decided not to bother him yet. She could iron his performance shirt and find some trainers before calling him.
Being a target was not necessarily an all or nothing experience. For Rosheen and Guy, and no doubt for all the others in the Hospice Day Centre, there was time -years - between being hit and the last breath. It was into this gap, this pause between the cry and the death, that Stella now realised that she could pour her small contribution. This is where poetry could become, for some people, the drug of choice. And Stella had found at least two of these people. In discovering this new role for herself she had the sensation of some slack in her life having been taken up; as if she had all this time been rowing a boat to nowhere in particular whereas now she could see something on the horizon. A sense almost of shame pervaded her at uncovering this lack of purpose only when it was filled.
Just over a year ago, she had started running poetry classes in the Hospice Day Centre. That first week she had walked in with gritted teeth. The tangle of props for the seriously disabled and the alarming appearance of her students violated her two quiet passions: order and beauty. Stella’s eyes crinkled and a single small dimple appeared as she remembered herself then; her ignorance, her naïveté and her unnecessary fears. She conjured up Rosheen’s face; skin like creamy coffee and eyes like a Byzantine icon. Nowadays it was what lay behind those unresponding eyes that intrigued her. Then, in the terror of their first meeting, she half thought some appalling, tasteless joke was being played on her. The ugly institutional wheelchair being pushed towards her carried a dark-haired version of a Botticelli figure. In the mayhem of humanity that constituted her other students the perfection of this figure was as startling as an untouched child in a battlefield.
“This is our lovely Rosheen, Mrs Lyall. She’ll be your star pupil I’m sure. It’s her that asked for the poetry class in the first place, isn’t it Rosheen love?”
Embarrassment closed Stella’s eyes for a second, then she said, “Stella, please call me Stella.”
Rosheen gazed at her, so Stella hurried on, “Hello Rosheen, I hope I can ... I’m not sure what kind of poetry ... Did you ...?”
Panic crept up on her. Could this person in front of her speak? Rosheen’s expression hadn’t changed once since the start of the nurse’s cloying introduction. Teaching poetry is one thing, making friends with very sick people is a different talent altogether. Nobody had prepared Stella; nobody had explained to her what was wrong with any of the people she was to teach. Stella glanced round helplessly. A man with a withered, childsize body and an extra large head smiled reassuringly at her and directed her, with a nod, back to Rosheen. Rosheen spoke. Her voice rattled like water dragging back the pebbles at the seas edge and, like the sea, it had strange breathy intervals. The harsh voice warred with the smooth features; but at least she could speak.
“Stella? I just want more poetry. I want new poetry.”
An audible breath and a beaming smile of relief escaped Stella, “Yes. Yes of course that is something I can supply.”
The smiling man, who turned out to be Guy, said comfortingly, “Alright now?”

Stella found a respectable pair of Tom’s shoes, suitable for wearing in a concert, and rolled them into a poly bag. Piano notes drifted upstairs. Robert must be home. She lifted her head suddenly uncertain, "Robert? Is that you?"
“It’s me actually, Mum.” A small swagger lit Tom’s voice.
“Oh Tom are you there? Are you taking Puddy with you?” The only reply was a series of arpeggios. After a couple of minutes Tom, tiring of trying to impress, relaxed into a stylish version of chopsticks.
With predictable timing Stella heard the back door open and Robert come in. Equally predictable was his exasperated exclamation, “Tom, do you have to play that stuff? That’s not what I bought that piano for.”
Tom sounded pained “Dad! This isn’t just chopsticks. This is Jonathan’s Variation on Chopsticks, and he’s grade six.”
“Grade six is hardly Beethoven. I think Jonathan should leave off composition for another few years yet.”
“Well I like it.”
As Robert headed upstairs he added softly, “I actually like it better than Beethoven.”
Stella would have liked to break these ritual and pointless skirmishes that Tom and Robert now engaged in daily but she wasn’t absolutely sure that they wanted her to. They played these little scenes without any real rancour. She sighed, while she found the repetition irritating, she suspected it was some kind of comforting ceremony to them.
Robert, taking two eager steps at a time, reached the landing as she came out of Tom’s room and gave her the usual passing kiss as he headed into their bedroom. He stood for a moment of pleasure - the contemplation of perfect, unused equipment. The photographic items alone represented over a thousand pounds worth of personal income. Stella, following him, asked tentatively.
“Do you need all this stuff as well as the official gear?”
“Yup. This is mainly photographic. The only decent gear they supply for the expedition is geological.”
“But what about that camera they sent up from Sussex last week? I thought that was brand new.”
“Yes ... well it was passable but ...” Robert looked at his wife, was she really interested or merely feeling bothered about the cost? He frowned. He needed to pack now; not start on an explanation of something that she should have understood long ago. His big hands moved carefully through each little Velcro-locked pocket checking lenses, filters, brushes, straps etc. He could, of course, have given a detailed technical explanation of his needs to someone from his own field: it was unreasonable to expect him to translate this into layman’s terms just now. She was still standing there hopefully, her head tilted in mild enquiry. He picked up the superlight tripod, first extending then folding the legs. The sweet movement, a triumph of technology, brought the good humour back into his face. He said decisively, “Well, the stuff they supplied is simply not good enough for the job.”
He extracted an elaborate rucksack from under the bed and started to fill it.
She gave up, this was neither a new nor a convincing reason. It was, however, one against which she had no counter arguments. She went off to finish Tom’s packing. They had to be at Heathrow (a four hour drive) by 8.30 am the next morning.
Robert paused in his work to stare for a moment at the space his wife had just left. His mouth twisted with dissatisfaction. He had the feeling that she had deliberately deprived him of a conversation. He shrugged off the sensation. Maybe there would be a chance to relax and talk to Stella during the inevitable hanging about at the airport. On the other hand, he’d be meeting up with Sam and they would have a lot to discuss before the rest of the expedition members joined them in Lima. He folded pyjamas into a precise rectangle. Perhaps there would be more time when he got back from Peru. Yes, that would work. In the flush of homecoming he and Stella could sit down and discuss ... ‘things’. He shied away from defining these ‘things’ but disobedient subliminal images: the bloodless limbs of their stillborn child, the adrenaline kick at Tom’s first breath, the surgeon casually putting a houseprice figure on fertility treatment, flashed by like a censored mental video. He breathed deeply sidestepping these images and sticking with the one of the returning welcomed traveler. Being at a distance might be helpful, too. Giving him space to think things through fully. Stella needed to be tackled slowly, she hated rushing things. Anyway he needed time, he needed a break.
Robert shook himself free of distracting thoughts, and concentrated fully on the precise contents of his luggage and all the possible needs of the expedition. In his view the success of such expeditions relied entirely on meticulous planning and no one else could be fully depended on to deal with the details. Someone might remember polythene bags for sample collection, but they would forget the waterproof pen or the clips closures; another person might remember the fine machine oil for testing the surface of rocks but forget the pipettes for getting drops into awkward places. This, as Robert was well aware, was his forte.
He lifted up a neat pile of underwear. As he stowed the clothes in his rucksack, his fingers encountered something silky among the Y-fronts. He pulled a slippery vest, clearly his wife’s, out of the bag and laughed as he dropped it back on the bed. He might be misunderstood if he unpacked that kind of thing at the base camp.

At 8.30 am the next morning they were in the airport, shunting from check-in to ‘special licence luggage’ and back again. Robert’s baggage, as always, giving harassed officials several different kinds of headache. Some of it was dangerous - hammers and knives, some of it was delicate - calibrating scales and photographic lenses and some of it was the bulky - tents, clothes and heavy boots. Robert was told to go to a distant office to get cabin clearance for his camera, only to find Tom missing. Stella spent ten precious minutes tracking him down to the top of an escalator, where he happened to be studying people’s feet as they hopped off. Camera clearance was graciously allowed after the transaction of several forms. Robert checked his notes - just a few more details to sort out with Stella,
“What’s Communion Mass, Dad? Dad, what’s Communion Mass?”
“Just a minute Tom ... Sorry Stella, I’m afraid that’s the only phone number I’ve got anywhere near the site. There’s a communications base number in Arequipa, a Dr Perdona, Luis Perdona. You remember, you met him at Christmas, at the Faculty party.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Hang on Tom, just let daddy give me this number, it’s rather important.” Robert, using a concrete pillar to rest against, scribbled awkwardly into Stella’s diary.
“Yes Tom, what was it?”
Tom stared at him bitterly. “I’ve forgotten the words now.”
The gluey voice of the airport speaker began again, “Communion Mass will be celebrated ...” and was cut off by Tom’s urgent squeak:
“That’s it, that’s it, listen quickly now, quickly.”
“...chapel at 9.30.”
“ What is Communion Mass?”
“ Well, it’s church, I suppose. Roman Catholic church.”
“Oh Church ... but why ‘celebrated’ and what ‘mass’?” And, with a sense of injury that his father had only added to the mystery, “and why Roman?”
“Well ... that’s how they always say it.”
Tom looked witheringly at his father. Robert floundered. “I dunno, why do they say ‘celebrate’, Stella?”
“Well, I think... religious people regard church as a...an exciting event, and anything to do with God or Jesus as a sort of celebration.” Tom, hearing a smile in her voice, decided that the whole idea was a bit odd.
“You mean like a party? Why have a party in the airport about Jesus? And what is communion mass?” He insisted, profoundly puzzled.
“Oh, you can do anything in an airport” answered Robert, becoming flippant. “You can have your hair cut, your toenails clipped,” His sense of unreality suddenly bubbled over. “I expect you could even play golf if you looked hard enough.”
“Golf?” Tom’s drooping shoulders lifted in hope, but watching his father’s face, a suspicion that he was having his leg pulled made him slightly scornful. “There’s not enough room here, and anyway you might break a plane window with a golf ball.” “You have to be fabulously rich to play on this gigantic hidden underground course. It has one-way skylights, which let the light through but look opaque from above. We could be standing on one now.” Tom looked down instinctively, it was an immensely exciting idea, but he knew from his father’s tone that it was just a story.
“Robert! Don’t tease him.”
Tom sighed. “When I’m a millionaire I’m going to build one just like that, and people will pay me another million just to join my club. Then when we go on an expedition together, we can play a round of golf before we set off.”
“I’m not sure you can be a millionaire and a geologist at the same time, geology doesn’t pay that well.”
“Well, I’ll become a millionaire first then.” Tom considered the options. “No, I know, I’ll discover an enormous emerald on my first expedition, then I’ll be able to choose where I want to go for all the others. And I’ll be able to build the golf course.” Having resolved this problem he returned dissatisfied to his original query, “But Dad, I still don’t understand about the mass?”
At that moment Robert spotted Sam Derwent, the expedition leader, battling with an official of their airline. Tom was ignored during the next hour as forms were filled in and the two men were extensively interviewed. Then suddenly they were all hugging and kissing goodbye. Relief washed over Stella as the two figures finally vanished through customs. The whole airport experience was too chaotic, too external for her; there were no opportunities for quiet retreat into her own mind. Besides she was impatient for her peace to begin. As she set off towards the exit, she realised that Tom was still watching the gap in the screens labeled ‘Customs’.
“Tom, are you coming?” He turned to her, eyes big with disappointment.
“He never explained, and he’s gone now.” Absurdly, he looked on the verge of tears.
“Oh Tom, don’t be silly now. What is it? I’ll explain.”
“You can’t.” He said with conviction, “It’s physics.”
Stella, knowing her limitations, said cheerfully,
“Well, you’ll just have to save it for him then. He’ll be home in four weeks.”
Tom rolled his eyes in exasperation.
“Four weeks! Mum, how am I supposed to remember for four weeks?”
Stella, thinking that perhaps Tom was feeling a bit stressed by the prospect of a week away from home, decided that distraction would answer best.
“Why don’t we have a brunch here in the Pizza place, we’ve got four hours before Uncle James expects to see us.”
“OK,” he said brightening.
* * *
Robert looked down on the dirty grey blanket of the Atlantic. Sam, beside him, slept. Robert shuffled in his seat; either these things had got smaller or he had put on weight. The latter, he thought gloomily, reviewing an image of himself standing next to Sam in the mirror in the gents. Sam was a couple of inches shorter and eight or nine years older, he was also a good two stone lighter. Robert, remembering Sam’s grey cropped head and purposeful expression, felt suddenly dissatisfied with his own dark academic length hair and earnest brown eyes; these now seemed dated and ineffectual.
Sam, claiming exhaustion, had drifted into sleep within an hour of taking off, leaving Robert to worry on his own about all the remaining details. Curiously, now that he had time to concentrate on the work ahead, his mind insisted on revisiting unfinished concerns at home. Silly practical worries, like the lawn he had failed to mow for two weeks now and the music he had left lying on top of the piano, haunted him. And Stella.
He pushed up the tray in front of him and reached under his seat for the camera bag. He opened it, blushing faintly. There, as he well knew, was the tiny cream coloured silk garment that he had found among his underwear. At the last minute, looking for something in which to swaddle a precious lens, this had just come into his hand. A frown wrinkled his forehead.
When he first knew Stella, she had represented for him a mysterious object; an exquisite unknown crystal. Her calm exterior seemed only a veneer for something complex and exciting and he had always assumed that over time he would eventually identify her, come to know her composition and finally understand her. At some time during his fourteen married years this slow and delicious revelation that he had planned had quietly slipped out of his grasp. She remained closed to him. He could see the current of excitement behind her eyes when she played the clarinet or read poetry, but he was never really invited in there. She eluded classification and this irked him. The crystals of the earth offered easier access.
The ocean that he stared at so fixedly through the eye of the aeroplane window provided no answers but it did, by its very immensity, finally penetrate his self-absorption. His stomach lurched. Distance would not improve communication, it was more likely to annihilate it. For the first time in his life he started on an expedition with a wave of homesickness and an urgent desire to see Stella and Tom again as soon as possible.

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Comments by other Members

Becca at 06:07 on 29 April 2003  Report this post
I am intrigued by this. It is skillfully laid out and I want to know what happens next to both of them. The boy is realistically portrayed, he comes across as being around 14 perhaps. I particularly like the last section where Stella's husband comes into focus as someone with vulnerabilities, it would be easy to have drawn him less sympathetically. I feel I know a huge amount about these people just in that short piece of writing. I look forward to more small rain.

roger at 18:45 on 29 April 2003  Report this post
Hi,Larry,I set out to 'dip perhaps' as suggested, but read it all. How many revisions did it take to get it this good? I'd really like to know. Loved your metaphors...I can't do metaphors, nothing ever seems to come, or if it does, I wish it hadn't; so I was impressed. The dialogue was so good and natural, too. As though you'd reallythought about it. I don't know why, but one part stood out for me - 'Robert, using a concrete post to rest against, scribbled awkwardly into Stella's diary'. Seems simple enough, but I got a wonderful picture of him wobbling, perhaps one leg raised to lean the diary on - it just worked for me. But then so did the whole thing. Super...and I really would like to know how many revisions it had; it might inspire me to work a little harder!

Hilary Custance at 19:16 on 29 April 2003  Report this post
Hi Becca, Roger, thanks for wading through that. That was one of the 'expositional' chapters, as advised by the Literarary Consultant who took an early draft and really pulled it apart and told me what needed doing. I then added the prologue for fear that so much background information at the start would be very dull. Metaphors rarely come naturally to me (don't laugh - I sit and think them up and some are appalling), and the concrete pillar was one of the additions I made, right at the end of writing, to enhance the 'showing not telling'. It felt like a hundred revisions. If it weren't published I'd still be at it. And the speech is still not laid out correctly (mea culpa - see note on Dust). Thanks so much for reading it. I can't really paste the whole book but you can buy it if you want. Cheers, Hilary

Anna Reynolds at 20:22 on 02 May 2003  Report this post
OK. Now I definitely want to buy the book- so go to A Small Rain Hilary Custance and do the same as I'm about to!

roger at 20:33 on 02 May 2003  Report this post
Well that's two of us....but we've got to wait 4/6 weeks!

Anna Reynolds at 21:05 on 02 May 2003  Report this post
All good things.... need I say more?

Hilary Custance at 09:52 on 06 May 2003  Report this post
Sorry about the time delay. The publisher is a nice guy who is as full of ideas, and about as organised, as a box of smarties. The other half of the firm left in exasperation half way through publication of a Small Rain!

Hilary Custance at 13:22 on 07 May 2003  Report this post
Oh, and I am thrilled to pieces that you want to read it. Why do I alwatys go for the problem first? Hilary

Anna Reynolds at 22:41 on 07 May 2003  Report this post
Yes- I think we should have a rule on the site that we don't always start with the negative ourselves. Like banning words such as 'sorry', for a start. What d'you think? And anticipation is fun when you're waiting for a book to arrive.

On a seperate note Hilary, it must be odd posting material from a published book here- if you did suddenly have a thought, you can't go back and change it. Unless you wait for the US version of course..

Also, I'd be interested to know about your experience of publishing A Small Rain. If you wanted to write us a short piece, I think other people would be interested- fancy it? I can give you our regular interviewee guidelines if you like. I think it would be useful to have some insights into working with the frustrations (and delights!) of small publishers, as you allude to above..

Becca at 07:35 on 08 May 2003  Report this post
I thought I spotted your book at Amazon the other day. I'll look it up again tonight and let you know. I agree with Anna that it would be interesting to hear about the process. What are you writing now? Is it seeable?

Hilary Custance at 17:40 on 09 May 2003  Report this post
Yes, I didn't really plan to put this up. I just posted the brief prologue to get my feet wet. Then something you said, Anna, made me put up more. I hope one day to republish it with at least some corrections and minor editing. I think current writing can profit from finding out what did and didn't work before.
The one I am working on at the moment, Becca, is Hindsight (now, presumably, in the archives). I 've had some really helpful feedback on the first chapter and it will go underground now until it is nearly ready.

Publishing experience - yes I'd be willing to talk about mine. Though I have to be slightly circumspect, as my book (though not the copyright) is in this guy's hands. He runs a writer's website (www. author.co.uk). Do send me the guidelines and I'll have a go. Hilary

Hilary Custance at 10:21 on 10 May 2003  Report this post
Wonders will never cease. I have finally arrived on the front page of www.author.co.uk! I would like to put it in the forum, but couldn't see a suitable spot.Hilary

Becca at 07:39 on 11 May 2003  Report this post

Becca at 07:43 on 11 May 2003  Report this post
Hey Hilary,
I thought I saw it on Amazon, and it's got a 5 out of 5 rating. I ordered it, 4 to 6 weeks to arrive, hopefully that will reduce over time for your book.

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