Line of Descent; The abandoned prequel.
I’ve just got back from a holiday in a place where there’s no internet access and where the people there aren’t too bothered by that either. It was very relaxing and the last thing I was doing was preparing the next blog piece for this weekend and I’m still in holiday mode. Chatting to my friend NoIdea, a cunning plan occurred to me to fill that gap; go with some chapters of a novel I abandoned.
Before writing Line of Descent, I started on what would now be its prequel but abandoned it in favour of writing its sequel. Writing a full novel is a large investment of time and effort so you must be sure you’re on to a winner. With Resurrection, its provisional title, I wasn’t sure.
The novel was to be in two parts. The first part is essentially a love story between Canfield and Ruth. He’s a vulnerable and damaged veteran living an isolated life in rural Ireland and she’s the local schoolteacher. He’s in hiding under the name Harkin and has secrets. Their relationship grows steadily, getting over several difficulties, until they look set to live happily ever after but even then, there’s always the shadow of the secrets he refuses to confide in with her. The second part of the novel is the arrival in the village of a team, posing as tourists, who are there to kill him. Canfield spots them and some interesting things ensue.
My method of working is to think out the plotting and the characters well before putting pen to paper. Once you’ve got a good plotline, it’s obvious that certain chapters have to work well because they’re key points in the narrative. I call them waypoint chapters and always put a lot of work into them. For Resurrection, I completed two of them; the first and the sixteenth.
Not only does chapter one of a book really have to work but the very first paragraph of it has got to grab or at least pique the reader’s attention. If you’re not writing for your readers, then it’s a pointless and self-indulgent activity. With Resurrection, it sets the scene for a difficult but tender relationship that will blossom into love. It also shows Ruth doesn’t know him as well as she thinks but essentially, by the end of the first part, she saves him. He comes to think of her as his resurrection, hence the novel’s title.
Chapter sixteen is an ambush of not only the leader of the team who’ve been sent to kill him but more importantly, the reader too. The latter has got very comfortable with Canfield and think they know him well by this point, despite whatever secrets he still keeps. There is a truly frightening side to him and this is shown without giving him a single word of dialogue. At the end of the day, his last but darkest secret is his fear that if Ruth ever knew about that side, he’d lose her.
She liked to watch him fish. Many times she had stolen away to sit here just below the brow of the hill to wait patiently for him to come along. She had come to know the times he liked to fish and this time of evening she knew was his favourite. It was summer and there were two good hours of light left. The river was wide and shallow here, studded with grey rounded rocks around which the stream flowed making tear shaped wakes. At first she’d pretended not to notice him wading past down below. She was just out here to enjoy the peace and stillness of the country but she’d abandoned the pretence by now. When he appeared, she’d watch him carefully and he as usual wouldn’t look up at her. It had become a mutual pretence, a kind of complicity of covert acquaintanceship.
He’d never looked up the hill at her though she knew with certainty that he’d spotted her the very first time. You could see that about him. He didn’t miss anything. Everything was noticed and examined and a decision made on it. It was what she had first noticed about him, that unobtrusive watchfulness. He blended in well, like a face in the crowd. You could very easily overlook him but that watchfulness gave him away, to her at least. It intrigued her. All that light under a very quiet bushel.
He always waded past, never appreciably hurrying or slowing up as he worked that stretch of the river. She occasionally hoped he’d catch a fish right here. It would be a break from the usual routine. She was interested in how he’d handle it. How would he kill the fish? Did he have a neat little cosh to tap it on the head? What did they call it? A priest, that’s it. What a curious name for such an object. Her mind mulled over the name, searching for an origin. For such a religious country, there were so many casual blasphemies.
There it was! It was happening right now. She saw the trout take the fly and the line straighten instantly. It looked like a good fish. She saw the flash of white on its underbelly as it rolled over after taking the fly. He paused just long enough before his left hand pulled the line away from the rod and he jerked the rod up sharply in the air to make the strike. The hook went home and the fight began. Oh, it was a fine fish. The tip of the rod dipped repeatedly like a shock absorber as it fought. The end of the line cleaved through the water like a cheese cutter as the fish circled away from the man powerfully. He started to play it, alternatively lifting the rod gradually to brake the fish’s powerful flights away from him and gathering in line when it wheeled in his direction. So it continued for several minutes until she could see the fish was beginning to tire. Its attempts to escape became weaker and it started to roll onto its side, a sure sign that the fight was gone out of it.
He didn’t mess around. He took in line as he waded slowly towards the fish. Wedging the rod under his right arm, he took off the landing net which hung around his neck on a strap. She saw him crouch down and dip the net in the water under the fish. He remained there, crouched down awkwardly with the rod under his arm as he dipped his left hand into the water to wet it before touching the fish. The water would be clear and ice-cold she knew. He picked the fish out of the net with the wet hand and threw the net onto the bank. It was a beautiful fish. She could see that, even from this distance. He waded towards the bank and sat on it with his back to her, holding the fish. That wasn’t fair, she thought with irritation. She’d wanted to see his face as he unhooked the fish. He reached into one of the large breast pockets in his jacket and took out a long-nosed pliers and started to remove the hook from the fish’s mouth. The fish struggled occasionally in his hand.
He looked so solid and balanced there, feet still planted squarely apart in the water and bum on the bank. He worked away patiently until he had removed the hook. He put the pliers back in the pocket and dipped his right hand into the water to wet it too. He leant down to the water, holding the fish between his hands and held it under the water for a few minutes until it showed signs of being able to swim away. She saw him straighten up when he released it and rest his hands on his knees as he watched it swim away. He watched it for a long time, too long a time. It must have disappeared from sight ages ago. What was he thinking about? If only she could see his face. It just wasn’t fair. She had to stop herself getting angry. We’ve never even met, she reminded herself with a smile.
That was her problem, they just hadn’t ‘met’. She had considered many ways of actually meeting him but they all seemed so artificial and she didn’t want it to be like that. Doing it here wouldn’t have been right either. This place, this situation was special. It was a special situation for them both. She felt that. It wouldn’t have been right to spoil it. As long as she stayed on the hill and he passed by in the river, it would last. Here, they couldn’t meet.
She had found out as much about him as she could gather in the village. Nobody really knew much about him beyond the basic details and those were pretty scant but she felt she knew him well in all the ways that counted or that counted to her. Just like now, he hadn’t killed the fish. She’d known he wouldn’t. The catch bag slung over his back was full. He didn’t need the fish but he’d needed the pleasure of catching it. And when he’d done that, he had let it go with care. She felt that he was a man with nothing to prove. People like that don’t like waste, and killing it would be a waste if you’d already caught enough to eat.
He didn’t give away his catches, she knew. He didn’t really know anyone well enough to be giving them fish. What he caught he ate himself. She’d seen him pull handfuls of the wild herbs that grew in spots along the bank. They would add a nice flavour to the fish. Was he a good cook, she wondered? It wasn’t like a man to be so dainty about flavouring a fish or so knowing about herbs. He was so self-contained and balanced. That’s what she liked best about him, that confident self-containment of a solid man.
Before he turned the bend in the river, he knew she’d be there again. There was that feeling of expectation, of being watched long before he came into her view. A long time ago, in another life, a man who had taught him to kill with his hands had called that sense Haragei. Sometimes she’d be sitting, chin resting on her knees like a child, sometimes she’d be lying down, her head propped up on her hand. He’d miss her now if she wasn’t there. That had happened once and it had upset him badly. He hadn’t realised how much he’d come to rely on this little piece of friendship. She was the only one, about as much as he could take and she somehow knew enough to keep a distance. He needed this little piece of contact. It was hard on your own. That’s the way it had to be, but it was still so very hard. He could not take people any more. There were just too many of them, pressing in, crowding him, invading him. The very thought of being trapped in a crowd was enough to start panic cramps in his stomach. They’d said it would get better but he had his doubts. Maybe this was as good as it was going to get. He had learned to handle enforced isolation and had survived it more than once but this was different. Without the compulsion, it was harder.
He saw the fish sheltering in the lee of a boulder in front of him. Its tail beat slowly, keeping it in position as it waited for its prey to appear. The flies often touched down on the sun-warmed rocks for a rest before zooming off across the water. The trout would have them then. He cast beyond it, bending the line with a turn of his wrist so the fly on the tip would land on the water upstream of the fish, while the rest of it would land far off to the side and not frighten it. The fly alighted perfectly on the water and sat up straight and inviting. He could see the little dent it made on the surface of the water and so would the trout.
The channel of water swept the fly around the rock and the trout rose to take it. It was beautiful. So fresh and clean and full of energy and purpose. There were no complications or hesitations about it. It took the fly cleanly and dragged it under the water. He felt the first tug on the line and waited for the second. There it was. He struck, feeling the hook go in. The fish cut away from him powerfully and he gave it some line but pinched it between his fingers as he let it out to make the fish work for it. Eventually he braked it enough and it turned. He took back the line he’d let it have until it wheeled away from him again. Gradually he wore it down, always allowing it to take line but at a cost. It was a fine balance. He only ever used a light line and if he allowed the fish to get a good pull at it then it would part easily. That had happened once or twice and he hated it. He could feel it weakening and eventually he knew it was time to land it before it tired itself too much. He had done well this evening and wouldn’t take the fish. It was going to go back into the river. Sometimes he put them back anyway. It depended on the fish. Some of them were so strong and achingly beautiful that he couldn’t bring himself to kill them. Killing anything came hard nowadays. It hadn’t always been like that.
He netted it and carried it to the bank. He had long ago stopped using barbed hooks, they messed up the fish too much and he liked to catch them cleanly. The hook came out easily, without even a spot of blood. Good, there wouldn’t be any trouble. He held the fish under the water and watched it slowly come back to life. The back began to bend sinuously as the tail started beating again. He could feel its strength returning between his palms. He slowly moved his hands apart, careful to see it swim slowly away. He watched it as it disappeared from sight in the water with a final powerful flick of its tail.
That’s what he wanted to do. Disappear from sight into the great river of life and never be yanked out of it again. All he had to do was be like the fish. Blend in and disappear. On one level, he had done just that but there was a difference. The fish was going home but he did not have a home. There could never be that. He didn’t have a home and had never really had one at all, he realised, just places he’d stayed in for a while. That was something he had begun to miss. Why was that, he wondered? An urge to complete the circle? Like a salmon, returning to its birthplace to die. He shouldn’t think like that, he reproved himself, maybe there was a chance after all.
But there wasn’t a chance and he knew it. When they caught up with him, they wouldn’t put him back. He hadn’t kept to his side of the deal and they wouldn’t trust him again. As soon as he ran, the death sentence began and it was irrevocable. The clock was ticking, any time he wanted to listened for it. He no longer cared or maybe he didn’t care to live the rest of his life on their terms. Watched, monitored and statused. Whatever time was left to him would be his own, to be savoured for as long as it lasted. When they came for him, it would be alright. He’d have had his morsel of real freedom.
He shook himself out of the mood and stood up. He picked up the net and slung it back over his head and examined the fly, twisting it around slowly between thumb and forefinger. It looked okay, even though the trout had chewed on it a bit. He tidied the line onto the reel and waded back out into the centre of the river. With a few casts to pay out enough line, he started fishing again.
She watched him until he disappeared into the trees that bordered the river at the end of the open stretch. She made the decision. One way or another, she was going to meet him.
He approached to within half a mile of the cottage by simply walking up the lane. Up to that point, he would be concealed from the cottage by the natural curve of the mountainside. The alternative approach, over and down through the forestry covering the upper half of the mountain on whose slope the cottage was built, would have been impossible at night. The tall fir trees in it were planted just feet apart. Nobody was interested in the foliage, just the stems, and they grew straight and tall in the cramped conditions. Perfect for the lumber yards and paper mills they were destined for, but hell to get through in darkness.
The edges of the ancient asphalt of the lane had been worn away on either side by innumerable tractors over the years, while the vegetation had burst through the middle, leaving a green Mohican of grass tufts running along the centre. He walked on the grass, just in case the crumbly gravel on either side would signal his approach. Overhead, the moon occasionally shone through the grey white clouds being blown across the night sky by the gusting wind. He could hear the noise the trees made as the wind tossed them about. He was grateful for the noise; it would cover the sound of any blunder he made on the approach. There wouldn’t be any blunders, he knew, but it was always nice to have the margin. The conditions were perfect for a look see. If he could get into position high on the slope behind the cottage, he would have plenty of light during the moments when the moon was out. They needed to know the layout, it was all but decided they’d take him at the cottage. Doughty was the team leader and always handled the planning. His plans were always good and they trusted him but he had to see the killing ground for himself. It was vital to study it himself if he was to come up with a good plan.
There was a thin lazy plume of smoke rising from the chimney of the cottage ahead of him and he used it to gauge his distance from it. When he thought he was close enough, he climbed up the crumbly side of the man-high bank that edged the lane. There was rusty barbed wire set into a short fence at the top. He carefully negotiated it, holding his clothes clear until he was over it. A long rectangular field stretched up the mountainside, containing nothing but large tree-like thistles until it met up with the dark line of the forestry. To his left was another banked wall to separate the field from the next one, which contained the cottage. The wall had originally been made by piling up the rocks that had strewn the field before it was put to cultivation. The underlying rocks were barely visible now. Over the generations, grass and moss had covered them in a cold damp shroud.
He padded along beside the bank bordering the lane until he reached the field boundary. Once there, he started up the side of the mountain, towards the forestry that overlooked the cottage. It was hard going in the dark. Rocks that had tumbled off the wall had long ago become embedded in the ground and were covered in the omnipresent moss. They were nearly invisible in the half-light and slippery as hell. He slowed his pace down, picking his way between the fallen rocks and the channels cut by water running down the mountain beside the wall. When he though he had climbed to the same level as the cottage, he peeked over the wall to look at it. There were no lights on and the wisp of smoke rising from the chimney could only be coming from a dying fire. The moon started to shine brightly through a gap and he slowly withdrew back down behind the wall.
He knew well how brightly a face showed out at night in moonlight but had made the decision not to black up before he went out. Everything about this operation was to be deniable. No getting caught running about at night in tiger stripes and camo paint, he thought with a grin. His teeth flashed unnaturally white for a moment in the darkness, as he visualised the scene and the fit of apoplexy it would engender in the men who had sent him. That wasn’t going to happen, he reassured himself confidently. He was a pro and this guy looked washed out to him but he was going to do the proper job anyway. You never can tell. Maybe, when it came to the moment, he’d put up a fight. Best to be prepared.
He reached the top of the field and climbed over the bank there and into the channel cut along the tree line to channel away the water that gushed out of the forestry in torrents when there were rain storms. It was a relief to get down in it. It was impossible to be seen from the cottage when he was in here. He made his way along it, stepping on the carpet of flat dead fir tree branches that had accumulated on the bottom. When he estimated he was directly above the cottage, he crawled back up the side and looked down at it. It looked doll-like and perfect in the moonlight. He was in exactly the right position. He congratulated himself as he unslung the pair of binoculars from about his neck. He lay with his elbows on the crest of the channel and studied the cottage and all the approaches to it through the glasses. He wouldn’t be drawing a plan here but back at the hotel he would have to do one for the others to study. He memorised the grosser details of the layout first. When he though he’d got them firmly committed to memory, he closed his eyes and tried to imagine the view to check his memory. When he opened his eyes again, the layout matched except for a few details. He repeated the exercise again and this time the match was exact.
He moved onto the distances. He had looked up the plans for the cottage and established it was twenty-five feet on the long side. He used this fact as a visual yardstick to calculate the other distances between the cottage and the other objects around it. There weren’t many of them, just two stunted trees gnarled into crippled poses by the merciless storms that blew in from the Atlantic. He closed his eyes again, as a final check before moving position. He could see the layout clearly in his mind and this time the distances were there. Good, he wouldn’t have any trouble drawing the map. He rolled onto his back, preparing to slither down into the rain channel again.
A figure squatted on the other bank of the channel opposite him. The shock nearly freaked him out. He lay flat on his back, feeling horribly exposed and he found his fingers had dug into the earth convulsively, as if stiffening him for the shattering impact of the bullet in the stomach he expected. The figure didn’t move, just squatted there, sitting on his heels, barely eight feet from him and watched him. It was Canfield. Jesus H fucking Christ, how long has he been there, wondered Doughty? How could I have been taken so badly? So badly, so badly, so terribly fucking badly.
He could see Canfield’s arms resting on his knees with the hands held palms down. He either wasn’t carrying or it was out of sight. Doughty did not have a gun either and was regretting that decision now. Stay away from his hands. That enigmatic piece of advice from the briefing popped into his head now and his eyes flicked down to the hands involuntarily before coming back up to meet Canfield’s eyes. Those eyes. There wasn’t anything in them. Not a damn thing. They were black and shining in the moonlight and they scared the hell out of Doughty. He could see the bright highlights of the reflection in the moon in them. If he looked hard enough, he knew he’s seen his own pale shocked face. How could he not have sensed him? Caught lying down on his belly with his back turned to this bastard.
Doughty moved slowly and carefully. He sat up on the bank and cleaned the soil from his fingers absently as he collected his thoughts. The jumping in his guts told him to run but his head said play it cool. He searched for something to say, something to bring it all back onto a normal level. If he could do that, Canfield might not kill him. There was no rationale for such a hope but he knew it to be true. The first look into Canfield’s dead eyes had told him a great truth. Canfield could take him.
‘Hello, it’s a lovely night, isn’t it?’ The words came out in a broken croak and Doughty watched him for a reaction. There was none. Is he turning it over? Is he going to go for it? Doughty turned his head to glance over his shoulder at his escape route. A quick roll away. He cursed himself as he turned back to Canfield. He should know what’s there, for Christ’s sake; he’d been staring at it for the last fifteen minutes. And he’d turned his back to him again. He had to get out of here, he’d lost it completely and he knew it and the shame cut deep.
‘Are you interested in birds?’ he asked and blundered on. The words came out thickly and too fast. ‘Did you know that it was commonly believed that nearly all birds roosted through the night? That’s until the Second World War, until radar was invented. Even the experts believed that. Now we know different, of course.’ The retreat into the persona of a babbling hobbyist comforted him. Maybe it was working, just maybe. Come on you bastard, do your bit. Say something, anything. Canfield just hunkered there, watching him like a fucking Gook. Not a word was going to escape him and Doughty knew it. He was feeding and Doughty knew what he was feeding on and hated and feared him for it.
‘That’s what I do, watch birds at night.’ He waved at the sky overhead and cringed at how badly he’d been tempted to put the word ‘just’ into the sentence. He knew it would be the same as saying, I’m just a nobody, please don’t kill me, please. His defeat was total and he’d be pleading with his executioner, the ultimate indignity. Canfield sat watching him and his face was unreadable. There wasn’t a sound in the world, just the two of them alone on this mountainside. Say something, say something, Doughty pleaded inwardly but Canfield just watched him. The bastard, the bastard.
‘You live down there, don’t you?’ He tried to make it sound bright and natural but it came out phoney; phoney and hollow and scared.
‘Do you mind if I use it as a shortcut to the road?’ He started to get to his feet. He took care to keep both his hands away from his body and in sight as he rose.
‘Thanks very much. Much appreciated,’ he acknowledged but Canfield hadn’t said a thing, not a damn thing. Doughty paused for a moment, as if allowing Canfield the time to rescind his permission to live, before he backed carefully over the lip of the bank and into the field. He turned around and walked down the hill.
The slope turned his steps into long paces and he felt the strain in the back of his thighs. The shame burned red on his neck as he walked down the field towards Canfield’s cottage and it was a measure of his defeat that he had his back to him all the way down and couldn’t bring himself to give a damn. Next time it would be different he swore but he’d learnt two very important things that night. Canfield was far from being a spent force. The other and more personal thing was that he feared him deeply.
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