The first few pages of a novel are key. The whole thing might be a masterpiece but if that first chapter isn’t effective then no one will stick it out and discover the fabulousness to come.
And so, I have gone over and over and over…
Here, for your reading pleasure (I hope) is the first chapter of a novel which I’m currently revising.
Saturday, 25 July 1981
They held their batons ready in gloved hands. Their faces were hard, expressions set, immovable, behind masks and shields.
Jamie Wright shrunk back into the crowd. There were two rows of people between her and the riot squad. Her breath, warm and wispy, clouded the air and mingled with the breaths of all these people, these protesters pressing against her on every side. They stood, anchored with iron conviction, surely not thinking about the way their breaths looked like cigarette smoke. Not wondering if the policemen had opinions or got to choose sides.
Jamie had an opinion. Several, in fact. That racism and apartheid were wrong, of that she was certain. But most of the crowd probably agreed with that.
The real question was about playing sport against an all-white team? Was facing them in a scrum as bad as supporting their politics?
Jamie wasn’t sure. Perhaps she should have mentioned that to Alice before they got out of the car and onto the pitch. Alice naturally assumed that Jamie agreed with her, which wasn’t entirely Alice’s fault.
Alice, with her dark wind-mussed hair — that’d be painful to brush — was standing between Jamie and the police. She reached back and touched Jamie’s thigh, then found her hand and gripped it tight, fingernails marking Jamie’s palm. Alice didn’t turn around. Jamie could imagine her face, expression as stone-cold determined as the coppers she faced.
Alice was the brave one, always ready to fight for her corner, or Jamie’s corner for that matter. Even if she got in trouble.
And here they were, in some trouble.
And their parents didn’t even know about it yet.
Alice’s hold on Jamie’s hand was the only hint that she was scared. Fear must have been written all over Jamie’s face.
The police advanced. A chant started as if it had been well-rehearsed. Jamie imagined the protester’s cloudy breaths intermingling in the air and being inhaled again and again, imparting this common knowledge, this sing-songy statement that rose with every step, “The whole world’s watching.”
Really? The whole world? Even if they wanted to, the whole world did not have access to a television, let alone one that broadcast a rugby match in New Zealand. Anyone who did, who chose to tune in, would surely be hoping to see a rugby match, not a protest rally.
“The whole world’s watching!” Over and over.
“My courage rises with every attempt to intimidate me,” thought Jamie — Elizabeth Bennet’s voice popping into her head? At a time like this! — she would have slapped her own hand for her lack of focus, if Alice hadn’t been holding onto it so tightly. But, oh! what she’d do to be at home, this very moment, reading Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time.
She wished she could duck back another row or two. Alice had a good grip on her hand. If she pulled hard, she could bring Alice with her, into relative safety. But Alice probably wouldn’t want that.
Surrounding them, a blue circle of police advanced. The group of protesters seemed so small now, when only fifteen minutes earlier Jamie had been swept with this mammoth crowd onto the pitch. She had chanted then, when the words sounded joyous and noble.
A man to her right spoke loud and clear. “Evil will triumph if good men do nothing.” His was the only voice she could distinguish and his words sounded like they might be his last. Hopefully they weren’t, because Jamie couldn’t think of a single articulate thing to say, and if his life was in danger then hers was too.
He caught her looking at him and affectionately forced her to loop her arm with his. Alice let go of Jamie’s hand to do the same with the people on her left and right.
The group started to move, forcing her to step forward, and then sideways, or risk falling over and being trampled on. Men yelled out of time with the chant and she turned to see what was happening.
Alice’s friends, Peter and Gareth, who had driven them here, had been separated from the group, were being manhandled by blue uniforms with black batons. A flying glass bottle hit one of the policemen’s helmets.
The cop let Peter go and he went for the other policeman, trying to free Gareth. Jamie watched, resigned to Peter’s failure. Only a couple of hours ago they’d been teasing Alice about her purple backpack, and now they were getting arrested.
Bottles kept flying and the policemen raised their shields to cover their heads, apparently no longer concerned about the group of protesters, and fair enough. The mad rugby fans were far more dangerous, liquored up and impatient to watch some sport. And apparently armed with plenty of empty beer bottles, the perfect weapon against stirrers and hippies.
Jamie tried to stay low, unusually grateful for being shorter than everyone else around her. She looked around wondering what her father would think. Would he want them to stop throwing the bottles if he knew his daughter was in there? He wasn’t generally one to support mindless violence or bottle breaking, especially when the glass was left on the road and punctured his bicycle tires. He might think this was justified though.
“Politics and sport don’t mix.” She could almost hear his voice. He always knew exactly where he stood, and why, and he didn’t move.
The crowd surged again and Jamie skipped to keep up, heart hammering against her spine.
A brown bottle glided toward her, almost beautiful in its perfect arc across the sky. She felt trapped in its trajectory like a possum in headlights. She had assumed that the worst result of this ginormous lapse in her judgement would be her father’s reaction. It seemed impossible that a bottle could hurt more. Perhaps her father would forgo the punishment, in earnest joy that she had survived, and think that it might suffice to give her a half-day’s lecture on bad company corrupting good character and how schools today just aren’t what they used to be.
“No, they have electricity now,” had not been a wise response.
The bottle connected. With Alice. She cried out and pulled her arms free of her compatriots to grab her head. The group surged backwards and Alice stumbled. Jamie pulled herself free of the wild living organism they’d somehow become a part of. She hauled Alice to her feet and linked arms. Alice was breathing fast, out of rhythm, panicking. She held one hand to her face, covering her eye, fingertips white, digging into her forehead and hair.
“Racist bastards.” Alice pulled herself together, linked arms with the martyr-voiced man, and picked another policeman to glare at. “Am I bleeding?”
Jamie looked and nodded, swallowing hard. Dark blood dribbled from Alice’s hair line.
“Bugger.” She joined in the chanting with greater fervour than before.
“Call it off. Call it off.” A new chant began while the crowd cheered for everything the police did.
One of the protesters started singing the national anthem. Jamie started to feel like she was on the right side of things.
“Hear our voices, we entreat. God defend our free land.”
Alice tripped and slumped, her weight pulling Jamie down, but somehow she didn’t lose her footing. She’d found the equivalent of sea-legs for staying upright in a mad crowd. The man on Alice’s right helped and they pulled her up.
“You better get her out of here.” He said, then kept singing, “Men of every creed and race.”
A voice boomed over the loud speaker. “The game has been officially cancelled.”
The crowd booed but Jamie, amidst jumping and cheering, was using all her energy to keep Alice upright. How would they get out of there alive? The rugby crowd surrounded them on all sides. It was a full house. The police suddenly looked like allies.
The man beside them pushed forward to the front line and hauled the girls with him, foisting them on the first cop he could reach and risking a baton to his arm or head. Jamie turned to thank him but he’d run back and joined the front line of protesters, yelling more than singing, “God defend New Zealand.”
The cop helped hold Alice up, sheltering them with his shield. He jogged and half-dragged them to the gates.
The ambulance was surrounded. The cop stopped . Jamie looked at him. He seemed very young to be policing this sort of thing. He should be writing parking tickets and talking to teenagers about drugs, training beautiful but dangerous German Shepherds to bite the padded arm and not the other one.
Jamie remembered Gareth’s car. It wasn’t as if he would be using it. “I’ll drive her.”
The cop let them go. Jamie imagined him watching, admiring her gumption, her bravery. She skirted around the rugby fans, who were distracted by a vocal protester being escorted from the field.
The car was left unlocked, keys tucked away on top of the visor. If only Alice, who actually had a drivers license, had been conscious. But she was slumped in the passenger seat, head leaning on the seatbelt, which Jamie had buckled before realising they weren’t going anywhere fast. She put the keys in the ignition, turned them, started the car and immediately stalled it.
She thumped the steering wheel. “Come on. How does this go? How does Dad do it? Okay, I can do this,” she looked over at Alice, relieved to find her unconscious, if only to be without an audience for her humiliating attempt at driving. “Clutch, ignition, gas.” She revved it too loud and drew the attention of some onlookers.
“Hey!” Someone yelled, followed by “Oi!”
They pointed at the car and ran at it, throwing a beer can at Alice’s window. She woke her up and gave them the finger as the car lurched forward.
Jamie revved and revved, clutch in or out, but it kept her from stalling, no matter how much they lurched or how many curbs they jumped, until they got past the gate and onto the main road. Then she drove like a granny, barely getting out of second gear and riding the clutch for whole miles. Probably.
One block from home she realised that going home might not be the best idea. She pulled over and flicked on the radio. The protest was all over the news. A plane had been stolen from Taupo airport – a good part of the reason the authorities had called the whole thing off. And this was the first time a game in New Zealand had been broadcast on South African television. So maybe the protest would make a difference. If nothing else, it’d piss a whole lot of people off.
She turned off the radio, stomach turning. Her father would know. He’d be irate. And that was even before he discovered her involvement.
Telling him now, straight up, with this stuff coming over the radio, might actually give him a heart attack.
Alice needed a doctor, or at least a first-aider and a bandage. Jamie tried to recall what they’d learned in school CPR classes, but of all her education, all she could think of was a calculus rule (dy divided by dx equals a – a straight but not horizontal line) and what ‘dramatic irony’ meant, something she’d finally got to grips with on Friday afternoon.
She turned the car, traversing the curb on the other side of the road, but only for a few meters. She was getting good at this, rising to the occasion. Even if she managed to hide the afternoon’s events from her father she’d have to come up with a good excuse for being such a good driver when he finally started teaching her.
Her family doctor might call her parents so she went to the one down the road from school where all the girls went to deal with issues they didn’t want their parents to know about.
It was closed. How many would be open on a saturday?
Jamie was no fan of her grandmother’s religion but this seemed like a good time to have a gracious, generous and forgiving supernatural being on your side.
“Alright God, if you’re there, show me what to do.”
She sighed and looked around. A piece of paper was jammed into the back seat window, blocking her view. It read, “EQUALITY BEFORE SPORT” in rough, black, painted letters.
That explained the entourage that followed them from the car park. Alice was still out, her head leaning against the window of the car.
Jamie saw a phone box across the street and decided phoning Alice’s parents might be her best bet. She stepped out from the curb and stopped dead in her tracks as a bus whooshed past, as if out of nowhere. Its breaks squealed to a halt and Jamie imagined people standing in the aisle being catapulted forward.
Jamie went to the phone box, inserted a coin, and dialled the familiar phone number. On the third ring she noticed the bus destination — Hospital.
She hung up the phone, ran across the road, figuring the bus driver would be a safer driver than she, and certainly more legal. She held up her hand to stop the bus, and with her other hand opened the car passenger door. Alice tumbled out. Jamie jumped in the way and her knees hit the road, her own weight and Alice’s forcing the stones into her skin. She tried to move but had to push into the road and couldn’t manage lifting Alice with her arms as well.
Alice roused again and crawled past Jamie to sit on the pavement. At this point the bus driver approached. “You better not throw up on my bus.”
Jamie stood up and brushed at her knees. “We need to go to the hospital. My friend hit her head.”
“Yeah well that kind of thing happens when you’ve had too much to drink. How old are you anyway?”
“We didn’t drink anything, I swear. She hit her head, or rather, it got hit.”
“Okay,” he did not seem convinced but apparently wasn’t overly interested in further explanation, hoisting Alice from the curb and leading her to the bus. “You got fare?”
Jamie grabbed their backpacks from the back seat and locked the car. Their bags were heavy, packed full of their alibi: books for a study group at the public library. Jamie had genuinely thought that’s where they were going, so her bag was the heaviest.
The bus dropped them right outside the hospital and Alice had woken up enough to walk in without assistance. Jamie, carrying two backpacks, hovered at Alice’s side, closer than usual, watching her friend’s face, anticipating another collapse.
The charge nurse had someone phone their parents. Alice was taken to triage and Jamie sat on the edge of the waiting room, listening to the radio news tell her nothing she didn’t already know, and imagining what her father would say. He’d be in the car now, on his way to the hospital, listening to the same broadcast and ranting at the empty car. She couldn’t bring herself to imagine what he might say to her. She couldn’t imagine any scenario in which he would not find out exactly where she’d been.
Alice returned to Jamie’s side with a bandage taped to her head. Alice’s mum arrived first and Jamie’s sense of foreboding only increased. If only she’d also been injured, then Dad might be distracted and concerned, and maybe she’d have a chance of going on to lead a relatively normal life.
Alice had to get sutures. She went off with her mother. Jamie sat and watched the sliding doors go back and forth. There were a lot of similar injuries coming in, undoubtedly from the cancelled rugby game, and she considered making her own way home, removing herself from a place that might indicate her whereabouts earlier that afternoon.
The door slid open and Joyce Wright stepped into the waiting room. Her purse was clutched tightly under her arm, brow furrowed. She walked quickly without definite direction, eyes scanning the room.
Jamie stood up, “Mum!”
“Darling, thank God. Are you alright?” After a tight embrace she let Jamie go and examined her face and arms for wounds.
“I’m fine. Don’t worry, I’m fine.”
“But why are you at the hospital? God, I was so worried. Your father was glued to the television, giving it a telling-off again. Have you heard? They called off the game because of protesters. Who’d have thought? He’s going to be impossible. Perhaps you should stay with Alice.”
“Is Alice hurt?”
“She hit her head. They’re just suturing her up. They said she’ll be fine.”
“Don’t worry Mum, she’ll be fine. Her mum is with her.” She was about to ask to be taken home but remembered what awaited them there.
“She hit her head, she had to have sutures.”
“Yes, I got that bit. Where were you?”
“Jamie, tell me the truth.”
“But Dad will actually kill me.”
“I won’t let him.”
“Please don’t tell him. I didn’t really mean to go but everyone went and I didn’t have a ride home. It’s not that I agree with them, not really anyway. But it all happened so fast and I had to go with Alice. If I hadn’t no one would have been there to help her. She might have been killed. It was really bad.”
Jamie realised she was crying when her mum pulled her into a hug and her wet face made contact with the scratchy woollen jersey.
They took the long route home. Joyce parked on the road and they sat in silence for what must have been ten minutes, wondering what would happen.
“Better get it over with.” Joyce finally broke the silence.
“What if you told him I was pregnant and was going up north for a year? I could go live with Grandma.”
“You’d rather go to church than go inside?” She shook her head, “I’m not going to lie to your father. I’ll try to explain your side as best I can but I hope you don’t have any hot dates in the next six months, six years maybe.”
Jamie sighed and shook her head. “I never thought I’d be grateful for the total absence of interesting and attractive boys at school.”
“That’s my girl.” Joyce led the way inside.
There you have it. I’d love feedback, of course, especially about…
– anything you found particularly great (so I don’t delete it in further revisions)
– anything that was confusing
– anything boring
– anything distracting or breaking the flow
Thanks! Whether you give me feedback or not, it’s lovely to have readers.