I struggle with tenses. I like the way past tense reads, but I feel like I can represent emotions better in present tense. So the idea I’m kind of working on is to have the first part of the book (about 50,000 words) in past tense, with the story unfolding in a narrative way (though a little fantastical), and then have the second part of the book (about 20,000 words) more like a stream of consciousness.
Clear as mud, right? If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them (on the tenses, not on how bollocks I am at first drafts!).
This is an excerpt from the first part:
Francesca died in the thick of winter. It was a day for ducks, she would have said, had she not been lying unconscious in a hospital bed. No one knew quite what had happened, except that there’d been a fall and she’d hit her head on a porcelain dog.
‘I’m sorry David,’ the doctor said, putting his hand on my husband’s shoulder. ‘She had a bleed. We couldn’t save her.’
And then he was an orphan.
Funeral processions are long, when the deceased is very old. We wound through the hills, past rows of ferns and armies of eucalypts and over and under and next to flattened possums and foxes. Dave rode ahead in a solemn hearse, and I wondered if the skirt I’d chosen was quite serious enough as to properly convey just how devastated I truly was. But then, his eyes had been sealed shut by all the goddamn crying.
I had always liked the cemetery, as much as a person can like a cemetery. We crowded into the tiny chapel, pressed against each other like tinned sardines, limp and cold.
We sat, Dave and I, in the hardest pew in the frontest row in the coldest chapel and he let his hand rest on my hard belly. As the minister deliberated over Francesca’s finest qualities – her stoicism, her determination, her eye for fashion – my body moved as if possessed. Rolling. Dancing. Dave followed her movements with his fingers, a pregnancy cartographer. When it came time for him to speak, he took me to the pulpit with him.
‘My mother was a fine woman,’ he said, and the sardines nodded solemnly. ‘She deserved so much more from life. When dad died, and then John -‘ hushed whispers ‘- she charged through without letting life take her away her spirit. In fact, one might say she thrived on those challenges. We – her sons – although Bill and George can’t be here today, of course – we never wanted for anything. I only hope that I can give my daughter …’ And then he cried, full and ugly, with his arms around my waist, dragging me toward him like a rag doll. ‘If I can give my daughter, her granddaughter, even half of what she gave me, I will be a rich man indeed.’
The congregation gave a collective sob, a sea of raised handkerchiefs and blackness.
‘We’re going to call her Francesca.’ He turned my head to his. ‘Aren’t we, sweetheart?’
Later, I asked him if people were still called orphans when they were thirty-eight, but he didn’t know.
In the crooked house, the air was different. Rooms that had been filled with complaints and misunderstandings were swollen and grey. I noticed things I hadn’t noticed before: the way the wallpaper peeled at the edges, the ugly shade of green in the kitchen, the expanse of purple thistles in the garden.
I opened the kitchen windows and let the cleanness roll in, let it blow away the old spirits. I drew it through the angled doorways and into the pinched corners where the cobwebs gathered to live cobwebbed lives. I invited it through the dull hallways and down the spiral staircase, where I let it rest on my shoulders in a games room that no one had played in for decades.
We sat like that, me and the cleanness, while Dave and his uncles talked about Wills and Estates and The Money She Had Saved, and when he came down to find me it was after six o’clock so we tried to order a pizza but no one delivered right up the hill.
‘I’ll make a lasagne,’ I said.
‘It won’t be as good as hers.’
‘Nothing will ever be as good as hers,’ I said, and even I wasn’t sure exactly what I meant. Ingredients were tucked away in every corner of that Kermit kitchen – tomatoes swimming in a bowl with mosaic fish, garlic hanging as a warning to vampires from a door jam, flour in a rusted tin labelled ‘SEMOLINA’ behind the pantry door. I poured my rough Bolognese into a ceramic dish shaped like a Christmas tree and I couldn’t find any parmesan so I grated a little tasty and hoped for the best.
He was right, though, it wasn’t as good as hers. Four of us sat around Francesca’s dinner table, eating tasteless mince and watery bechamel from Francesca’s plates, drinking stale red wine from Francesca’s glasses. She sat in the chair in the corner and watched as her brothers and son reminisced: nothing could compare to her panettone, Christmas would never be the same, she was literally a saint from heaven. I grew embarrassed for her, but each time I looked over she just sat there, hands folded in her lap, eyes fixated on Dave. Dave, whose hair was plastered against his drunken forehead in liquorice ribbons; whose swollen eyes hardly blinked, staring out at his empty world like black moons.
‘We should go home soon,’ I said. My hips ached from the hours of wooden stools and hard pews and funeral cars.
‘My mother died,’ he said.
‘I know she did.’ I reached for his hand. ‘But we gotta go home sometime.’
‘We are home,’ he said, and Francesca nodded.
And this is the rhythm of the second part:
I sit in the bedroom without her. I sit in the living room without her. When I’m really brave, I sit at the table with the wrought iron legs without her.
I never stand in the kitchen without her. We stand with our shoulders touching.
I find a wooden bench down behind the weeping cherry. Dave speaks for the first time in three days.
‘Your mum is here,’ he says. The garden fills with yellow light.
‘Mam,’ I say. Judy puts her hand on my shoulder.
‘My beautiful girl,’ she says, and the light is blue.
‘Do you think Hannah is in heaven?’ I ask him. It’s 6pm and we are in bed with lights out. Spring knocks on the window. ‘Piss off!’ I say, and the pollen foxtrots back to the garden.
‘Are you that fucking stupid?’ he says.
Hannah is in the hard ground. Hannah Miriam Alessi, died September 12th 2009, aged 4 hours. Where is her mother? Where is her mother?