A Novel Beginning – Part One

This was written for my MA: we were told to write the beginning of a story that could become a novel, and then to sketch out a plan for the rest of it. So this is my novel beginning.


The sun gleams blood red on the feather-tips of seagulls in flight and the sea is not calm.  The birds wheel in the rays, following the path of the wind towards land, above the foaming ocean’s spit and boil.  In dimming light, swimming through violet air, the birds let out a cry as the line of distant dark cliffs moves closer and closer.  And there is a woman, standing on the edge.

Landing, folding aching wings, they turn their heads away.  Across the creeping moss, at no distance at all, stands the woman with her bare feet and toes curling over the edge, touching sky.  Salt-tinged moisture clings to her legs and the breeze moves her dress and raises hairs on her arms.  Her curled knuckles are white and her face is streaked with water that does not come from the sea.

She looks out over the mottled deep and leans into the wind, but the cold and the force of the air do not seem to touch her.  She shows no pain, as though she is numb.  She feels only through the fingertips of one hand; the crunch of crumpled hand-written paper creased against her palm.  And the photograph of smiling faces folded up against each other, pressed together, unable to see.  She opens up her hand and straightens out the letter, but the photograph stays closed.  Then with damp shaking fingers the woman tears them into shreds and scatters them into the wind.

The scraps snap away behind her: some sweep up into the rolling higher air and others sink, catch in the grass, hop and stagger through soggy peat to where the seagulls are.  One bird pecks inquisitively at a photograph fragment and swallows the image of a little hand.  The woman sees nothing of this; she is looking down.

She sees the sea and thinks that it is inside her, that it is her own creation, transformed by pain into tangible existence.  This is why the world is tainted, from horizon to horizon, with a darkening shadow of agony and she feels the limits of the world as the edges of a large bowl, out of which she is in danger of spilling.  She finds herself waiting for the bowl to crack, for the pressure she knows is too great.  It does not, because it is stronger than her, and so she must find another escape.

Memories slink back through the holes in the cliff top and the creases in her skin: flashing lights and playing cards; a warm hand in hers with the cool weight of a false-gold ring; baby’s breath and growing clothes and the deepening of a voice that used to wail solely for her.  Years condense into the drops that gather on her skin, and cling, and then are swept away.  She feels them pass in seconds and they remain as elusive as when they were lived the first time.

Now, leaning over the edge, the weight of the past that she expected to feel pressing her forwards is not there.  She is light and heady like a falling bird and the air spins her life into gossamer.  The feeling that somehow nothing has ever truly existed infuses her with freedom.  She raises up onto her toes, teetering now, and supposes this is a necessary release: it is easier to deny the past completely than face the enormity of losing it all.

The birds are shifting and opening their wings again; something is making them restless.  As they stand and move about the scraps of paper that have lodged and warmed against their feathered bodies are blown away, turning cold in flight.  Soon the entire flock is in the air, feeling the howl beneath their feathers, and as they leave the cliffs behind them something like a rock dislodges from the edge and falls.

It is an unusual rock, large and star-shaped and it moves as it falls, but does not make a noise.  The rock hits an outcrop on its descent, loosening a scatter of pebbles and earth, and keeps on falling, no longer moving.  The cliff top is waste and empty, only purple scrub and a pair of disintegrating footprints.  It only takes a few seconds for the rock to reach the sea, where it is swallowed by the splintering waves.

As soon as it is gone, darkness descends upon the world and a crack rends the sea and land and sky from horizon to horizon.  Everything is splitting apart like an egg, and the sea is fuming and the land is groaning and the sky is throwing down water and air.  The birds, panicked, turn around but the crack is everywhere, so they scatter.  Some head out to sea, some back to land and some stay where they are, suspended between the two, scoring tight circles in the sky and looking back at where the rock fell into the waves.

After a few seconds everything has gone and there is only a seam of light as seen through opening eyelids.  Of the cliff top and the birds and the thrashing ocean nothing is left, as if it had never existed at all.

Read Part Two.

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