Today, I’m returning to my Work in Progress, my first novel, The Folks Across the River. Ken Rice has very kindly done a critique of the first chapter, with many editorial suggestions. Below you can find the result, which I think is a much more readable and tighter version of this chapter. You can compare this with the earlier version and let me know what you think!
CHAPTER 1, The Assignment
30/08/18, in flight to Bucharest
The photograph could have been taken 100 years ago, or yesterday. A formal studio portrait, sepia-tint with a matte finish, its texture pixelated and grainy. Its subjects, twin girls, stood side by side: identical, but posed differently as if to tell them apart. One had her arm around the other’s shoulder, and both were smiling, the identical smiles revealing matching rows of pearl-white teeth. Their black dresses were indistinguishable one from the other; austere and perfectly tailored. Their eyes were bright and alive, but unearthly: they burned somewhere beyond life; out of reach yet enticing as the fragmented light of a spring rainbow.
I took the photo from the envelope. Their eyes burned into me, beyond and through me, almost; straight to the part of me I thought could not be seen. I was forced to confront myself, and found the confrontation drew a blank. There I was, face to face with nobody; staring into a vast and dark abyss, like the oblivion from which I had emerged after the accident. The doctors had called it a coma, though to me it was, and still remains, an almost overwhelming darkness.
The photo of the twins had been attached to a bundle of papers held together with an oversize paperclip: my latest assignment. Below the photo was a newspaper clipping, written in a language similar to Romanian: The twins were Valtayrian heiresses, daughters of the XIV Baron Erdély of Kosička. They had vanished from their ancestral home, Kosička Castle. The disappearance had taken place in May, on the night of the Spring Ball held for students of the prestigious Valtayro Academy for Girls.
Though I had travelled extensively in Europe, I had never before heard of a land called Valtayro. A cursory Google search brought up nothing on any such country. At this, I headed straight to the Editor’s office to discuss my concerns with him.
Pat Stubbs, or ‘The Stub’ as he is known by friends and colleagues, is the editor of The Outsider. His office has remained untouched by the Clean Air Act, its fireproof door serving as a barrier between The Stub and those who would disturb his peace. Any would-be intruder must accept that upon entering he or she will be shrouded in cigarette smoke and go through the rest of the day perfumed by its acrid stale smell. On this occasion, I was forced to make that sacrifice. As a mark of grudging respect, he ground his cigarette butt into the glass ashtray on his desk as I entered:
‘My star investigative journalist, welcome!’
‘Hello, Stub. How are you?’ I answered.
‘Pretty good, pretty good overall, thanks. I know you’ve come about the twins, and I think this is going to be a big story…’
‘I’ve never heard of a country called ‘Valtayro’ Stub, and neither, it would seem, has Google. Are you sure your source is trustworthy?’
‘Sure as I can be. No one I’ve asked has ever heard of Valtayro. You are right that there is very little information available online, though I have found out more in older reference books. And if it’s not on Wikipedia or Google, it’s because something top-secret, and high-level is going on there.’ Stub said.
‘I assume there are many conspiracy theories?’
‘Of course – I’ve done some digging and managed to find out a little, but very few people have actually been there and attempted to uncover the truth. It is incredibly hard to obtain a visa. Yours was sent to me along with the following anonymous tip-off:
Find the twins, and you will find matters of global concern. Send the best you have,
An Interested Party.
‘You’re to use an alias, of course -’
‘Who am I to be this time?’
‘Erica Jackson, a PhD Student in Comparative Theology. You will stay at the Valtayro Academy for Girls. Your cover will be to teach the girls English. The ostensible reason for your visit is to examine the parallel practices of Christian and pagan worship within Valtayro.’
‘Apparently there is a place where pagan practices still continue -’
‘I’m feeling more than a little apprehensive -‘
‘I knew you would think it a hoax, but this is a real place. The visa is genuine, and all your travel costs have been -‘
‘Stub,’ I interrupted, ‘it could be worse than a hoax: it could be a trap.’
‘If you don’t feel safe going there, I can send someone else. But you’re the best I have. I’ve no one else with your linguistic skills. A delegate from the school will meet you at the border, and I’m sure you will be well looked after…’
The Stub handed me a folder. “Here,” he said “take the school prospectus…’
It was a glossy brochure from the Valtayro Academy for Girls. It certainly looked prestigious. And certainly I didn’t want any of my colleagues getting sent on this assignment in my place. I wanted it for myself. So, I agreed, and promptly went home to prepare for the journey.
All of this took place yesterday, and here I am a day later, starting a record of what looks set to be an unusual assignment, even by my standards. Now to get some sleep before the onward journey, overland by bus to the Valtayro border.
A mist is clearing, and I see the twins in front of me: posed, as in the photo, except that here, it seems that they might move. Impossible to tell if they’re alive: they seem both dead and alive in the same instant; vivid yet ghostlike. I feel thoroughly chilled, and yet entranced.
You’ll find us’ they chant in unison, their voices chime: ‘you’ll find us when the time is right.’
Now I’m walking down a long and empty corridor, which looks like it belongs to an abandoned hospital. It stretches out to vanishing point ahead. I hear footsteps behind me: at first a long way behind, then picking up speed and gaining on me. I can’t walk any faster. My legs become like lead; it feels as though I’m walking through treacle. Feeling with horror that any attempt at escape would be futile, I steel myself to turn and face my pursuer when…THUD!
Erica’s Diary, Continued
‘May I have your attention please, this is your Captain speaking. The “fasten seatbelt” signs have now been lit as we are experiencing a few lumps and bumps due to inclement weather. I would ask that you remain in your seats with your tray tables stowed and your seat backs in the upright position. Cabin crew to your seats.’
Though I fly all over the world regularly whilst on assignment, I always get a little nervous when the crew are ordered to their seats. It doesn’t happen often, but whenever it does you can be sure of more than a few ‘lumps and bumps.’ I was already unsettled by my nightmare, but I tried to ignore the sudden shifts in altitude and constant shaking of the fuselage by turning my attention to my assignment.
There were some photocopied pages from a nineteenth century Encyclopaedia Britannica entry headed ‘Valtayro,’ which read as follows:
- Valtayro has existed as a Principality since the Middle Ages, as a Roman Catholic country ruled by a Council of Elders formed of Church leaders and the Aristocracy. Prior to the advent of Christianity, a pagan form of religion now known as ‘Old Valtayrian’ was practiced throughout the land. Evidence of ‘Old Valtayrian’ practices dating back as far as the Late Neolithic period has been found in the form of cave paintings and cult artefacts which were located in cave-sanctuaries concealed within the mountains north of the Kosička river. After the conversion to Christianity of the Valtayrian people, most of these sanctuaries were converted into hermitages. However the cult practices are rumoured to persist in isolated communities within the Principality.
- Located in the Carpathian Mountains bordering Romania and Hungary
,Valtayro is a mountainous region. Its lowest-lying valleys lie at an altitude of 3000ft. The most notable geological feature of Valtayro is the Kosička gorge, 70 miles long, with cliff walls plummeting 1000ft to the river.
- No celebrities or other notable personalities are known to have come out of Valtayro. Neither is much known of Valtayrian Art and Literature. National artistic treasures are reputedly kept behind lock and key, with only a privileged few being granted access. There is rumoured to be a Cabalistic element to the highly hierarchical and complex organisation of the ruling class, but very little is known in detail by outsiders.
It is strange that there is no corresponding Wikipedia article, almost as if the place itself had managed to circumvent the modern world (much to The Stub’s delight, I’m sure).
The turbulence was still not over, so I tried to distract myself further by reading up on my destination, as detailed in the Academy Prospectus. Though unfamiliar with the Valtayrian language, from my knowledge of Romanian, Hungarian and Serbian I was able to produce the following approximate translation:
- The site where the Academy now stands is endowed with a rich history which stretches back to the pre-Christian era. What was once a revered pagan site was converted to a convent in the 12th Century AD. During the Great Plague, it became a makeshift hospital, and later a hospital wing was added to the building, which functioned as an ‘insane asylum’ within which the Sisters cared for afflicted patients. This was considered a philanthropic work on the part of the Church. However, as modern methods for dealing with mental illness rendered the asylum obsolete, the building was converted once again, this time to our prestigious Academy for Girls, at the behest of the Baron Erdély of Kosička. His Lordship made the conversion possible by means of a generous endowment, hence the renaming of the Hospital building to the Erdély Wing in honour of our most gracious benefactor.
This information fired my interest: the Baron’s daughters had attended the school he himself had founded prior to their disappearance. This could certainly be significant. I also noted that the Baron must be a figure of some standing in the local community. Perhaps his daughters were kidnapped for ransom, or to do damage to the reputation of the school. Of this same reputation, the glossy prospectus had the following to say:
- The Academy offers the most exclusive education available to the Daughters of Valtayro, boasting a dramatic and peacefully secluded setting high above the Kosička valley and the town of Savrilovič. The comfort and safety of the girls is guaranteed by the secure nature of the building, a responsible and caring staff, and newly refurbished accommodation finished to the highest of standards. Alumni can be assured of excellent nutrition as the dining service offers up the freshest, healthiest and best of Valtayrian cuisine prepared daily within the onsite kitchens.
It sounded like a welcome change from the microwave dinners and in-flight meals I have grown accustomed to whilst on assignment. I found myself hoping that the part about security and safety being assured was really true, in the light of the twins’ disappearance, albeit from their ancestral home across the river.
For all the in-flight turbulence, our landing in Bucharest was mercifully uneventful. I took a taxi to the bus station, and the driver asked where I was headed:
‘Valtayro.’ I told him, ‘on an academic assignment. Have you ever been?’
At my question he shook his head, “No.”
‘Can’t say I’ve heard of it, I’ve plenty to keep me busy right here.’
It may have been my imagination, but I’m almost sure I saw the blood drain from his face at the mention of Valtayro. He didn’t say a word to me after that.
The bus was tatty and smelled of stale urine, but I was glad enough that it wasn’t crowded, which meant that I was able to take up two seats to myself and my luggage. I have been devoting the time since to studying the Valtayrian language, with the help of a dictionary and grammar guide, and a book of poems by Eben Erdély, XI Baron of Kosička (Which would make him, by my calculations, Great-Grandfather of the current Baron). Combining my knowledge of related languages with the dictionary and grammar, I have been able to get to grips with the poetry without too much trouble. It is somewhat grandiose, and seems to use a self-consciously antiquated style, looking back to past days when Valtayrians were ruled by some kind of Mother Goddess, whom the philosopher poet Erdély apparently idolised as a hybrid wood nymph-cum-fantasy object. If it hadn’t had been for the linguistic intricacies which I enjoyed trying to pick apart, I would have found it tedious in the extreme.
Though I’ve been able to glean some knowledge of Valtayrian grammar and vocabulary, I still have no idea how the language might sound. I could guess at it based on the languages I am familiar with, but I could be as far off the mark as if I were trying to deduce Portuguese pronunciation based solely on a knowledge of Spanish. Time will tell. I hope there will be at least someone in Valtayro who will be able to speak one of the languages I already know. In this respect at least I am fortunate to have many options!
This studying, combined with the early morning flight and seemingly endless bus journey has left me exhausted. Time to put my pen down and rest my mind again. Time to tune into some music and get some rest.
“DaydreaminandI’mthinkinofyou/DaydreaminandI’mthinkinofyou/ DaydreaminandI’mthinkinofyou/ Look at my love/ Floating a-way…”
From out of the shadows of sleeping comes my love…I’ve never seen him before and yet I know that it is so. His eyes, though dark, shine with a kind of primordial light. When I look into them, I have the feeling of looking back through time, as a deep-space telescope sees back towards the origins of the Universe. There is something elemental and forgotten in his look. There is desire which sparks between us: reciprocal function, alternating current. There is also a smile, which though appearing warm could easily conceal a hidden menace. Like the archetypal wolf in sheep’s clothing, he extends a large, firm hand in welcome. Conning the part of an old-fashioned gentleman. Is it a con? Already I’m wondering how to know him better, and what there is to know. What secrets does he hide? What secrets do you hide, my love?
Nikola Zvezdovje awakes with a start to the shriek of his alarm clock. It’s 5pm. The previous night had been a heavy one, drinking late with some friends from his hometown, Savrilovič. The night had extended well into the morning, hence his extensive afternoon nap which has just now been cut short, much to his annoyance.
He curses the Baron Erdély out loud, though he wouldn’t risk it if there were anyone nearby to hear him. He has to prepare for the forthcoming school term, he has his research, and on top of it all he has to go and pick up some Englishwoman from the border, seduce her, make her feel comfortable then hand her over to the Baron. At any other time of year, this might have been an enjoyable prospect, but right now, he just can’t be bothered. He’s been raising hell all summer: drinking himself into oblivion most nights, waking up in countless unknown beds of women whose names he can’t remember. But now the school term starts, and he must be responsible. He feels responsible for his girls, his prodigies. The disappearance of the twins just about sent him over the edge, reminding him as it did of the disappearance of his wife some five years earlier.
He tries to drum up some enthusiasm for the task in hand: splashes on some after-shave, without first shaving. Stubble suits him, he thinks as he takes a look in the mirror and drags a comb through his dishevelled hair. She’ll like the stubble. He hopes. If she doesn’t like him, what the hell will he do then? But when do women ever not like him…?
‘Erica Jackson.’ He’s read her file and she sounds like a monumental bore. She’s apparently very studious, and though only 23 she probably has the first sproutings of facial hair upon her chin and upper lip. He knows the type. Though he admires intelligent women, the only one he’s ever found attractive was his wife, now vanished. He dares not think of her.
Resignedly, he pulls on his best pair of jeans, t-shirt and jumper, and some comfortable shoes for driving. He then storms around his apartment looking for the keys to his pick-up, which he eventually finds next to a half-drunk bottle of vodka. He takes a shot for luck then heads out on the road towards the border.