I read a wonderful article this evening by Jacqui Lofthouse entitled 12 essential ingredients of a winning first chapter. There are, as you might imagine, 12 rather useful hints, but the one I’ve focused on in particular is number 4:
Begin at an interesting point in the narrative. We need to have a sense that ‘something is about to happen’ or ‘something needs to be resolved’. It must not be static.
My new novel, which is still very much in an early iteration, starts in an opulent London apartment and involves a potentially compromising situation. What could be better? (That’s a rhetorical question).
Check out the first few pages of Major Gifts here and see what you think…
“So it was £10,000 I said wasn’t it?” She looked over her shoulder, seemingly oblivious to the open curtains that silhouetted her semi-naked figure against the window from where I was sitting on the bed.
“Who should I make it payable to? I know cheques are a little passe, but the bank sends such beautiful ones these days, and it feels much more real to sign my name in ink on this occasion. It means more.” She scribbled away with a Mont Blanc fountain pen as she spoke, and I swiftly put my clothes back on. Sara was making no move towards gathering her Paul Smith suit, or shirt or bra, but I could feel the draught from the window, and the paperwork we needed to do waiting.
I reached for my satchel and grabbed the short form she needed to complete. I walked over and slid it along the edge of the desk to her, brushing her arm gently. I could see from the angle of her ears that she was smiling.
“I suppose you have others to see this morning?”
“I’m afraid so Sara, although none will be in such beautiful surroundings.” The mansion flat in Whitehall couldn’t be her only residence, but the opulence of it, the original artwork that wouldn’t be out of place in the Tate Modern and the clean lines of the furniture said a lot about the woman who spent time here.
Sara laughed. “Perhaps. When are you next passing through?”
“Next week,” I said, and folded the proffered cheque, slipping it in my jacket pocket. I looked at my watch. I was late.
“You going to kiss me goodbye?” I smiled, bent, and gently kissed her. She smiled.
“Call me.” She said.
The air outside had warmed up. At 8.30am when I had emerged at Marylebone there had been a chill, but the April sun was beginning to warm Whitehall. I walked quickly towards the river and pulled out my mobile. “Hi Tom, it’s Cam, can you call Sir Hugh’s office and let them know I’m running late?”
“Did she give?” I could hear him rifling through papers on his desk as he spoke.
“Oh she really did.”
“God, I can hear your smirk down the phone. I said you had a soft spot for her. Stop laughing at me and spill.”
“Woo, good start to the day.” There was a pause. “And?”
“Let’s go for a drink later sweetie.”
“So mean! Ok darling, give me a bell when you’re on the train. I’ll get in touch with Hughie.”
I plunged back down into the underground and tried hard to wipe the smile off my face. I knew it made me look stupid and wouldn’t play well with Sir Hugh. I emerged back into the sunshine and my phone bleeped.
//Meet Sir H at the restaurant, he’ll meet you there. I mean it – I want the gossip! T x//
I turned on my heels and walked towards the bistro we often met at. I was welcomed at the door by a young male Eastern European waiter.
“I’m here to meet Sir Hugh.” He nodded.
“He’s at his usual table.” He led me to a quiet corner, where Sir Hugh was pouring himself a generous glass of red wine.
“Ah, Miss Strawbank, how lovely to see you again.” He stood to shake my hand and kissed my cheek, his bushy silver moustache and beard tickling my face. “Lovely perfume my dear.” I smiled. I usually don’t wear perfume, so the only fragrance on me must have been the sophisticated scent that Sara was wearing earlier on. I felt my face redden at the memory.
“Sir Hugh, it’s a pleasure as always.” I sat down opposite him, and without asking he filled the huge wine glass that had appeared in front of me.
“Oh, just call me Hugh,” he said, as always. He put his hand into the inside pocket of his silk lined tweed jacked and pulled out an envelope. “There you are my dear. Now we can just have a nice lunch and dispense with the ugly talk of money.” I nodded my thanks and tucked the envelope into my own pocket, pretending that I wasn’t keen to see how many noughts were on the end this time. I took a mouthful of wine, satisfied that this had already been a successful day for my professionally, and let it warm the back of my throat as it went down.
Sir Hugh thoroughly recommended the duck so we both tucked into the rich and refined dish delicately daubed in a plum jus. It worked well with the wine, clouding the edges of my thoughts slightly, which was no bad thing as Sir Hugh was regaling me with tales of his time at Knighton University College Medical School. My thoughts drifted back to this morning, and the way Sara had greeted me at the door, coffee mug in hand.
“There’s still some in the pot – weapons grade strength or weak and feeble? You are Cameron Strawbank right? Fabulous name on a girl.” I smiled at her.
“Weapons grade please,” I said, “and I’m glad you like it. Most people expect me to be a guy. It’s a tradition in my family for the oldest daughter to have a male name.” I paused. “It could have been a lot worse – they could have called me Dave.”
Sara Lorenzo MP threw her head back in laughter, her bracelets jangling. She handed me a cup of strong coffee and she guided me to a room she described as her study. It was twice the size of my apartment.
“Well Cameron, I think we’re going to get on well. Take a seat and tell me about Knighton and how things are going there.”
Sir Hugh placed his hand on my wrist, bringing me back to his macabre story. “So I said to Nobby, it’s one thing scaring a fellow medic with an unexpected body part, but startling a poor young English undergraduate with a cadaver’s finger in her lunchbox is just not de rigeur.” I nodded, trying to hide my disgust, and taking another sip of my wine to overcome the queasiness I felt.
“Of course he’s one of the nation’s foremost minds on heart disease these days. But then I suppose medicine attracts that sort.” I was wondering what sort that was when Sir Hugh spoke again. “But now then, here’s me going on about me and my old college days. You weren’t even born then! Heavens. So dear, are you courting?”
“Not at the moment,” I said.
“Ah well, the right fellow will come along my dear. They just get a bit scared off by your type.”
“Well, you know, brainy, trouser-wearing, that kind of thing.” I smiled uncertainly, deciding that feminism may have passed Sir Hugh by. His cheque was warm in my pocket, and I was still basking in the glow of the morning too much to make any kind of witty comeback. “Anyway, I like you Miss Strawbank. I think you’re splendid.”
I wonder what he would have thought if he knew about what had happened with the MP for Mallington South.
The coffee Sara made was good, strong and smooth, with a hint of chocolate. It was as decadent as my surroundings, and I felt at ease. My meetings were variously formal, informal, convivial and awkward. If I was lucky they were friendly – as this one was starting to be. My job was to work out which version of Cameron to be – formal, relaxed, witty, quiet or outspoken. The better the meeting, the better the outcome.
“Are you here to ask me for money?” She asked quickly.
“Well, I won’t deny that the subject will come up. But first, I want to find out more about you, what you care about, what you think about Knighton, and how we might work together.”
“You and me?”
“Well us and the college.” Sara sipped her coffee.
“I see. Well here you go, I studied biochemistry and hated every minute of it. I should have studied English or Politics or some such, but I was under the misguided impression it would satisfy my mother’s desire for me to be a success.”
“I, er, so you didn’t enjoy your time at Knighton then?” I fingered my coffee mug.
“Oh I loved it. In spite of the course you see. I did everything, played tennis in the summer, hockey in the winter, took part in the debating society and set up a women’s group. It was all about freedom for me. It wasn’t the degree, it was the experience.”
I relaxed again, and started to work through possible projects in my mind. I crossed off academic scholarships and scientific research straight away, and stared to think more creatively.
“I just feel I was so lucky.” I nodded, urging her to continue. It was critical that she was allowed to just talk at this point. “I got a grant and was able to live on it without working in some dingy bar every night. My parents weren’t poor, but they weren’t rich either, but I was able to be financially independent.” A light went on in my head.
“Yes, things have changed so much, even since I was studying.”
“That can’t have been so long ago surely. How old are you?” It was one of the less personal questions I had been asked in the course of this job, so I just answered her.
“32. Old enough to have seen a change.” Sara smiled as if weighing something up. “Sadly, we know that lots of youngsters now decide against higher education because of the fear of debt.”
“It’s just so tragic.” Sara poured herself some more coffee and topped mine up without asking if I wanted more. I smiled my thanks and wondered what the caffeine would do to me – I always drank too much coffee on my London days.
“Well, we’ve decided we can do better,” I said, leaning forward in my seat, “and we’ve established grants for those from low income families who are on course for good results at A level.” Sara’s eyes lit up, and she caught my free hand, with which I had been gesticulating.
“Brilliant,” she said, “how much do you give them?”
“£2,000 a year.”
“You know, I voted against the top-up fees.” I nodded. I did know, it had been in the research file Tom had prepared for me that I had read on the train. She shook her head. “It breaks my heart to think of those poor kids in school desperate to get on.” She dropped my hand and looked up, making eye contact. “What did you study?”
I smiled, ready for the inevitable put down as I said “Media Studies”. But Sara remained serious.
“No, I never would have got in. I studied in Yorkshire.”
“You’re too modest Cameron. I think you’ve got it all worked out.” I raised my eyebrows, not completely sure what she meant. “Will ten do?”
“Ten thousand pounds? That will help five students right?” This was big for a first gift and I was taken aback. I worked to keep my cool.
“Well six actually if you include Gift Aid. I must say, that’s very generous of you.” Sara took a sip from her coffee cup, smiling ruefully.
“Maybe it is generosity. But sometimes I wonder it isn’t to assuage my own guilt.” She gestured to the room around her.