Across the Dark Distances

I drove home via the most circuitous route I could think of, checking obsessively in my mirrors. When I arrived at the complex, I stopped at the guardhouse for a word with Paul, the guard on duty. ‘Has anyone come here asking about me?’ I asked.
‘No sir.’
‘Don’t let anyone in who you don’t know, or tell anyone that I live here if they ask. This is important. Please tell the next guard who comes on duty.’
‘Yes, sir. What about Miss Harlow?’ I had wondered how Harlow came and went without the guards ever calling me on the phone. She had obviously charmed them thoroughly.
‘She’s alright, you can let her in,’ I said. Harlow Coates was the least of my worries. I would take Queen aside and remind her to keep all doors firmly locked and a panic button around her neck at all times. I kept going over how Faure could have suddenly appeared outside the window of the art supplies store. It made no sense.

I arrived home to find Harlow Coates’ car blocking the garage. It was the third time in a week that she had turned up unannounced. On each of the previous occasions she had asked for Ash’s birth certificate. The woman was relentless and I was powerless to avoid her. I was annoyed, forgetting that moments earlier I had dismissed her as a threat. I parked under the Jacaranda tree at the top of the driveway. When I returned, my vehicle would be scattered with more flowers than an Indian Prime Minister but it was better than turning it into a burning hot tin can. The summer heat had settled on Johannesburg like water seeping into a sinking ship, filling up the empty spaces, driving out the air. I stepped out of the car onto a carpet of slimy, blue flowers and was stung on the calf by a bee. I swore. I knew to scrape the sting out, not to squeeze. I needed a knife.

Harlow was in the kitchen with Ash. They were pouring cornflakes into a pot of melted chocolate, stirring it and chattering away to each other. ‘Where’s Queen? How long have you been here?’ I addressed Harlow, kissed the top of Ash’s curls, and rummaged in a drawer for a knife.
‘Upstairs and about an hour. Ash and I are making chocolate cornflake cookies. What are you doing to your leg?’
‘Got stung by a bee, I’m getting the sting out.’
Ash stopped stirring and came over to me, kissed my leg near the bee sting. I swallowed. Harlow had left the room.
I scooped Ash up onto my lap. ‘You are the sweetest girl in Africa,’ I whispered.
‘Does it hurt?’
‘Yes. But I can handle it.’
Ash nodded. ‘Maybe you should draw a picture.’
I smiled. ‘That’s a great idea, I’ll do that later.’
Harlow had returned – as was her annoying habit.
‘Ash, come and spoon the cookies into the cases while I put something on your Dad’s leg’
‘Where did you get the first aid kit?’ I asked.
‘Queen.’
Of course. Harlow produced some camomile cream from the kit. I watched her suspiciously as she sat next to me and soothed some ointment onto the sting.
‘Could you stop looking at me as though I’m about to eat your young just for one moment,’ she said quietly.
‘Aren’t you?’ my tone was equally low. I had a headache. Harlow was an enemy, seeing Faure had not changed that fact. And yet those olive-green eyes, her perfect breasts brushing against my arm.
‘What do you want me to do?’ asked Harlow.
Oh God if only you knew. ‘I want you to go away and leave us alone.’ I could see I had scored a hit. She recoiled as though struck, and moved away from me, pushing the ointment back into the first aid pouch and zipping it closed viciously.
‘So you want me not to do my job?’
‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’
‘Something is broken here. Something’s off.’
‘We’re mending, Harlow, without your help or intervention.’
‘Harlow, come and see,’ Ash interrupted our low exchange.
‘Let me know when you leave,’ I said, then louder, ‘Ash, I’ll be in the studio if you need me.’
‘Draw a nice picture,’ said Ash.

I didn’t like leaving Ash alone with Harlow, but as she came and went as she pleased, and had already been with Ash an hour, I supposed there was no point in hovering. The woman aroused my intense need to protect Ash. She aroused me full stop and I hated that. Hard on the heels of seeing Faure, my feelings were overwhelming and I didn’t trust myself around her.

I set up a canvas, reflecting on the depth of Ash’s insight and the threats that still cast a shadow over her safety and happiness. I thought I’d paint something dark and angry. But my creative force came from somewhere deeper than thought and the colours I reached for were yellow, white and silver. I painted bright rays of light slanting in from all sides and corners of the canvas. In the centre of the field of light, I painted Ash.  Tumbles of amber curls that seemed to grow out of the light itself. I painted her turned away from me, just the side of her cheek in view. On her shoulder I painted a bee, in tiny perfect detail. Just sitting there.
‘Because at the centre of everything is Ash’. I said out loud as I looked at the painting. A shaft of late afternoon sunlight streamed in through the window, onto the painting like a benediction. Light to light. Oh God, was Harlow still there? It was getting late.

As though I’d conjured her, the studio door opened and Ash and Freddie exploded into the room followed by Harlow. I’d forgotten to lock the door. What an idiot. The cursed Coates woman had finally breached my sanctuary. She was staring at the painting of Ash and the sunlight, her mouth open.
‘So you really are an artist.’
I just looked at her.
‘It’s a really beautiful painting.’
‘Is that me? There’s a bee on my shoulder.’ Ash was considering the painting with her usual serious expression. ‘Is it a friendly bee or is it going to sting me?’ she asked.
‘I think it’s friendly’, I said. ‘It’s resting on your shoulder while it looks for some flowers where it can get some nectar for honey-making.’ Ash looked relieved. She liked honey.
‘Freddie wants to swim. Can we swim?’
‘Of course, sweetie, go and get changed and I’ll come out and watch you.’ I turned back to Harlow. She was looking a painting done by a very disturbed child I was treating. It was a painting of ugly monsters with human faces, and quite unsettling. I needed to get her out of my studio.
‘Don’t you have any other clients to harass?’ I asked.
‘Actually its Saturday, so technically I’m not working. This was a catch – up visit as I ran out of time yesterday.’
‘Then why are you still here?’
‘Queen had a headache so I sent her home. And Ash and I were having fun.’ She blushed.
I wondered if she was embarrassed that she had nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon than hang out with a child she was not related to at a home where she was not wanted.

26 thoughts on “Across the Dark Distances

  1. Sharon says:

    Without a context of your scene, I’m lost. You have a lot going on and a lot of characters. Is Queen another name for Harlow? And Faure? I can only assume you have described these people in previous chapters.

    A couple of suggestions for your consideration:

    1. I swore. I knew to scrape the sting out, not to squeeze. I needed a knife. This might be more effective as dialogue. Example: “Oh crap. To squeeze or not. I need a knife.” or something like. that.

    2. “Got stung by a bee, I’m getting the sting out.’ sounds a little clunky to me. Rewrite suggestion….”Excising a bee stinger.”

    3. A little too clunky and detailed. Ash stopped stirring and came over to me, kissed my leg near the bee sting. I swallowed. Harlow had left the room. Rewrite suggestion: Ash kissed my leg. Harlow left the room.

    4. I don’t think you need this sentence. . Harlow had returned – as was her annoying habit.

    5. but as she came and went as she pleased..You said this in the opening.

    I can’t quite put my finger on it but I’m not feeling this story. It’s not that i don’t like the premise of the story. Maybe i’ve said it in my examples: Too clunky and detailed. I hope my suggestions help and wish you every success with your novel.

    • Jennifer Eller-Kirkham says:

      Sorry for lack of context. Harlow is a social worker who is investigating him as he is suspected of abusing Ash. He has secrets that he is terrified she will find out but he can’t avoid her spending time with Ash because if he refuses, she will take Ash into the foster system.
      The scene is well into the novel. Queen is his housekeeper. Thanks for the feedback. Very useful. I will take a look at the clunky sentences.

  2. Cat says:

    I like the writing, though without any context I’m struggling a little to pick up in the reasons why the protagonist is so wary. The first paragraph seems at odds with the rest given the detail that surely the guard knows Harlow arrived before and yet doesn’t say anything. One moment Harlow isn’t a threat and the next she is – and there is a lot of conflicting behaviour/emotion about her that I don’t really understand – he doesn’t trust her but leaves Ash with her.

    Having said that, there seems to be a lot of complexity hidden in the subtext of this scene, which can be difficult to manage and I’m certain that, given the context, a lot more is said than the words on the page.

    Good luck!

  3. jmpayer says:

    The part where Ash kissed the bee stung area and he looked around to make sure the Harlow didn’t see it was weird. I thought there was something sexual going on until it was pointed out that Ash was his kid and Harlow was a social worker. I didn’t get either of those facts from this section. But that doesn’t make it any less weird. Why would that bother him if he didn’t have anything to hide? And if he’s hiding something, that a kiss would threaten it…

    • Jennifer Eller-Kirkham says:

      Thanks for your comment. The kiss is the first time she has trusted him enough to show him any affection as she is not in fact his child – which is what he is trying to prevent Harlow from finding out. It may not be the best time to introduce this affection, and I see that it could be read as weird – I will cut it out of this scene.

          • johnsonofdaw says:

            Just to confuse again. Maybe in real life she wouldn’t kiss him, and you know her best and how to establish authenticity, but I think it’s a shame if you have to delete the kiss, because in its context it has real shock value, it dramatically sets the edgy agenda between the characters. Just saying.

          • jmpayer says:

            In hindsight I get the ‘kiss it better thing’, I can see what you were going for. What might work better would be having her insist on taking care of the injury rather than kiss it. My daughter at that age would have taken the first aid kid away from me and done it herself, using the alcohol wipe, putting on a band aid, etc.

          • johnsonofdaw says:

            Alternatively the kiss could be a “kiss it better” type. Many children have had someone kiss a bruised knee or something to “kiss it better” to stop them crying, and they love copying what big people do. (I’ve also seen children doing the darnedest things, for no apparent reason, to the intense embarrassment of parents.)

  4. Eliza Worner says:

    I liked it. I was quite absorbed in the story (once I knew the context and who the players were). I don’t think you need the line “I knew to scrape the sting out, not to squeeze. I needed a knife.” at all. Just get rid of it. Problem solved.

    I’m interested to find out who or what Faure is. I’m glad I don’t have that context right now.

    That Harlow woman is driving me insane. I suspect you’re leading up to a romance, but I hope not. She’s really inflicted herself on these people’s lives and takes way too many liberties. She’s an incredible busy body. I don’t think you should mentioned her “perfect breasts” it was a bit cliched.

    The protagonist is incredibly tolerant. Which either says volumes about his character or it needs some work to make him angrier, because if that woman was in my home I’d be vomiting pea soup.

    • Jennifer Eller-Kirkham says:

      Thanks Eliza. Harlow is not intended to be that irritating she is very tough and very persistent and she is also lonely and avoiding stuff in her own life and doesn’t want to be alone. The nature of her relationship with Scott starts of very adversarial but does shift – not necessarily to a romance – neither of them is ready for that. I appreciate your insights as it helps to hear how they come across to others – there has been a lot that comes earlier that would put some context around that, but you have helped me to know what editing is needed to portray them the way they should be portrayed. Faure is a paedophile from whose clutches the protagonist has rescued Ash and he is trying to help her rather than hand her over to the authorities which is what he is hiding from Harlow. I am very much at first draft stage with lots of editing, re-writing and polishing to do. Thanks for the feedback, it helps.

      • Eliza Worner says:

        Ah I thought Ash was his daughter, but knowing that they’re not related changes things.

        How long have they been together? Ash is certainly very comfortable and familial with Scott.

        Isn’t Scott worried at all that Ash will accidentally reveal to Harlow that she isn’t Scott’s daughter? Why is Scott comfortable leaving them alone together?

        • Jennifer Eller-Kirkham says:

          Ash is very young – only around 5 or 6, and very guarded. She does not speak much. She is not really comfortable and familial with Scott – in this scene she shows affection for the first time but she has only started to really trust him and i think I over-did it and will re-think. He leaves them alone because he is trying to avoid Harlow’s questions but it is a good point that he does not want Harlow around Ash. He thinks that as she has already been with Ash for an hour, any damage that could be done has probably already been done and he knows if he sticks around, she will start asking him hard questions again. Also to some extent, he knows Harlow is going to find out the truth, it is only a matter of time. But mostly he is so freaked out by having seen Faure that he is not really thinking much about what Ash might reveal to Harlow. Most of this will be clear to the reader through previous context. I hope. But I am going to think about it a whole lot more!

  5. sam says:

    I like the voice here.
    There are moments where he dialogue is clunky, and i think this could be edited down quite a bit to distill the voice, and the story… it’s a bit ‘soupy’ as is.

    I don’t mind that i don’t REALLY know what’s going on in this scene, cause i understand i have no context…

    but the voice is good, and most of the plotting and staging moves nicely… but i would edit this down more.

  6. johnsonofdaw says:

    You can write beautifully, well chosen and described details and similes, e.g. “with more flowers than an Indian Prime Minister but it was better than turning it into a burning hot tin can. The summer heat had settled on Johannesburg like water seeping into a sinking ship, filling up the empty spaces, driving out the air. I stepped out of the car onto a carpet of slimy, blue flowers and was stung on the calf by a bee.”

    I’m intrigued by the relationships, some I suspected before you explained them, which indicates, I think, that you hit the right note. You deal with dangerous and complex interrelationships which is the stuff of tension and suspense, don’t back off to make us more comfortable, it’s the discomfort of values on the brink that creates drama and compels us to read on. I don’t know whether I would enjoy your book but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t forget it.

    But didn’t you, the first person narrator, start your story as a woman? Did you have a sex change, or If you have multiple narrators how did you make the switch?

  7. Jennifer Eller-Kirkham says:

    I so appreciate your comments, Johnson. This writing thing is so hard, I need the feedback and appreciate the really harsh criticism as it can only make my writing better, but I must admit to having moments today of thinking I should keep my day job and forget it. So I really appreciate your encouragement.
    You are correct – my opening chapter was actually in Harlow’s voice. The book alternates between two voices – that of Scott and Harlow. She suffers a violent attack and he rescues a child. And consequences ripple out from those events. The themes are around how a violent society impacts on the individuals within it. Having gotten some feedback on the Harlow piece, I wanted to get some feedback on how Scott’s voice comes across, and I have gained some great insights here. I want to keep the tension, suspense, complexity and get rid of anything that is pulpy or soupy or does not ring true. I have a long way to go but I am loving (mostly) the journey. Thanks for your feedback, I will look for your piece so that I can return reciprocate.

  8. Belinda Rimmer says:

    I liked your writing. It had the feel of a detective novel, somehow. So I was surprised that the protagonist was the one being watched, the one who’s behavior was under suspicion. Harlow as a social worker didn’t quite work for me. I think more interaction between her and Ash might have clarified this more. Even if she was off duty, I think Harlow would be using that time through exploratory play etc. to find things out. I was left wondering why the protagonist was living in guarded accommodation. Overall, this section drew me and and prompted lots of questions. i’d definitely read on on to find out the answers.

    • Jennifer Eller-Kirkham says:

      Thanks for that feedback, Belinda. That is a good point about the interaction between Harlow and Ash. It is something that has been niggling at me and I will work on. A lot of your questions are answered earlier in the book.

  9. Arlene says:

    I like the mystery angle of what is going on in the story, and I would read more to find out what is actually happening. Perhaps you could do more showing than telling with other parts of the story.

    • Jennifer Eller-Kirkham says:

      I am aware I need to work on that area. However, I also think we obsess too much on showing not telling. If a writer tells a good story, it can work just fine in parts. I just read A Little Life which was 700 pages of a lot of telling over showing and it has been long listed for the Booker Prize. I am going to continue to try to show rather than tell wherever I can, but I have decided not to obsess over every sentence. Would be interested in others’ thoughts.

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