Chapter three – A spider's path

About Forums Den of Writers Critiques Chapter three – A spider's path

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    Sophie Jonas-Hill

    This is when the two characters from the start of the book, meet.

    How does this grab you?



    The late afternoon sea is calm, the tide low, and the shingle under the pier salt stinking and clicking with water. The sky is the same shade of grey as the sea, so that the pier seems to stretch not towards the water but into a soft, ashen void, the cafe overlooking it a dimly lit lighthouse.
    The tea in his cup has gone cold. He’s alone there but for the woman behind the counter who served his all day breakfast; she’s already cleared his plate, busied herself washing up, cleaning her stove, wiped the counter and now she’s nothing left to do. She’s standing now working a tea towel into a mug, round and round long after it must be dry, staring out to sea. Her skin is sandy, made darker by thick layers of freckles, a fall of autumn leaves across forehead, eye lids, nose, mouth; interrupted by puckered skin on her right cheek, made more striking by paler hair than her dark roots.
    Before she looks and sees him looking, he glances back down at his phone then out of the window. The cafe is perched so as to offer an almost panoramic view of the concrete storm bank built out to sea and the distant, ethereal host of a wind-farm. It must be glorious during a high tide, he thinks, with the whole place singing with the wind and the windows booming with sounds and spray. If he were alone he’d get up and go right up to the window and press his forehead to the glass, so that all he could see would be the water and the sky, as if he were floating in space. He’d like to do that, would like to feel he were cut loose from everything, a gull caught on an updraft a moment before he was sent skyward.
    He gets up, chair groaning against the floor, the noise bringing him back to himself. He collects his phone, check his pockets out of habit, counting down through a familiar ritual before he can leave the table. Then he picks up his half empty cup and takes it to the counter.
    The women comes out of her stare and focuses on him. He doesn’t need to return his cup, most people would just leave it where they’d been sitting, he knows that.
    ‘Thanks,’ she says when he puts the cup down on her counter. The display shelves underneath are empty but for a large cake wrapped in cellophane. There are piles of leaflets on the top advertising local events and restaurants, art classes and dog walkers. The walls of the kitchen are white tiled and clean, the large ‘Specials’ board has been wiped clean, nothing special for today.
    ‘Great view,’ he says. The woman picks up his cup. ‘Must be popular with tourists, you know, panorama like that?’
    ‘Yeah,’ she says, raising her eyebrow. ‘You were lucky to get a seat. Five pounds fifty, when you’re ready.’
    ‘What? Oh, sure–’ He gets his wallet out of his jacket, which catches on the lining, which means he has to put his phone on the counter to get his other hand free to work it loose. The woman takes his cup over to the sink and when she comes back to him, he’s counting out his small change – ‘Sure you’d rather have the right money, I need to get rid of some of this bloody shrapnel anyway, weighing me down.’ He smiles. She doesn’t smile back. ‘Okay -‘ he slides the coins towards her one by one. ‘Okay – so, that’s three, three-fifty, three-seventy and …oh, right – that’s – that’s not enough, is it? Okay, I know I’ve got a tenner here as well–’
    ‘That’s lucky,’ she says. ‘Save you washing up.’
    ‘Do you want the fifty-pence?’ he asks, holding it out to her.
    ‘Cheers,’ she says, counts out his change, puts it on the counter. She wears a large silver pendant on a chain about her neck, a letter ‘L’ surrounded by a design of flowers.
    ‘Thanks, listen, do you – do you live around here? I mean, have you always lived around here, are you local?’
    ‘Suppose so.’
    ‘Cool, well, I don’t suppose … well, you wouldn’t,’ he starts to slip his change into his hand; five pound coins to add to his shrapnel, ‘you wouldn’t know of any work going? Not sure how long I’m staying yet, but just something casual might be good, help me stick around a bit longer?’
    ‘It’s October,’ she says. ‘End of season.’
    ‘Oh– I’m up for anything, not proud me. Been in the army, queen an’ country and’ that – turn my hand to pretty much anything.’ He shrugs his shoulders under his jacket, finds he’s trying to mime holding a machine gun as if that might impress her as to his suitability as an odd job man, all of which she watches impassive as a sphinx. ‘You know, not proud, honest as the day is long, promise. Been taking a look around, see if I can find something now I’m on the ground, like, but you can’t beat a bit of local knowledge, can you? Put in a word–’
    ‘End of season, mate.’ She frowns. ‘That where you got that scratch, then?’
    ‘Scratch?’ His hand flinches to his cheek. ‘That? It’s nothing.’ He moves the hand to hold the back of his neck, trying to make the gesture a casual one. ‘Just, you know, like I said, taking a look around the other night, getting the lie of the land. Stupid, really,’ he lets the hand drop. ‘Got myself a bit lost taking a short cut, stumbled into some crazy old place in the woods, you know the ones–’ he turns to look back over his shoulder, all the way down the pier, past the sea front, past where the cluttered Victorian streets stretch into suburbs that become the coast road, bounded by woodland and industrial estates. ‘Big old place all shut up, over grown with weeds an’ shit. Spooked m’self good and proper tryin’ to–’
    ‘Wouldn’t go up there,’ she says.
    ‘You goanna tell me it’s haunted or something?’ He grins, but she’s not smiling and his grin fades. ‘You’re serious, it’s a haunted house?’
    ‘You tell me,’ she says. ‘You were there.’
    ‘It was a bit lonely, sure, but … what? Headless horseman, is it? No, wait, it’s always some women, innit, like in a grey dress or something, that it? Sweet, you’ve got to love a ghost story. What’s the–’
    ‘Look, I don’t mean to rude or nothing, but this time of year I close at four, an’ it’s quarter past already.’
    ‘Oh, sure, I’ll get out of your way, an’ thanks, you know, for the tea an’ that.’
    ‘So, I’ll see you round maybe–’ he squints at the pendant again, makes a guess at ‘Louise?’
    ‘What?’ Then she sees where he’s looking and touches the pendant, take it in her fist as if hiding it from him.
    ‘Just a guess, like, I seen your L? Not Louise, then, is it … Lucy, or Laura, maybe–’
    He holds up a hand in a half surrender, wincing at her reaction. ‘Shit, sorry, I didn’t mean to, like, piss you off or nothing? I’ll, look, I’ll … I’ll just let you close up, pop by another time, you know, when you’re not so rushed of your feet, yeah?’ He manages a wave before thrusting his hand into his pocket, the one not already stuffed with phone and wallet, then turns for the door. ‘So….I’ll see you round then, if that’s–’
    ‘It’s Lorelei,’ she says. She’s still holding the pendant, pulling it against its chain as if testing when it might break. ‘The L’s for Lorelei.’
    ‘Mark,’ he says. ‘My name’s Mark.’ She nods.
    The sharp edge of the breeze tingles the scratch on his cheek tingling and drags water from his eyes as he leaves the shelter of the cafe. Head down he walks past a sentry box row of closed up booths and a carousel of diminutive dolphins, shackled to the pillars of their ride least they swim away with the high tide. There’s a man coming towards him with an elderly dog, bow legged but eager, and the scream of gulls and the sigh and hush of the water. He waits until he’s past the dog walker before letting out the breath he’s been holding.
    ‘Fucking clumsy,’ he mutters, letting the salt wind take his words. ‘Idiot-‘ though he allows a smile to touch the edge of his mouth.



    I can really see this place, this off-season clifftop eatery, can hear the lonely squawk of gulls and the crush-thump of incoming waves. The atmosphere of near-total stillness in the cafe is well-depicted. And you’ve got some great lines in here, particularly around the descriptions:

    “a fall of autumn leaves across forehead, eye lids, nose, mouth; interrupted by puckered skin on her right cheek”
    “impassive as a sphinx.”

    Some of the lines I wasn’t quite sute how to process, though. Eg:

    “the shingle under the pier salt stinking and clicking with water.” This is 2 senses being invoked side by side, but it doesn’t quite work for me. I wouldn’t necessarily think of shingle as something that smells so maybe stick to evoking the auditory, anmd invoke smell elsewhere.

    “The sharp edge of the breeze tingles the scratch on his cheek tingling and drags water from his eyes as he leaves the shelter of the cafe.”
    I tripped up on the tinglings here. I suspect one should have been deleted 🙂 Does he smile here? Is this why you included it? If so, I like it, because it subtly shows they have made a conncetion. If not, maybe he should?

    I did initially think the pace was going to be a little too slow, with lots of descriptions of “things being” rather than “things doing”, and the focus being on very kitchen-sink stuff like washing up, but on finishing I thought it worked. Those slow turns of the cloth in the coffee mug do show character.

    And I did enjoy the characters – a close-lipped pair, aren’t they? I like the way that you show their undemonstrative exterior, particularly hers, let in the tiniest bit of light when he attempts to guess her name. Anyway, hope this all helps. Ignore if it doesn’t work for you. Good luck 🙂

    • This reply was modified 3 years ago by Jonathan.
    • This reply was modified 3 years ago by Jonathan.
    Sophie Jonas-Hill

    Thank you, really helpful stuff – especially the double tingle spot – it’s amazing how much you can read things and not see them!
    This brings the two characters together for the first time, and it is quite still, I agree, because she’s trying to hold a status quo, and he’s putting on a front, so they’re both in a state of tension in a way, which you have seen, so hopefully it’s getting to where I want it to be. The smile too, yes he should certainly smile – thank you!

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