As discussed in the preceding post, I wanted to see how far I could trim the word count on my prologue whilst retaining the spirit of the piece. I got it from 1700 words down to 1200, and I don’t think it loses much. Which is astonishing, a little worrying, but ultimately encouraging (since I want to do another edit anyway). You can read the original version here.
What do you think? Is this version as good? Is it better? I’d love to hear your opinions.
However, it has taken four or five hours to edit 1700 words, so… (come on, brain, you can do maths…), that means I’m looking at another 275 hours of extreme editing… Ouch <:-o
30 years ago…
Catherine ran through tall grasses, the dry stems whispering past her legs. She scrambled over a fallen-down wall, and followed the ridge down towards the trees.
“Last game,” warned her sister Ellie from the stone circle behind her. “I want to read my book. And it’s too hot for running around.”
Catherine didn’t answer. At the edge of the trees, she ducked beneath a broken fence, and carried on running, sandalled feet thumping on the dry earth. She plunged through carpets of bluebells, past pale, papery birch trunks. The sunlight grew muted and greenish, filtered through new spring leaves.
She ran until she reached a gnarled and hollow oak. She crawled inside, wriggling round, and pressing her back up against the dry wood. Then she waited.
She watched spiders idling in their thick webs, a millipede questing blindly against her sandal. Her breath seemed loud in the still, musty air.
Ellie would never find her, she was quite certain. Her sister was almost 16, more interested in lipstick and fashion magazines than rummaging around with dirt and creepy crawlies. Smiling to herself, Catherine reached above her head, gathering cobwebs around a stick, like candy floss. The spiders scattered, and showers of dust and dead leaves rained down into her upturned face.
She heard a soft, grass-muffled footfall from beyond the tree, but was too late to hold back a dry cough. Still as stone, she waited, ears straining for a further sound. There was none for a moment, as though outside Ellie also stood still, waiting. Then – another footfall, light and delicate. She was near. Catherine held her breath, ignoring the tickle of a spider web across her arm.
So close it sounded as though it came from the dark interior of the tree above her, “I hear you.” Hoarse and cracked, and soft as wind soughing through dry leaves, it was not Ellie’s voice.
The blood beat heavy behind Catherine’s ears. There was a sound like little bubbles popping. A sudden pressure behind her eyes made her gasp with pain, burying her face in her knees.
As quickly as it came, the pressure lifted. Catherine cautiously raised her head, looking out across the clearing. There was a soft, low sigh, and a dark figure filled the sunlit gap. She had an impression of long, ratty hair, ragged clothes, blunt fingers reaching towards her. She lunged forward, bowling the figure over.
Catherine pelted into the trees. She ran headlong through stands of nettles, stumbled on fallen branches, regained her feet and pushed on – never daring to look back for the ragged stranger.
Reaching the low wall at the edge of the trees, she climbed and jumped, hardly noticing the barbed wire catch at her ankle. She fell awkwardly, twisting round to gaze up at the serene blue sky.
She climbed slowly to her feet, peering back into the quiet, dappled woods. No dark figure pursued her. She backed up the hillside towards the stone circle, sunshine slick and heavy on her skin.
“ELLIE!” she yelled.
There was no answer but birdsong and the lazy chirring of insects. Catherine called again. She thought of Ellie alone in the woods, searching for her, unaware of the shadowy stranger. She ought to warn her. But her skin prickled to think of encountering the ragged man again. She called again, and her throat felt raw.
As she hesitated, a gentle breeze whispered past her ears. The sweat cooled on her forehead. She could see their house from there, down on the edge of town. It all looked so normal and safe and reliable. Catherine began to wonder if perhaps she had overreacted. She’d seen a tramp in the woods. He was probably just looking for somewhere to crash out. She probably scared him more than he scared her – bowling past him like that. Ellie must have got bored when she couldn’t find her, and simply gone home.
She tried not to think about the quiet, insistent way the man said, I hear you. It didn’t mean anything. Everyone knew tramps were crazy. Otherwise they’d live in houses and have jobs. Catherine hurried down the hillside towards home, telling herself that when she got there she would find Ellie already sitting on the sofa, eating the cake mum had promised to make.
But when she reached home Ellie was not there, and mum had not seen her. Mum said Ellie would be over at one of her friends’ houses, and she’d turn up in good time. She told Catherine not to be silly, and gave her a thick slice of chocolate cake, still steaming from the oven. She phoned round Ellie’s friends, but none of them had seen her.
“I’d better go and find her,” she told Catherine. “Stay here. Listen for the phone. You can guarantee she’ll call as soon as I’m out of the house.”
It was an hour before she returned. “Did she call?” she asked, and Catherine shook her head. Mum’s face seemed to fold in on itself then. She made Catherine tell again everything that had happened, especially about the tramp. Dad got home from work, and he and mum spoke quietly in the kitchen, the door closed behind them.
Dad’s face was stony as he pulled on his boots and went out to the woods to look again. Mum sat quietly for a moment, then she phoned the police.
When dad came back, the police were already there. A female officer listened carefully as Catherine told her about the hollow tree and the tramp. “Sounds like you’ve had a fright,” she told Catherine. To mum, she said, “I’m sure your daughter will turn up. Nine times out of ten, they’re over at a friend’s house, completely oblivious of the worry they’re causing.”
Gran came over and sat with Catherine while mum and dad, Mr and Mrs Next Door and all the police officers went out again to search for Ellie. It was dark when they returned, and Catherine had been asleep on the sofa, snuggled up to gran’s side. Mum hugged her and she and dad both told her how much they loved her. Mum said to go to bed and everything would be alright. But she cried while she said it.
A photo of Ellie was sent to the local papers and made into posters and put up all around town. The tramp was found sleeping in woodland some miles away. He resisted being taken in for questioning, lashing out at anyone who touched him. Things looked bad for him when he was found to be wearing Ellie’s sunglasses – until they were taken from him, revealing a blind and mutilated face.
Horrified by the ragged scars where his eyes should have been, the police asked the man what had happened to him. He told them nothing, and was eventually sent to a psychiatric hospital. But he removed himself the same night, preferring to sleep rough and scavenge for food. It was remarkable how well he was able to move around, all the while muttering to himself, in little pops and whistles.