On the 24th September, Isabel goes to school, still suffering from severe and miserable stomach aches, and asks Grace Whittock for help finding a doctor. But it’s Emma who answers, giving her the number of a non-profit clinic for low-income civilians: The Sunshine Project. When Isabel’s anxiety gets the better of her, Emma helps her out by calling her brother, Leo, who volunteers at the clinic, and asking him to help Isabel get an appointment.
It’s a fairly short scene, but one that allows Emma to demonstrate her willingness to help Isabel – and her tacit understanding when Isabel’s fear gets the better of her – as well as giving us the names of two new characters, Leo and Daragh Vernant. It’s also a scene with a long history, though it’s changed considerably over the years.
In the first draft of this book, Isabel did her own research and found that Dr Vernant (originally a separate character from Daragh) was her best option for accessing healthcare. But while she was talking to Graham about it, Emma overheard, and came out from among the library shelves to contribute to the conversation – her first meeting with Isabel.
I mentioned in a previous post that the Sunshine Project (a name it only acquired in a much later draft) was, at one point in the book’s history, more focused on reproductive and sexual healthcare, and that was a focus in the earliest versions of this chapter. Isabel had made the appointment using a phone at school, since she didn’t have one of her own; the receptionists, overhearing the name of the doctor she was seeing, gave her Knowing Looks that she didn’t understand, which is what she was asking Graham about.
From the conversation that followed, in which Emma explained that her knowledge of Dr Vernant’s practice was because she’d accompanied several friends there for STI testing and similar appointments, we got a glimpse of Isabel’s sex repulsion. More than a lack of interest, in earlier drafts Isabel found the entire concept of sex distasteful, and that came across strongly in these chapters.
Isabel is, of course, asexual, but attraction ≠ action, and not all asexual people are sex-repulsed. Some are; others are indifferent or disinterested; and others are actively interested in it and may seek it out. In more recent drafts, I’ve tended to write Isabel as disinterested, with a side of bafflement that anybody finds the idea appealing, because she doesn’t really get it; I’ve downplayed the profound disgust she felt in the first draft. This is mostly due to my own more nuanced feelings about her sexuality and how I wanted to portray it, but also because it was incredibly hard to convey her own personal sex-repulsion without it straying into seeming like she was shaming others, since it was rarely her own actions she was having those feelings about.
These details also became a lot less relevant as the nature of the Sunshine Project shifted and expanded. But versions of that conversation with Emma persisted until Draft V (by which point it was no longer her first meeting with Isabel, but her second, as in this version):
“Though you might as well get tested for chlamydia while you’re there.”
“That won’t be necessary,” she says emphatically. Emma raises her eyebrows, but doesn’t press the point. “I needed a doctor’s appointment, and I’m not registered. That’s all.”
“It’s your call. And don’t worry, Dr Vernant’s legit for, like, regular stuff too.”
“You know a lot about her, Emma,” says Grace.
“Yeah, my friends always make me come with them when they fuck up.” She seems unconcerned by this, and by swearing in front of a member of staff. “Why they think I can offer moral support, I’ve no idea, but I’ve been five times. Herpes, chlamydia, pregnancy, Alice’s hormones…”
“That’s enough,” the librarian interrupts. “Spare us the details.”
Now, though, the focus is more on Isabel’s anxiety about seeking out healthcare – her fear of discovery, her past trauma creeping up on her. It gives us a glimpse of Emma’s backstory, when she mentions her sister helping her through her panic attacks, and we start to understand why she stopped to help Isabel when she was panicking in the bathroom, even though she was a stranger.
It’s also our first mention of Leo and, while he only appears very fleetingly here and in this book more generally, I do want to give a shoutout to Leo, my beloved. (For those who haven’t read it yet, he plays a much more significant role in The Hummingbird Killer, so this isn’t just me being randomly attached to a background character, I have my reasons.)
I think that’s all there is to be said about this scene, so it’s over to you. Emma is really the star of the show here, and we’re getting hints of what she’s going to mean to Isabel later on, but what did you think of her at this point? I confess, I love the ending of this chapter, and Emma threatening to fight the universe for Isabel – that showed up in around Draft VI, if I remember correctly, and I went out of my way to keep it. What about you? Any standout lines for you?