On the 2nd of October, Grace gives Isabel the antidote to the memory suppressant. They talk a little about Mortimer, and whether or not he poses a threat, and Isabel wonders exactly how deep in Grace’s debt she’s going to be.
Since the previous chapter didn’t exist in any of the early drafts, neither did this scene, although Isabel did, at one point in the first draft, discuss Mortimer with Graham:
“Mortimer’s more perceptive than most people.”
“Yeah, he is.”
“You shouldn’t trust him.”
“I don’t. I don’t trust you either. That doesn’t mean I won’t accept your help.”
(A classic taste of how much of the first draft was pure dialogue with no dialogue tags. This is often the case with my first drafts, but when you take a scene out of context, it makes it very hard to figure out who is speaking. This one is Graham – Isabel – Graham – Isabel, ftr.)
There’s a slightly more readable version of this in Draft IV:
“Oh.” Warily, Isabel allows Grace to take her arm again, and they make slow progress down the corridor towards the medical room. “Mortimer knows about you, you know.”
“You told him?”
“He already knew. He says you’re bad at hiding it.”
“Mortimer’s more perceptive than most people.” A moment of silence. “You shouldn’t trust him.”
She thinks Grace probably smiles at that, but she can’t see her face from this angle. “I’m sorry this has happened to you, Isabel,” says the librarian eventually, and Isabel has no idea how to respond to that.
We can see that Grace and Mortimer are on friendlier terms in the late drafts than they were earlier on, but that’s mostly because I gave them actual characterisation, and also because Grace is no longer affiliated with Hummingbird the way that Graham was. Mortimer isn’t aware that Grace is a freelance poisoner, but if he was, the fact that she specialises in antidotes and nonlethals would probably reconcile him to that information, even if it would initially be a shock. On the whole, though, he’d struggle to be friendly with a guild member – Isabel becoming a notable exception to that. His suspicion that Grace was/had been a poisoner in the early drafts was a big part of the tension between the pair of them.
Come Draft VI, Grace was a poisoner, Mortimer didn’t know but suspected, and we were creeping towards a recognisable version of this scene, but we still didn’t have my favourite moment, a version of which showed up in 2020:
“He doesn’t know I’ve been poisoned. Or that I was trained as a child. But the rest…” She shrugs, trying to hide her discomfort. “I don’t know what he’ll do with that information. I don’t think he’s planning to do anything yet, but I can’t be sure.”
“Want me to poison him for you?” says Grace.
Isabel looks up, shocked. “No,” she says instantly. “No, of course not, that would – wait, was that a joke?”
The librarian pulls a face. “Not exactly. I mean, I’d rather not. Despite his many flaws, I do actually like Mortimer. But if you’d asked, I’d have considered it. Something nasty but nonlethal.”
Want me to poison him for you? I love Grace in this moment. This is the moment we realise she’s switched from a threat to Isabel to a genuine ally: somebody who will protect her. And Isabel has few enough of those.
There’s not much else to discuss in this chapter, so I’m going to be slightly cheeky and slip into the 3rd October, because I have a couple of sections to cover there. Since the first of them happens at 04:23am, it’s still kind of the 2nd, especially as it’s not quite dawn.
In this scene, Isabel wakes from a dream, triggered by the memory suppressant breaking down, in which she remembers creating the poison for her father. She wakes before she can remember the formula, horrified to realise she’s been, in part, the architect of her own suffering. Michael, suffering his own nightmares, calls her, and the two have a late-night call, solidarity in the face of mutual trauma.
There are two things I want to say about this section.
Firstly, that it was important to me that Isabel was at least partially implicated in her own suffering. It’s pretty clear that the poison wasn’t her idea, and nobody else would hold her responsible for creating it, or think that she deserved to suffer as a result – but Isabel does, to a certain extent, see it that way. She doesn’t consider herself blameless, and this moment creates ambiguity (to her) about the extent to which she’s a victim.
When I temporarily lost the use of my hands at seventeen, a lot of it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t design my own genetics and give myself hypermobility syndrome. I wasn’t the one who gave me bad medical advice and worsened what might otherwise have been a smaller issue. I didn’t create the school system that pushed me to try and overachieve.
I did, however, write 700,000 words of fiction in eight months while doing my AS Levels, writing for three blogs, preparing for grade eight flute and violin, and playing in half a dozen musical ensembles. Repetitive Strain Injury was, as it seemed everybody wanted to tell me at the beginning, my fault.
For most people, RSI would have been temporary, if possibly recurring; for me, I became disabled, at first quite significantly. And it was my fault. I believed that. I’d overdone it, I hadn’t listened to warnings, I’d had bad posture, I’d pushed too hard, I’d done this to myself and therefore I deserved it. Did this mindset contribute to the pain sensitisation that trapped me in a cycle of chronic pain? I don’t know. But it sure didn’t help, because believing I deserved it also meant, on a deep subconscious level, that I didn’t truly believe I deserved to get better. Or that I was allowed to get better.
And then, when I got diagnosed with coeliac disease, it was after a year in which I had more or less exclusively lived on bread and pasta. (I was a first-year undergrad with limited kitchen facilities; it happens.) In other words, I’d spent a year poisoning myself. Did I know? No, of course I didn’t know. Did it make it worse? In the long term, probably not; in the short term, yes, it was the reason my antibody count was through the roof and my general health was so poor.
What mattered, though, at the time, was that I was not the blameless disabled person who had done everything right and still got sick, and was therefore worthy of sympathy. I had done everything wrong, and I had made myself sick.
In the years since then, I’ve learned two things: first, it doesn’t matter if you do everything right. This is an awful thing to have to learn, because it makes you realise that no matter how hard you try, you can’t actually protect yourself from illness, because illness is not a moral punishment and sometimes it Just Happens. Yes, even if you were good, even if you took all of your vitamins, even if you exercised, even if you rested – we are not, in the end, in control of our health, and we cannot protect ourselves from illness and injury and pain. And recognising that also doesn’t wholly take away the guilt and sense of responsibility. But it helps a little.
The second thing I learned is that it wouldn’t matter if I was fully, 100% responsible for all of my health issues: I still deserved help. I still deserved to get better.
That is, frequently, the point I am making here. Isabel is not blameless – in so many ways, she has been the cause of suffering. She is not perfect, not innocent, not untouched by her parents’ teachings. She still deserves better. She still deserves help, she still deserves to be safe, she still deserves medicine and care and friends. Because those are not conditional.
I said I wasn’t going to over-explain my motivations and thematic intentions because I want the book to stand alone, but I couldn’t help myself with this one, because this matters to me. It matters to me that Isabel isn’t innocent, and it matters to me that she still deserves better – and this is the first chapter where we really get a sense of that.
The second thing I want to say about this chapter is, you’ll be pleased to know, a little lighter in tone.
When Isabel is on the phone with Michael, he tells her that he can’t sleep because one of his roommates in the hostel where he’s staying is snoring like a rowing machine. This is drawn directly from my own personal experiences of staying in a hostel in Leeds in 2018, on my way to a job interview with the British Library in Boston Spa. Somebody in my dorm snored exactly like this: a long, noisy drag in, and then a sudden whoosh out. I had Green Day playing at top volume through my headphones and I could still hear them.
I may have hit them with a pillow. More than once. You can’t prove it. I’ll deny everything.
By the time I woke up at 7am to catch the bus out to my interview, I had not slept very much, and I was not very happy. I was also wildly unqualified for the job and, frankly, I don’t know why they interviewed me; needless to say, it didn’t work out, which is why I still live in Cambridge with its extortionate house prices, and not in Yorkshire, where less of my monthly income would go on rent. But the experience taught me something vital, and that is that some people snore like rowing machines.
I’m sorry, Michael. Nobody deserves to go through that.
Again, I have to say, I have a soft spot for the Michael we meet in this chapter. It’s clear he understands Isabel in a way that nobody else does; they’re alike, and they have shared experiences that nobody else has. This scene was another late addition to the book (really, this whole section was) – it showed up in 2020, and then almost got cut again in my autumn edits that year, but I decided the character moment was worth keeping. I’m glad I did. I think it was worth it.
What about you? Any thoughts on this chapter? How did it make you feel to realise that Isabel had helped make the poison – did it change how you viewed her and her illness? And, to keep things light, who’s the worst snorer you’ve ever had the misfortune to share a room with?