On the 26th of September, the Echo reports that Comma claimed the murder of Ian Crampton, Isabel overhears Mortimer and Grace talking about her, and Nick invites Isabel to go clubbing with him.
Of these three scenes, Mortimer and Grace’s conversation is the oldest: a version of it existed way back in the first draft. I like finding scenes like that, even when they’ve changed significantly, because it reminds me that no matter how completely I rewrote this book, it is still at its core the book I wrote in 2014. I was onto something – I just needed to refine it a lot before it got to this point.
In the first draft, the scene happened slightly earlier in the book, before Isabel gets sick, and there was, of course, no mention of Ian Crampton, since he didn’t exist at that stage:
She’s only a corridor away from the library, so it’s a matter of moments before she pushes open the door. Graham’s in the small office to the left of the entrance, deep in conversation with somebody. Alarmed, Isabel makes sure she’s not in sight, and tries to make out the gist of their conversation.
“The kid sliced her thumb open and barely even blinked.” It’s Mortimer, she realises. They’re talking about me.
“So she’s tough. What does that matter?”
“Don’t pretend you’re not always the one to befriend the troubled kids. She’ll have been up here half a dozen times already, I’ll bet.”
“Even if she had, it’s not my place to tell you anything she hasn’t told you.”
“You’re infuriating, Graham.”
There’s a major difference between the first version of this scene and the final version, though, and that’s Mortimer’s attitude. In the first draft, he was suspicious of Isabel:
Graham sounds bored. “In fact, she’s meant to be here any moment, so if you really want to know, why don’t you ask her yourself? I’m sure she’ll be delighted to tell you all her secrets if you only ask enough times.”
Mortimer doesn’t miss the sarcasm. “She worries me.”
“She worries you?”
“There’s something odd about her.”
“There I was thinking you were asking out of concern for her welfare. She’s a sixteen-year-old girl, Mortimer. If that’s enough to scare you, maybe you’re in the wrong profession. I didn’t realise teaching was high-risk these days.”
All three of them know that teaching’s the safest job there is, at least while Comma and Hummingbird hold back from hiring teenagers. “You’ll regret laughing at me when you realise what I mean,” says Mortimer, and storms out of the office.
In the final version, he’s similarly suspicious that her story doesn’t add up, but he’s concerned for her, worried that she’s in up to her neck in guild trouble and that it’s going to result in her getting hurt. This is partly that I never intended Mortimer to be such a significant, sympathetic character in the first draft, so didn’t particularly work to make him likeable in his early scenes. It’s also because, as I mentioned before, the more I started to understand Isabel’s trauma and background, the more I realised what kind of behaviour would send her running for the hills, and there was definitely no way she’d ever have trusted the first draft version of Mortimer.
In this conversation, we also have a tiny bit more worldbuilding – a reference to rumours about the spons which suggests that even Esperans don’t necessarily know what’s going on in their own city, especially when it comes to the guild-sponsored schools. This is something that always interests me in books – how much do characters know about their world? I couldn’t explain how everything works in the real world, especially if it’s not something I’ve experienced first-hand. There’s a lot that Isabel doesn’t understand about the economy, so it’s never going to be on the page, and the only reason she knows how guild-sponsored schools work is because she attended one.
Grace tells us that the guilds only start interfering with the kids’ education in sixth year, and that tallies with what Isabel told us before about the subjects she would have been doing for Level Three if she’d stayed at Linnaeus. It does beg the question of how Grace knows that, though – is she simply better informed about Espera’s education system, or does she have some personal experience?
We already know, from the introductory scene with Graham and from Grace’s later remarks in the published version of the book, that Grace’s family were Hummingbird. Exactly what kind of school Grace went to isn’t something I’ve delved into, but you could take her knowledge here as a sign of personal experience…
…or you could read it as librarians talking to other librarians, and her being clued into the educational system in a purely professional capacity. Up to you.
The only other small worldbuilding detail we’re given in this chapter, really, is Nick’s invitation to go to an underage club night in Weaverthorpe – a Comma borough, as Isabel notes, when trying to decide whether or not to accept. As I said in one of the first posts in this series, all of the boroughs in Espera are named after real villages and placenames in the area, but their guild affiliations don’t follow any particular pattern. Some of them even share borders with their rivals.
I didn’t delve into the logistics of this, but I have to say, I think I’d enjoy a sitcom about two Esperan neighbours living in adjacent houses with the borough border running straight through their house. Both of them believe their neighbour is a guild agent for the rival guild, and is trying to get them to give themselves away; in fact, they’re both low-level adjacent workers with no guild secrets to spill even if they wanted to, but they’re both convinced that’s the other person’s cover story. Shenanigans ensure. If you would like to write this fic, you are extremely welcome to do so.
That’s more or less it for this half-chapter – an eventful day for Isabel, but a light one for us. So it’s time for your thoughts. Did Mortimer’s concern for Isabel here make him seem more or less suspicious as a character? At this point of the book, does he seem like a potential ally, or like an antagonist?
As always, leave any and all thoughts and questions in the comments, and I’ll be delighted to chat with you.