Wilderness (Chapter 1) by Peter Beere

Thanks to Peter Beere for sending in a submission for the blog.  This is chapter 1 of his thriller, Wilderness.  Peter is hoping to come along to meetings in the near future, so this is a great opportunity to find out about his writing before we meet him.  It would be great if as many as possible could let him have some balanced feedback.  Thanks, guys.

desert

Hotter than hell.

It was hotter than hell when the car gave out. Hottest day of the year. Forty miles from the coast. Hottest day since the God knows for how long.

I sat in the bright-pink Cadillac convertible, gazing on a landscape beleaguered by heat. There was nothing much moving. Precious little made a sound. Even the bugs in the air seemed bewildered.

Half an hour before noon with the temperature rising.

I have known better days over the years.

*

I pushed the car’s door open, swung my legs out, watched as a fine grey dust settled over my shoes. I was wearing a candy-striped sport shirt by Tom Ford, Brioni trousers, off-white, and light tan loafers of hand-stitched Italian calfskin. It was perfect lightweight summer gear and still immaculate despite the conditions. I wanted to keep it that way, I don’t favour unkempt. But the dust eyed with malice my composure.

I stretched across the car for the cigarettes, lit myself a Dunhill. The smoke was so torpid it found nowhere to go and simply merged with the general miasma. I stared at the road ahead. Narrow dual-track, asphalted, pale with dust, running straight as a die to a hazy distance. Behind me was exactly the same.

On either side lay ‘the countryside’. Baked. Faded. Desiccate. Tangled verges frosted with dust; overgrown ditches like tableaux of battles between rapacious, ravening, strangling weeds, thin and sticky, persistent and remorseless. A few trees behind them. Nothing special. Nothing tall, with grace or stateliness. Short, stunted, twisted, lopped: hazel, blackthorn, hawthorn, hornbeam.

Beyond the trees sprawled parched tracts, level acres, flatter than flat, partitioned by irregular knotted hedges, dried-out ditches, squatting banks. For vast distances they seemed to spread, on and on until they blurred into nothing. Scorched pasturage. Patchy fields of fine dark earth, ploughed or unploughed, bare of growth. Not much livestock, little in the way of crops.

Over it all hung the scarcely noticeable sound of insects droning. Crickets chirping. The occasional lonely call of a distant bird.

There was not a breath of breeze on my face. There was not a flicker of a shadow on my skin.

I ground the cigarette under my heel and turned my attention to the car.

It was not going anywhere. The Eldorado had expired with the jarring finality of the truly fucked-up. It had not barked or coughed or whimpered or squealed; it had simply switched itself off and cruised out. I went through the motions of popping the hood and squinting at the engine, but what I know about cars can be written on a fuel cap.

I had not passed another vehicle in more than an hour.

*

The problem is the heat. The heat and the situation. The heat and the object in the trunk. I cannot have the vehicle standing baking in the sun, nor can I leave it unattended. Which means my options are limited, and the time factor is pressing. And I have already lingered too long.

I take my phone from my breast pocket for the eight-thousandth time and it is still as dead as it has been for the last three hours. It is a phone that can probably hack its way into the Pentagon’s computers, but today can’t find a fucking connection.

The poor thing has probably exhausted itself. I fling it gently onto the back seat of the car.

I strain through the heat haze and the blurry vegetation and it looks like five or six hundred yards up ahead is the start of a village, a small town or some such, which is really where my car needs to be. Somewhere out of the sun. In the shade of a building. Having its ailing heart fixed by mechanics.

A 1975 Cadillac Eldorado weighs about 4000 pounds. Plus what you have in the trunk. The force required to get such a beast moving, to overcome inertia, gravity, friction, settlement, dragging and general resistance, is something in the region of – Christ knows. I weigh in at 165 pounds. But that village will not come to me.

I walk round to the rear of the car and face away from it, back the way I’ve come. I take a few breaths and tell myself I’m cool. I flex a bit, settle down into a crouch. Wedge my back, plant my feet, brace my legs, wipe my palms, clear my throat, spread my arms, get a grip on anything that I can get a grip on, then my body takes up the slack – feeling the weight of it, the bulk, the solidity, the implacable stubbornness of steel.

I am not a strong man. I am a fit man, I’m okay, I’m better than average, but at the same time a third of a mile’s a hell of a distance and the only way I can see to make this thing happen is to do it in stages, to push a bit, rest a bit, push a bit, rest a bit, keep up the rhythm but don’t feel you have to go, keep up a rhythm and pause it.

What I know in advance is that I have to keep breathing. That’s where people go wrong, they forget their own breathing then wonder why they’ve gasped out and passed out. The breathing is the key. You focus your mind but you switch off your thinking. I pick out a point in the sky and I focus, I’m thinking of nothing, I’m breathing, I’m pushing; the car weighs a ton but I’m breathing, I’m pushing – I focus, I watch it, I see the stars spinning but I don’t care I just keep on pushing.

For time after time. Through shunt after shunt. I’m doing it maybe thirty yards at a stretch, but I don’t stop, I take a pause, focus and don’t think, then tighten and push some more, thirty more damn yards and each time I’m closing in, moving in closer, though, goddamn, thirty yards is a push.

I notice at some point that I’m passing a road sign – it’s easing its way past me like it doesn’t want to be seen – it’s rusted and snapped-off and all that remains is – it looks like this place is called ‘Hell’.

I can certainly believe that. I wouldn’t argue against it.

Not while I’m pushing a car that weighs a bitch.

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11 thoughts on “Wilderness (Chapter 1) by Peter Beere

  1. It’s a great start, but I think it works best when the protagonist is really speaking. He’s got a great, hard-boiled style. Is he American? It definitely feels like America, as others have said, or the protag lives in a bit of a fantasy world and narrates his story as if he’s on a US roadtrip. That would be cool, but I think you have to establish him as an unreliable narrator or make it clearer. He uses pounds and other Americanisms and I think we need to know why, sooner rather than later.

    I’m intrigued by the thing in the trunk – Pulp Fiction style. And the character is intriguing enough to keep me reading.

    There is a little bit too much description of the hot, dry landscape. For instance, I don’t think you need ‘torpid’ and ‘miasma’ in one sentence. There are three paragraphs dedicated to the dry countryside, which are a bit list-like. It might be worth cutting it down to keep the pace up. If you do want to dwell on the landscape, which can work as an opening, read the opening of Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck. He lingers on a vista to great effect and it may be the style you’re going for.

    One thing – why does it change to present tense in the last section, when he’s pushing the car? If the earlier bit is a flashback, it needs to begin ‘It had been hot as hell…’ – using past perfect tense (‘had’) is an indicator of a flashback.

    All that said, I like it and would read on.

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    • I think if you established him as an unreliable narrator in the first three pages, that would undermine everything that comes later! (We’ll just have to view it as his world-view.)

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      • (The tense-change thing is a grammatical construct. It’s like anacoluthon but not quite that (can’t quite remember the correct term for it) where people, when speaking, in order to emphasise the drama, will shift from the past to the present tense. (We all do it in everyday conversation.))

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    • It’s one of the differences between third-person writing and first-person (obviously). You couldn’t get away with it if it was third-person!

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  2. Well I was definitely in America and it was across the language, not just the environment. E.g. his clothes, the trunk, weight in pounds, goddamn. Your style is very poetic – interesting after our conversation earlier. Forgive me if I say the MC seemed a bit recognisable at first. That said, there was a definite atmosphere and purpose and I would keep reading to know more.

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  3. This is a good piece of writing, Peter. It has a distinct style and, even in this short sample, the MC’s character is already coming through.

    One point about making your work too stylistic, though, is it can trip a reader up, at least until they get used to it. But don’t take that too hard because my High Tide in the City is quite stylistic, and started out a lot more so. I found that by the time I got half-way through writing it, the style had settled down and I could go back and tone down the beginning to make it consistent all the way through. So for now just go with it and see where it takes you.

    I liked the description and the sense of desolation. As you can see (by the image I chose), I got the same impression as Paul that it was set in one of the US hot states, so maybe that’s something to look at. Nice sense of intrigue and I definitely wanted to read more.

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  4. Thank you for that, Paul. I really appreciate you taking the time to comment, and entirely take on board and understand what you say.
    The location is actually a fictional Lincolnshire! The ‘Americanisations’ and the Cadillac are more a reflection of the character’s self-image. I wanted to set it in a kind of everyman equivalent of a landscape – so that people reading it in Sweden might think ‘That could be Sweden’. Or in Ohio might think ‘That could be Ohio’. And I suppose, in my mind, because of the way the tale will develop, I don’t mind that initially ‘unbalancing’ aspect. But I understand exactly what you mean – and may reconsider.
    The only 2 places that will be specifically named in the book will be this approaching village (which isn’t actually called ‘Hell’, it’s ‘Helle-Gbord’ – but half of the sign got shot off) – and Brussels, which will appear around the middle of the novel, if I ever get that far.
    The main problem I have with writing is lack of confidence. So I look for encouragement. And you have given me quite a lot. Thank you.

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  5. I like that. There are a few grammary tweaks that I tripped over, but I’m guessing this is an early draft. The style is good. Love the mystery of what’s in the boot. Was bothered by where we are, if its the US are the trees right? (Know it sounds picky, but I tripped on it.) Not that those aren’t trees you find in the US, but could you pick *more* American plant-life (cotton-woods, peyote – whatever grows where you’re meant to be). Also, here’s a weird one, I had to go back and check the character wasn’t a woman, when the car-pushing thing turned up.

    I liked knowing the weight of the car 🙂 (but you undermine yourself later on by saying it weighs a ton!).
    I loved the language – ‘the implaccable stubborness of steel’ – ‘the finality of the truly fucked-up’.

    As a reader I want to know more about the charater now. What can he do with that phone? What’s in the boot? How did he get there?

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    • (I was almost trying to use the confusing location as part of the ‘intrigue’. If you know what I mean.
      Although I recognise that it might not work!)

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