All this week, Kill Your Darlings is showcasing extracts from this year’s KYD Unpublished Manuscript Award shortlist. Designed to support the development of an early-career author, the Award offer $5000 prize money and mentorship with industry professionals. The following extract comes from Allan Drew’s shortlisted manuscript, ‘What In Me is Dark’.
Forced to leave plague-riddled London, the ageing, blind poet John Milton is dependent on his all-female family in the village of Chalfont-St Giles. Drawing inspiration from his scribe and youngest daughter, the vibrant and curious Deborah, John experiences a breakthrough in the writing of his epic poem Paradise Lost and the elusive character of Eve. As his writing proceeds, he neglects Deborah, and then treats her with contempt as she tries to extend their relationship and learn from him. Ultimately, as his family threatens to fall apart, Milton must decide between domestic fulfilment and literary greatness.
Deborah ran to Kate’s house. She swept through the door and past Kate’s mother – bent, crippled by children – and took a wide arc around Kate’s beast of a brother, who had snot crusted on his face, as always. ‘Boy!’ she yelled at him, the only greeting she ever gave, though he was at least twelve.
Deborah found her friend in the kitchen. Kate was preparing gourds, yellow and orange with dull grey skin. The one Kate had in hand was very soft – her fingers made holes in the flesh – with juice that ran pink.
‘We’re leaving,’ Deborah said.
Kate rubbed the gourd-flesh off on a rag and came to her. The girls embraced. They had no caution for the pestilence, with each other. If one were to be taken, the other would accompany her.
‘We’re to leave, too,’ said Kate.
‘Where will you go?’
‘To my cousin’s, Lady Merian’s.’
‘Where is she?’
‘Somewhere beyond Oxford,’ she said. ‘Some town I’ve never heard of.’
Deborah picked up a paring knife and they both worked the gourds. Her knife was small but the vegetables made it no match. The short blade carved through the flesh, bulbous and wet, dense in places, and wet heavy seeds littered the floor. Deborah hummed. Cooking made big things small, or slippery things sticky, or liquids solid, or cold things hot. Everything changed when it passed through a kitchen. She worked the gourds fast, and the girls made a race of it before Deborah sliced her thumb.
‘I’ve cut myself,’ she said. ‘Deep.’ She watched as the cut, firstly white, became pink, then red, and then the blood flowed watery as it mixed with the thin secretions of the squash.
Deborah hummed. Cooking made big things small, or slippery things sticky, or liquids solid, or cold things hot. Everything changed when it passed through a kitchen.
Kate took linen from a store beneath the bench and dressed the wound. Her mother was teaching her nursing, although so far only on dolls. ‘You’re my first patient,’ Kate said, and wrapped the linen. ‘Will your governess teach you this?’
‘No, she has run to the country,’ said Deborah. ‘She left me with needlework.’
‘Will she join you in – where are you to go?’
‘Chalfont-St Giles,’ said Deborah.
‘Wales?’ said Kate.
‘Ireland?’ said Deborah, quickly.
Kate finished dressing the wound. ‘India’s east,’ she said, and slapped Deborah’s wrist.
‘It’s west too,’ said Deborah, ‘if you go far enough.’ Deborah held Kate’s hand. ‘Chalfont-St Giles. Not so far, but far enough.’
‘Will you have another governess there?’ asked Kate.
‘No. I’ll have to be my own instructor.’
‘You have the mind for it,’ said Kate. She always spoke like this – as if Deborah’s mind wasn’t wasted in her body, like the fruit in a soiled jam pot. ‘Perhaps your father…?’ Kate always spoke only indirectly or incompletely of Deborah’s father, for fear that such talk might somehow summon him, like the devil.
She always spoke like this – as if Deborah’s mind wasn’t wasted in her body, like the fruit in a soiled jam pot.
‘The great John Milton? Johannes Miltonus? Instruct me?’ Deborah said. This was an ancient joke. Her father did not teach girls. Deborah laundered clothes and washed dishes and chopped the kitchen firewood and never blistered; she had calluses tougher and deeper than the minds of those pale boys, those boys who climbed the stairs on rattling knees to learn their Latin and Greek. What went on in that library? She had been in there only once with permission, and only a handful of times without. So many books. Learning was reserved for a set few, like places in Heaven for the elect. What did he turn those boys into, or turn them towards?
Deborah looked at her cut thumb. The bleeding continued, and began to stain the linen purple. The bandages were thick, and prevented her making a fist.
‘Cuts only hurt if you press them,’ Deborah said, pressing.
The girls left the gourds aside and sat on a low bench, hip to hip.
‘Do you think we shall die?’ Deborah asked. She referred to the plague.
‘If we stay here, they say we will, or some of us.’
‘Will you write to me?’ Deborah asked.
‘The great John Milton? Johannes Miltonus? Instruct me?’ Deborah said. This was an ancient joke. Her father did not teach girls.
‘Will I see you again?’ Deborah was nearly ashamed of herself, of her sudden, babyish clutching at her friend. Kate was fifteen, near two clear years older than her. But they had been friends since Deborah could walk to Kate’s house, which was before her memories began.
‘Do you think we will ever live together?’ asked Kate. She spoke of the pact they made when they were small. They hadn’t talked of their childhood plans – childish plans – for some time, although Deborah thought of them often, and believed Kate did too. When very small, they thought to marry each other; when they grew, they imagined marrying two brothers. They would wander as far as they dared, even when quite young, giggling but also intent, searching for twin boys as future suitors. They never found a set. Kate had suggested Deborah’s marrying her snotted brother, which was of course unthinkable; and besides, Deborah had no brother to offer in return – no way to close the circle.
‘I don’t know,’ Deborah said. ‘Yes.’ But even as she said it, she believed they never would, at least not until their eventual reunion in Heaven.
The winner of the 2018 KYD Unpublished Manuscript Award will be announced on 6 July.