I have just finished my second novel, “Song of the Nightingale.” The seed was sown early 2015 and I played around with the beginning over the next few years whilst I finished my first novel, but didn’t really start writing in earnest until the middle of last year, after I had sent off “The Jewel Garden” to literary agents and publishers for the second time.
I had a very clear idea of how I wanted it to start and to end and actually wrote the final paragraphs in January of this year. The detailed plotting of the middle section was made easier because I knew where all the characters needed to be and what needed to have happened to them.
I was surprised, therefore, when I actually came to the end and was just about to copy the last paragraphs from the file that had been sitting waiting all year, when I thought, “no,” this isn’t how it should end. All my characters were in the right place, all the right things had happened to them and all it needed was for the loose ends to be neatly tied up. This is how a novel should end, isn’t it?
Well, yes. But I think it does no harm to leave some ends flying in the wind. I have no intention of writing a sequel that provides the answers to the questions readers may have, I would prefer them to use their imagination.
I won’t tell you all the details, after all I would like you to read the book if it is ever published, but here is the first ending I wrote:
I sat with my legs stretched out, my boots off. Berti was playing with the wooden blocks I had made for Tabitha. He piled them up as high as his ill-coordinated, podgy hands would allow, then laughed heartily as they tumbled down. I watched, fascinated by his delight at his continuing failure. “He won’t be an engineer.”
Sofia lifted her head from kneading the bread and I sensed, rather than saw her smile. “He will be what he will be.” She turn towards me and tilted her head. “You look very comfortable, sir. Are you sure you can’t find anything more useful to do? Does il Conte not need you for anything?”
“No, he is away for the day and yes, I am indeed very comfortable, thank you.” Then it just came out, unbidden but not regretted. “I wish I could stay here always, with you and the children. Il Conte can do very well, without me; he has Roberto now to do his bidding. Perhaps it is time for us to become a proper family?”
Sofia stopped pummelling. “I have told you many times, Philippe, I will not marry you, not in a Church. Not by a priest who considers me to be a witch just because I know how to use herbs, herbs created by God Himself.”
I don’t know where the thought came from, perhaps God put it there. “I know, I know, Sofia. But we can still say our vows before God. I am sure He will still listen to us, even if we are in a field rather than a man-made building. Perhaps he will listen even more?”
Sofia stood with her hands idle, buried deep into the dough. “Really? You would do that for me? Be married only in the eyes of God? You would live and work here with me, with us?”
I frowned at her doubtful expression. “Of course! Do you doubt me? You can teach me all about herbs and how to keep chickens and goats.”
Sophia laughed excitedly. “And you can teach me and the children to read and write. I can label all the bottles properly!”
An idea suddenly came to me, or perhaps God’s hand was again guiding me. “I could teach the village children too. We could start a school!”
“We wouldn’t charge, though.”
We. How I liked the sound of that. “No, we wouldn’t charge. So, shall we do it?”
Sofia merely nodded, winked at me then turned back to her kneading.
I sprang to my feet, feeling a surge of hope and exhilaration surge through my body. “When Sofia, when?”
“Tomorrow at dawn. A new day, a new beginning. Now, entertain the children whilst I finish this baking.”
The following morning, before even the sun had risen, Sofia got the children up, then woke me and we all went outside and walked up the path to the glade in the wood. I remembered how both Berti and Tabitha had been conceived there; it seemed an appropriate place. Sofia had put some flowers in her hair but she wore her normal pinafore, having no other. She looked the most beautiful woman in the world to me.
We stood holding hands facing each other. Neither of us spoke as the sun’s rays caressed our bodies and warmed our skin. Then Sofia spoke, looking me directly in the eye.
“I, Sofia, promise, before God, before the man I love and before the children we have both created, to love and honour Philippe Augustino, every minute, of every hour, of every day, of every week, of every month, of every year, until my dying breath, and beyond. Amen”
I had written and memorised a love poem during the night, but Sofia’s simple honesty dried the fancy words in my mouth.
“I, Philippe, promise before God and the family He has blessed me with, to protect and cherish them with every fibre of my being; to respect my wife as an equal and to raise our children to love God, God’s world and God’s people.” My vision was blurred with emotion. Then I remembered to say “For ever and ever. Amen.”
Our witnesses were the children and some chickens that had followed is in the hope of being fed. Tabitha sat on the carpet of pine needles, holding Berti on her lap, who would have much preferred to go foraging amongst the roots. She had a big grin on her face and clapped when we finished our vows.
As I stood there I suddenly remembered the wood the boys and I had stopped in the night we had left il Barbiere’s after he had died, poisoned by Fabio I now knew. I could hear their angelic voices, still untrained but oh, so sublime, but then the breeze took them and wafted them up to God for one last time and it was the dawn chorus that celebrated our union.
Since writing this ending, I have written the middle of the book, which, after all is the vast majority and my understanding of the characters and even my style of writing has changed. This ending, therefore, is no longer right.
It is true that Sofia didn’t want to get married throughout the book for very good reasons, so why would she suddenly change her mind now? She may have been that sort of woman nine months ago, but not now I knew her better.
In the original ending I had Roberto take over from Philippe because then I thought Roberto was innocent and it would fit very nicely for Roberto to become il Conte’s secretary so that Philippe could leave. But by the end of the book Philippe, and the reader, is not sure which of the boys was the killer. So Roberto didn’t take over from Philippe when he left, no-one did. Does it matter if the reader doesn’t know whether il Conte managed to get a replacement secretary? Of course not!
In the original, Philippe’s decision to leave is a spur of the moment decision, in the final version, not so. It wouldn’t have been much of a change to rewrite that bit.
The main thing I no longer liked about the ending, was the sheer length of it and the description of their plans for the future. I wanted the future to be uncertain, for isn’t that what it is really? I wasn’t going to write a sequel, so I didn’t need to plan out their lives. The readers should know enough about Philippe and Sofia by the end to imagine for themselves what their future might hold.
So here is the ending I have just written:
I left the horse at the vineyard and walked home. When I arrived at the house I was tired, dishevelled and dusty and my stomach was growling with hunger. The door was open and I stood in the opening and quietly enjoyed the domestic scene before me. Sofia was kneading bread and humming tunelessly, Tabitha was building a tower of wooden bricks that Berti took great pleasure in knocking down each time.
Sofia glanced up and saw me. It was like a scene in a painting where the characters were frozen in one position for ever, the artist having caught Sofia’s expression of surprise, Tabitha’s of patience and Berti’s of sheer joy.
I heard the horse munching on the grass, the chickens clucking, the pigs snuffling, the goats bleating. It was early evening and the birds were settling down and singing their final psalm of the day.
Just for a moment, I thought I heard a nightingale.
You may not agree, but I think this is much better. Yes, the reader doesn’t know what happens to Roberto and Fabio, whether Philippe and Sofia get married, open a school, even if Sofia will have him living with her.
Does it matter? Are these too many loose ends? I think not but I suppose time will tell.
Let me know which ending you prefer.