Whenever you read something it seems obvious that that was the only way to tell that story, but of course there are a dozen ways to take a reader from A to B, and in trying to decide which is the “best” way you often end up with a lot of extra material you no longer have use for.
Whilst editing Dexter & Sinister it became clear that I needed to tighten up the start as much as possible, and the easiest way to do that was to get rid of side characters. First drafts often generate threads that don’t end up going anywhere, and Dexter & Sinister was no different.
I found two characters who made it as far as draft six, who I could do without – Becky Bates and Old Jimmy. Becky was a coat-check girl at the Scion Club, primarily there to provide John with information, and Old Jimmy was the former nightwatchman at the airship factory.
I was very fond of them both, but when I realised that everything Becky did could be achieved by two lines of text, and Old Jimmy could be cut out altogether and it not affect the story whatsoever, they had to go.
Still, it made me sad. They were good characters, with some nice writing around them. I didn’t want them to go. But that’s what they mean by “Kill all your darlings.” You don’t keep something because it’s good, it’s meant to be good, but if it doesn’t advance the plot then, bye bye.
Anyway, long story short, I thought it would be amusing to share Old Jimmy’s two appearances, since I like his moments very much indeed. See if you agree with me.
Part 1 – The original opening to the book:
Some people don’t know how lucky they are.
When Old Jimmy lost his job as night watchman down the airship factory he certainly didn’t feel all that lucky. It’d been a good job for a man like him. You didn’t need much skill or education to wander about making sure nothing happened, two things which Jimmy had never had an abundance of. It also helped to have a lack of imagination, as the factory at night was full of strange shadows and odd noises which would put the willies up a more creative man. Old Jimmy had no problem in that department either. Upon discovering there were two Jimmies at the factory he’d come up with his own nickname, Old Jimmy, and even that had taken him a while.
When they let him go a few weeks ago they hadn’t given him much of a reason. Cutbacks, that’s what the boss had said. Cutbacks, and changes. And re-or-gan-eye-zay-shun, or some-such. He wasn’t really sure. He’d stopped listening after the words “let you go.” Their reasons didn’t matter. He had a job, and then he didn’t. That was all that mattered.
What he missed most about the job was the peace and quiet. He missed the money of course, what little there was of it, but he missed the silence even more. He was home all the time now, and though he loved his wife dearly, she could talk the hind legs off a donkey. And her sister, who always seemed to be round, was even worse. She’d been there for over an hour already tonight, going on about how next-door’s dog was always trying to hump Trixie, her Teacup Pomeranian. ‘And you know how delicate little Trixie is, poor thing. Shaking all afternoon she was, after what that Great Dane did to her!’ It was enough to drive a man mad. He may not have had much of an imagination, but all Old Jimmy could think about as she banged on was what would happen if he turned round and told her to ‘Shut yer pie hole!’ Y’know, just this once, just to see the look on her face.
But he didn’t of course. No one ever does. Instead he simply sat there in the lumpy armchair, eating two day old stew, ignoring his sister-in-law as he looked forward to his bedtime and the sweet refuge of sleep.
Yes indeed, Old Jimmy had no idea how lucky he was. If he’d been at work that night the only thing he could have looked forward to was a slender blade in the rib cage, followed by a cold and lonely death on the factory floor.
Part 2 – After John’s first visit to Gravesend Bridge he goes to the sewer outlet pipes, where the body was found:
John spotted an old man over the road, sitting on a squat little stool outside his squat little house – a small, fluffy white dog at his feet – openly watching him as he drank his beer. He went over to him.
Half way across the road the little dog started yapping. ‘Shut up,’ growled the man. He took a swing at the dog but it dodged the blow, jumping around like this was a new game or something. The old man fished a small wooden ball out from under his seat and tossed it into the street. ‘Here. Go get it, you little bugger you.’ The dog shot past John, falling over its own feet as it chased the ball into the gutter.
‘Nice dog you got there,’ John said, smiling. ‘What’s he called?’
‘She’s called Trixie,’ said the man. ‘And she’s a pain in the arse.’
‘Right. I see. Um, listen. I was wondering if you could help me? There was a body washed up here a few days ago, and I was wondering if you knew anything about it?’
‘Oh, aye. I do at that. It were the wife’s sister that found it y’know.’
‘Yup. Found ‘im on her way over Saturday morning. She usually comes round early on the weekend so she and the wife can get to the market when it opens. Turned up pitching a fit this time she did, wailin’ and sobbin’ and being all dramatic. Took us ages before we got any sense out of her. Then I was dispatched to go get the bloody coppers wan’I?’ He didn’t sound too amused about that.
‘And what time was this?’
‘Some time around six I reckon. Or maybe nearer seven. I dunno. It was too damn early for all that racket though, that’s for sure.’
‘Right. Um… I don’t suppose your sister-in-law is here is she? I’d like a quick word with her if I could.’
The little dog came trotting back – a Teacup Pomeranian by the looks of her – and dropped the slobbery ball at the man’s feet. ‘No, she’s away,’ said the man, reaching for the ball. ‘The shock were a bit much for her, so she and the missus have gone off to their mother’s for a few days to get over it, like.’ He tossed the ball down the street, and the little dog shot off after it. ‘I wouldn’t mind so much, but they could have taken the bloody dog with ’em. Damn thing won’t sit still. I gets no peace at all.’
‘Sounds rough,’ said John. ‘Say, I don’t suppose she said anything about the body did she? What state it was in and that?’
‘She didn’t say much of anything mate. Just a lot of Lordy Lord!s and Oh my days!es. Besides, what was there to say. I’ve seen a few bodies in the river before now, living here, and they all look the same in the end; dead. Beyond that, what does it matter? Nowt to them, I can promise you that.’
‘Right. I see. Well, nice chatting to you. I’ll see you around.’
‘Aye, right enough,’ said the man.
John wandered off down the road. The dog passed him in the opposite direction, the ball in its mouth, looking very pleased with itself. Behind him John heard, ‘I swear to God I’m gonna make you into a stew one of these days. Here, gimme that.’ followed by the pock-pock-pock of the ball bouncing off down the road again, and the flappy slap of the dog’s feet as she gave chase.
Can you see why I didn’t want to get rid of them, but at the same time how they advance the plot in no way whatsoever? Weird, eh.
Still, it’s not the end of the line for either Old Jimmy or Becky Bates. They’re good characters, so they may yet make an appearance in future novels. And when they do you can say you heard of them here first! Now that’s the kind of insider knowledge you normally pay good money for.