Manipulating time is a trope of fiction that either fills you with excitement or makes your roll your eyes with story fatigue. It’s a concept that has been explored many times, in many ways and with mixed results. Choosing to put time travel in an essentially realist novel is a risk. A big one. So, when I decided to have my character journey to the past, I ran the risk of alienating readers.
The Place Between is about women, about mothers and about our relationships with ourselves and across generations. It is a novel embedded deeply in the personal. This is not a book that can be considered science fiction (although science fiction is my absolute favourite genre to read) and so shaping time in a way that defies convention in fiction outside the sci-fi/fantasy genre is not a decision that was easy to make.
Flashback, memory and historical scenes in story are elements we are all familiar with and we expect a certain level of backfill when we engage with a character. Finding a way into those past stories is, for me at least, one of the trickiest elements of creating a complete story. One of the things that excites me about writing fiction is that you get to throw the rules out the window.
That’s not to say it always worked. The time shift scenes were the most heavily revised elements of the book, going through multiple iterations before finding a place to settle.
First time-shift 2014 draft:
I looked up to say something to David but what I saw took by words away. A boy, dressed in brown corduroy pants and a raglan t-shirt with brown edging stood where the trolley had been. It was my brother Andrew. I felt sick, my heart palpitating in my chest. I put my hand out to him but withdrew it quickly. I was wearing someone else’s rings, someone else’s watch. David must have hit me hard. I reached in my pocket for my mobile but pulled out bunch of scrunched up tissues instead and when I looked around, the supermarket had disappeared. I was in a living room. Where the display of spaghetti tins had stood was a couch. A heavy fabric couch with a pattern of faded pink roses, the armrest threadbare and frayed. Instead of an aisle leading away from me filled with stacked cartons and shelves there was a wall with a large window that overlooked a small front garden with neatly trimmed rosemary hedges along its border. Heavy curtains, gathered to the sides with tiebacks, framed the window. Their rich cream brocade contrasted against the overbearing forest green of the walls. A faint shadow of dirt ran around the lower section of the wall at about the height of my brother Andrew. There was a smell as well. It was incredibly familiar. I sniffed the air. I sifted through my memory to identify it. It was the smell of my childhood. Undertones of roast dinners, blended with my mother’s perfume, Youth Dew, and the faint background of bleach that had permeated our house for as long as I could remember.
I looked at my hands again. These were my mother’s hands. I recognised her rings, the tiny solitaire that my father had bought, the plain rounded gold wedding band and the delicate silver watch that I used to see her wind each night at the dinner table. It was strange because she’d stopped wearing the watch when I was a teenager. Andrew stared at me (or my mother) as though he knew me.
First time-shift scene 2017 draft:
Sarah looked up at David, her inventory of calming adages—the ones every mother used in moments of crisis—at the ready, but she stopped. He looked different. He wasn’t in the trolley; instead, he stood silhouetted against a brightly lit doorway. A trick of the light that streamed between the aisles of the supermarket? Sarah tried to focus on him, tried to read his expression. Was he upset? Was he sorry for hurting her? She expected him to be crying, or perhaps crouched down in the trolley pretending nothing had happened, but he wasn’t. If Sarah hadn’t known better, she would say the little boy in front of her wasn’t David at all. His stance—feet spread apart and flat, arms hanging by his side, right hand partly tucked behind his body—showed a confidence, a boldness that Sarah didn’t associate with David. Light from behind caught in the crease of his pudgy hand. He gripped something tightly but it was obscured behind his back. What else had he picked up?
(Not now.) Sarah felt as though she were out-of-focus: a voice inside her niggled but she pushed it away and tried to fix her attention on David. Why was he just standing there? A hand, her hand, reached towards him—yet Sarah hadn’t reached. She tried to stand up, willing her arms to push down, but nothing happened. What was happening to her: concussion? A coma? An hallucination? The hand still outstretched in front of her shook. (For God’s sake, Andrew.) The voice pushed in against Sarah again. Andrew? Surely she meant David? The outstretched hand clicked its fingers. The dark figure of David jerked and moved his right hand further behind his back. Why couldn’t she see him properly? Why couldn’t she control her own body?
First time-shift novel:
Sarah looked for David. Was he upset? Was he sorry for hurting her? She expected to see him crouched in the trolley, hiding or crying. She froze. He wasn’t in the trolley. There was no trolley, no supermarket. The fluorescent lights and jaunty jingles of seconds before, had been replaced by a small, dim family room. Across from her, an old television in a wooden case with dials to change the channels emitted a tinny sound from its side speakers. The opening song to ‘Days of Our Lives’? Sarah knew it well. It was Beryl’s favourite soap opera.
Her eyes scanned the room, seeking David again. A small figure stood silhouetted in a doorway. A trick of the light streaming between the aisles of the supermarket? Was it him? Sarah strained to focus on his face, trying to read his expression. No, it wasn’t David. This boy was taller, heavier. His stance—feet wide, left arm hanging, right hand tucked behind his body—showed a mature defiance she didn’t associate with her son. Her eyes were drawn to the crease of the boy’s pudgy hand, outlined by the light from behind. He gripped something large, its weight dragging on his arm.
‘Not now.’ A voice whispered inside Sarah’s head.
Panic pressed at the edges of her thoughts. Who had spoken? Although not hers, it was a familiar voice, laced with seething anger. It prickled inside her like a foreign body forcing its way to the surface. What would happen to her if she succumbed to it? Sarah steadied herself, fixing her attention on the boy. If she anchored herself to something, she could draw herself back to reality—find her way back to David. She studied him, struggling to parse the scene unfolding in front of her, while at the same time refusing to acknowledge the voice whispering within her. Why didn’t he move? Why were the floral curtains, pulled across three quarters of the window, so familiar? The answer, she realised, with unexpected clarity, was simple.
There were many times when Sarah’s sojourns into her mother’s past were almost scrapped in favour of a more traditional flashback, dialogue with Beryl or the process of Sarah conducting research. I tried them all. Key to the relationship between Sarah and Beryl, however, was the need to make Sarah ‘see’ her mother’s pont of view as though it were her own. The time shifts in The Place Between gave me the felixbility and insight I needed to have my characters inhabit the past together.
In the end, I’m glad I persevered. These are my favourite scenes in the novel. Time became my most valuable tool. A way of excavating and teasing out the threads of experience and connection that tie the characters together.