A few months ago, just after Pegasus Falling had been released, my nan (William’s wife, Sheila) thrust a small, unassuming plastic envelope in my hands, proclaiming that she’d found it in amongst an old pile of Gramps’ stuff. In it were three very interesting items.
Firstly, there was a short, typed memo from Gramps to ‘Kate’. This is my mum – her real name isn’t Kate, but her initials are K.T, so Kate for short. Dated 2.10.92 (for my American readers, that’s October 2nd, not February 10th!), it introduced a short story hot off his new word processor.
Gramps retired in 1990. He soon became bored with the life of a pensioner and decided to set himself the challenge of writing a book. He called his first work simply ‘Opus 1’. I had read it back in 1992 (at the grand age of 13) but had not laid eyes on it again until now. Set in a part-Courier typewriter / part-computer system typeface, the manuscript ran to just 20 pages, loose leaf and unformatted. It was just as he had written it, un-fettered and undisturbed for many years.
The third piece in the plastic envelope was a much larger loose leaf document – a synopsis and abstract from The Cypress Branches, the document William had sent to publishers on his brief attempt to publish.
All three are fascinating items in themselves. I wish I had seen the synopsis and abstract years ago, when I first set out to edit the books. Although written for a different purpose, it provides an insight into how William saw the novel work. Thankfully, it looks like my changes work within the context of his vision, but a lot of difficult decisions would have been made easier with this document to hand.
The memo is poignant, to say the least. Although it is a simple note, its style is as efficient as William’s prose, declaring that “I’m still feeling my way with this” and that he had to “exploit a direct experience”, asking for, “some objective comments please”.
Opus 1 itself is a revelation. The memo goes on to say, “of course there is some artistic licence and more than a suspicion of hyperbole, but the tale is in general, true.” As with his subsequent work, William drew on many and varied incidents from his own life and weaved them together into a gripping and heartbreaking work of fiction. It is the story of a romance between a British Parachute Regiment sergeant and a Dutch girl whose house is taken over by the army and turned in to their HQ for the ensuing battle to secure the bridge. William was a paratrooper, and at the age of 18, was involved in the ill-fated operation to capture the bridge at Oosterbeek, near Arnhem in Holland – the fabled Operation Market Garden which ended so badly for the troops involved. William was one of the lucky few who managed to escape back home and tell the tale. Many of his friends were not so fortunate.
Although Opus 1 was initially written as a standalone work, elements of it ended up becoming part of William’s much larger work, The Cypress Branches, which he started to write almost immediately after completing his first short story. Although it underwent a considerable amount of editing and the story was changed to integrate it into the longer storyline, some readers will recognise it as forming the basis of the first chapter of Pegasus Falling – part 1 of the Cypress Branches trilogy. They’ll also recognise the sergeant, the main character in Opus 1 who plays a smaller role in the story of Pegasus Falling.