“‘…Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows…’” Deidre paused, took a quiet breath, and gathered herself together before preparing to launch forth into her next chapter. Frankie Collins scratched his chin, uncertain. He’d heard that line before. He knew he’d heard that line before. He half-raised his hand to speak, but he just wasn’t certain, and he diverted his hand to smooth down the unruly mop of hair that swamped his forehead instead. He knew that line, he was sure, but from where? It could be a book, but it could just as easily be a toilet cleaner advert. He just could not bring the source to mind. It was no good, he would have to hold his tongue until he knew for sure. No chance to consult his phone until the meeting was over and by then it would be too late. If he called her out, she would just change it. She would deny ever having said it. Claim that he had misheard her. He knew that nobody would back him up; Deidre Desmond was, of course, the Writing Club star. A published author. Four full novels under the Mills & Boon banner and a partial review in The Times. You do not become a published Romance novelist by plagiarising the work of George Orwell… George Orwell! Of course! That’s it, ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’! Deidre opened her mouth to recommence the reading from what she was certain would be her new best-seller, ‘The Heart Full of Stars’, as Frankie leapt to his feet. “Excuse me,” he stuttered, still uncertain that he had got it right. Fourteen eyes turned towards him. “I denounce you as a plagiarist,” he intended to say, but he had barely stammered through “I” before the door clattered open and Phil Fontaine burst in, late as ever, clearly not on the outside of just his first drink of the evening and conspicuously manuscript-less. Deidre stared severely and Frankie slumped, deflated by the moment, back into his chair. His time had passed.
Phil made his way around the circle, muttering soft apologies each time he stood on toe or handbag, until finally arriving at his appointed place next to shrinking violet Penny who studiously avoided eye contact, aware that she would blush horribly. He looked around the circle, to the sheaves of paper nestled on knees, and appeared to notice for the first time, that he held nothing. “Ah,” he said. “I’m sorry, I… I think I must have left my book at home. I… I was supposed to be reading tonight, wasn’t I?” He sighed melodramatically. “And I was really pleased with what I’d written this week.”
“Yes, well…” Deidre smiled the smile of a cat stalking a three-legged mouse. “I have filled in with a little reading from my own new work so far. If you are happy, I can continue.”
Phil nodded sadly, although his eyes were smiling.
“Now, where was I?” Deidre continued.
“You had just quoted the line from Orwell,” yelled Frankie, half leaping to his feet.
Rictus gripped Deidre’s face. Her teeth cleaved to her lips. “Ah yes,” she lisped, taking a long, slow drink from her water bottle. “The quote. I’m unsure about the quote. Maybe I will remove that…”
Phil Fontaine and Frankie Collins stood together at the bar, Phil cradling a large tumbler of Scotch whilst Frankie, who was driving, slowly spun a half pint of shandy between his palms. “I know that she wouldn’t have dared to send that line to the publishers,” he said. “It would have been picked up straight away. She was just trying to impress, but just be careful what you read to her, that’s all I’m saying. Unless you want it to end up in a ninety page pot-boiler.”
“She’s all bluster. Have you ever seen a single word of what she has written in a bookshop? Those books go out of print faster than the algorithms that write most of them. She just regurgitates nineteenth Century bodice-rippers and good luck to her, I say. She wants us all to believe that what she writes is much more worthy than it is, but let’s face it, she is the only one of us with a publisher at the moment.”
“I suppose so.” Frankie drained his glass. “Come on, we ought to go back upstairs. Everybody else has gone.”
Phil looked deep into the heart of the amber fluid, feeling its pain, before swallowing it down and following Frankie towards the stairs. “What have we got now?”
“I think that our little wallflower is going to read us one of her new poems.”
“Ah, is it about a bird by any chance?”
Frankie smiled broadly, but did not reply.
“It’s amazing how many rhymes she can find for tit,” said Phil, feeling just the slightest pang of shame.
The two men bundled into the room together, giggling loudly. The chairs in the neatly laid circle were all occupied, with the exception of the two awaiting the late-comers. All eyes, except for those of Penny, who was fidgeting nervously with her papers, turned on them. They found their way towards the empty chairs as noiselessly as they could and took their places. Penny had her eyes cast to the floor, breathing quietly and deliberately; looking for all the world as though she was waiting to address an audience of thousands. Phil touched her hand lightly as he sat, and smiled apologetically. Penny smiled back weakly and took a long deep breath as Deidre rose to her feet. “And now,” she said, with a grin that played with the features of her face which released it to the world as a grimace, “Before Francis reads us the latest chapter from his new book” – she knew how much he hated being called Francis – “Penny is going to read us her latest little poem called…” she consulted a scribbled note on the back of her hand, “…‘Morning Chorus’. It is, she tells me, another entry into her delightful little collection ‘The Book of Birds’ with which she hopes to approach a publisher very soon. I’m sure I speak for us all when I wish her the very best of luck.”
After a sparse round of applause, led by Deidre, had died away, timid little shrew Penny rose to her feet, winking broadly at Phil as she did so. Shyly, she coughed and began, “I wandered lonely as a cloud…”