Billy Hunter rose from his seat, theatrically exhaling a cloud of toffee-scented vapour from his plant-pot sized e-cigarette and, pausing only to take a deep swig from his half pint of bitter shandy, began to speak. “Nah then,” he said, addressing the room, puffed up by the heady cocktail of feigned ‘northern-ness’ and perceived significance. Phil and Frankie rolled their eyes in unison. “Here’s the scene. It’s winter. It’s raining: winter rain, colder than snow, pinching at faces and drowning hope from the ground up. It’s windy too: too windy for umbrellas. The wind lashes the rain into the windows. Our two characters – they haven’t let me know their names yet, but we’ll call them Bert and Brenda for now – are the only two people on the upper deck of the number 12 night bus to Ashington…” Billy tapped his papers into shape on his thigh and plumped himself up further before he began to read.
“Bert: You’ve, er, you’ve dropped your glove love.
Brenda: Eh? Oh thanks. I’m always doing that. Lose my own head if it wasn’t… you know.
Bert: Screwed on?
Brenda: Aye. Screwed on. Daft as a brush, my mum always says. Although, I’m never sure… What makes a brush daft do you think? They don’t seem particularly daft to me. Not bright, I’ll give you that. Not particularly bright, but I don’t see as why folks always assume that they’re daft. Have we passed the abattoir yet?
Bert : No, next stop is the cemetery.
Brenda: Do we go past the cemetery?
Bert: Eventually love, eventually yes…”
Billy’s eyes scanned the room, keen to gauge whether the other members had taken in the profundity of his line, but there was no reaction.
“It’s real, you see,” he said in exasperation. “Conversation. Not dialogue, it’s conversation. Real conversation, full of repeats and silences. Sometimes the silences are the most profound.”
“I’d definitely have to agree with that,” whispered Phil to a grinning Frankie.
Billy tapped his papers against his thigh once more, whether out of habit or as a means of drawing attention to himself it was impossible to say – although it was clearly the latter. He scanned the room again before continuing.
“Brenda: Oh heck, I don’t want to go to the cemetery. I need to go down Thesiger Street. I don’t think the man in uniform at the bus station really knew about the buses at all. He told me the number 12 went to the abattoir – I’ve got an interview.
Bert: I don’t think they actually wear uniforms do they, bus men, these days? I mean, I don’t think they wear uniforms these days.
Brenda: You know, I think you’re right. He could have been a sailor now I come to think of it…
Bert: Upholders of an imperialistic hegemony!
Brenda: …Or a milkman. Whatever, I should never have listened to him. I’m going to be so late.
Bert: Look, I don’t want to speak out of turn, but this is the night bus. It’s eleven o’clock. It’s a bit of an odd time for an interview, isn’t it?
Brenda: He said it was too noisy there when everybody was working, so he thought it was best if I went after they’d all gone home. He said he’d find it easier to get ‘acquainted’.
Bert: Look, I hope you don’t think that I’m… you know, sticking my nose in where it’s not wanted, but are you sure this bloke was actually… you know…?
Bert: Well, do you think he was actually in a position to offer you a job?
Brenda: He had a suit on. He said he was a big cheese in the abattoir world.
Bert: Right. So, where did you actually meet the big cheese.
Brenda: I was working behind the bar. He came to get his free lager – on account of how they’d all had a drink paid for – and he said I was wasted behind the bar. He said I should be working in a nice, clean office. He said something about me being more than adequately built for desk work.
Bert: Where was this?
Brenda: I work in The Fighting Cock in town. We closed off both rooms for the funeral party.
Bert: A funeral party? So would I be right in thinking that all the men were wearing suits?
Brenda: Well, now you come to mention it…”
The silence around the circle was, if anything, even more jarring than Billy Hunter’s dialogue. Eyes, mostly cast at the floor, lifted briefly to look at other members. Some stifled yawns, checked their watches, shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. Frankie and Phil appeared to be attempting to suppress laughter, but at what, nobody, least of all Billy, appeared to know. Sensing that the meeting was beginning to lose focus, Deidre clapped her hands and prepared to thank Billy, hoping to press on with some other offering – preferably her own – but Billy was not to be stopped.
“My plots,” he said, “Do not feature the contrived machinations of the cheap, pulp detective novel.” He looked sourly towards Phil Fontaine. “And,” he continued, shifting his glare towards Frankie, “My characters do not exist for the promotion of hollow laughter. They are real characters, with something to say.” He was irate. He tried to tap his papers into shape one more time, but succeeded only in reducing them to a crumpled pile. He smoothed them on his leg and read on.
“Bert: If I were you, I’d forget about the interview. You’re probably miles too late now anyway. Stay on the bus. When it reaches Ashington, it turns round and goes straight back to the depot.
Brenda: You’re probably right. I’m probably not suited to office work anyway, not being able to type and all. I just wanted to better myself, you know. Anyway, what about you, where are you going at this time of night?
Bert: Me? I’m the conductor. Have you paid for your ticket by the way?…”
Billy breathed deeply, as if he had been involved in some form of strenuous exercise. “It’s just a start,” he said at last, “but I think it has something. It is going somewhere. It has something to say. It speaks of our time. It could be great. It could be important…” If Billy had a bushel, he most certainly was not going to use it for hiding his light. “What do you think?” The candour took the room by surprise. Nobody ever asked what the others thought of their work. Far too dangerous. The silence lingered, far longer than was seemly: somebody had to say something. The members of the writer’s circle looked at one another, desperate not to catch Billy’s eye, each urging the other to say something. To say anything. Eventually Phil, who was growing desperate for his half-time drink, decided to take the plunge on behalf of them all. He coughed quietly and raised his hand. “Ah,” said Billy, “The Private Dick. Well, what do you need to know then, Sherlock?”
Phil grinned affably, stretching tight lips over dry teeth. “I was just wondering,” he said. “Knowing how much you prize realism. Does the number twelve night bus actually go to Ashington?’