Elizabeth Walton knew that time spent in regret and recrimination was always wasted. It achieved nothing positive. It merely deepened disillusionment – and bitterness was so ageing. She had been lucky enough to spend twenty years of her life with the man that she loved, and she was grateful for that. It had been a happy marriage; not blissful, but normally happy. There had been times when she wished him dead and times when he had wished the same for her, but there had also been times when she felt truly contented – and those were the times that she chose to remember. She remembered the day he had died – had been killed – of course, but not with any detail. She remembered it as one remembers a taste or a smell. The loss was a sensation to which there was no detail. It was emptiness. It is not possible to recall emptiness, only to experience it, and emptiness is what she experienced, day after day until one morning, several months after he husband’s death, Elizabeth awoke with the realisation that she had experienced quite enough of it and so she packed it carefully away – she had to know that it was still there if ever she needed it – and closed the cover on it, like a precious flower pressed between the pages of a favourite book, never forgotten, but seldom recalled.
Joining the Writer’s circle was the first conscious move that Elizabeth had made towards opening a new chapter in her life; she felt it apposite. She had seen the leaflet in the library and, despite never having written a word in her life, she went along at the first opportunity, because she knew that if she left it to the second, it would never come. In the event, it had been a very easy introduction. A local history writer – a professor from the local university with a bad wig and, from the look of it, only one good shirt – had agreed to read them a short section from his new book, so apart from introducing herself briefly she had little to do for the first hour. When the professor had finished his reading to polite applause on the hour mark, Deidre had suggested that it would be a convenient time to take ‘tea’ and everybody went down into the bar below. She noticed that most of the group drank happily together whilst two men – whom she later got to know as Billy and Terry – tended to hang around the fringes, unwilling or unable to properly join in. It didn’t take her long to realise that backs bridled whenever they came close enough to join in the conversation. She also was aware of the smartly dressed man with the boxer’s brow who stood alone, occasionally shooting his cuffs, and constantly looking over his shoulder. She felt that he did not belong. Fortunately she retained sufficient intuition not to approach him – although she was intrigued by the bulge on his ankle.
She’d had two gins – the first of which was bought by a man who introduced himself as Phil and said that he was pleased to see ‘new blood’ in the group. The second she bought for herself and had to finish somewhat hurriedly when Phil told her that they were not allowed to take the drinks upstairs with them when they returned to the Circle. Thus it was that, when she was asked to better introduce herself to the group, she did so fully and, briefly, tearfully. She was a little ashamed of herself but, if she was honest, it felt liberating to be able to unburden herself in such a way in front of strangers – like taking her bra off in a restaurant. (It was only the once, you understand, and she’d put her blouse back on before she came out of the ladies. She’d only done it to see if her husband would notice. He didn’t, but the waiter who found the bra under her chair did.) Anyway, it was done; there was no way of turning back. In her mind she had decided that it didn’t matter because she would never return here, but then everybody had been so nice about it, not condescending, just nice. Phil and Frankie had made her laugh, Penny had offered her a tissue and Louise had passed her a little mirror saying, ‘You might like to take a little glance in there,’ which was very nice of her because nobody likes snot trails do they?
Anyway, long story short and all of that, the rest of the session really became just a little bit of a chat, mostly about books: they asked what kind of books she read, which authors she enjoyed, all the kinds of things that she’d anticipated and rehearsed and then Deidre asked her what kind of books she wrote. Elizabeth had been prepared to obfuscate a little on this point – not really wanting to own up to getting little further than a shopping list – but the question was so direct and the manner in which it was asked allowed so little room for equivocation that Elizabeth panicked. She closed her eyes and visualised the library shelves. “Family saga,” she said. “Oh good,” said Deidre, “We haven’t got one of those,” and the die was cast. It seemed to satisfy everyone. Well, almost everyone.
“What are you working on at the moment?” asked Penny.
“Well…” she looked at Penny and smiled. Penny seemed very nice really and Elizabeth was sure that she would grow to like her, if she could just get over the current urge to strangle her.
“Maybe you could read for us sometime.”
“That would be nice,” said Elizabeth, painfully aware that ‘nice’ was a word she was going to have to try and eradicate from her vocabulary if she stood any chance of perpetuating the fiction of herself as an author that she was in the process of creating. “It’s all a little bit fragmented at the moment, but I’m sure in a week or two…”
“That would be lovely,” said Penny, genuinely pleased. “To hear something new. Lovely.”
“Well, I’m really not sure how good it will be,” said Elizabeth, realising that if she was to come back again she would, almost certainly have to write something – and that was the second positive thing she did since opening the new chapter…