Natalie had never been a member of The Circle, but she was known to them all. She was an ever-present on ‘Club Nights’ in the Lounge Bar of The Steam Hammer, always happy and welcomed to join in the mid-session conversations that took place. Bright and witty, if at times a little too lugubrious, she was a welcome addition to every discussion. All the members of The Circle felt that they knew her, but only for this thirty minute spell each week. When the circle reassembled upstairs she melted away and was never present when they came back into the lounge later in the evening. She was not known to any one of them in any other circumstance and, consequently, became a bit of a mystery woman, and the only topic of conversation on the rare occasions on which she did not appear.
“…I just asked the barman,” said Frankie, passing a glass to Phil as he rejoined the small knot of members in the corner of the room. “He says he doesn’t ever see her other than on Circle nights.”
“I always thought she was a regular.”
“Apparently not. Only ever appears when we’re here.”
“I wonder why she’s never actually joined us upstairs?”
“A bit too far away from the bar, I think.”
A smile filtered its way around the group. She clearly liked ‘a wee one’ did Natalie. None of them could ever remember seeing her without the customary gin and lime in her hand: ‘No ice dear – they do something to it under the bar, to make it freeze more easily I think, probably to save money – It gives me a headache.’
“I wonder what she does for the rest of the week?”
“I think we all know what she does, the question is where does she do it?”
“She told me,” started Elizabeth, pausing only to help herself to Frankie’s Cheese & Onion, “that her great grandmother was the baby daughter of Tsar Nicholas and the Empress Alexandra, snuck out of the cellar by a soft-hearted Bolshevik guard and smuggled into Britain on a coal barge. She said that she is the rightful heir to the Russian throne, but that she can’t go back because she doesn’t like beetroot. Apparently it is all that stands between her and her birthright.”
“Well, yes, and Putin. Beetroot and Putin. Plus, she told me, she can’t drink vodka. It gives her hives – she would show me if I bought her one… She said that she was once invitied to the Russian Embassy, so she went – to show that there were no ill-feelings – but they plied her with borscht and vodka and she woke up in the park next to a man with a rolled up copy of Pravda under his arm. She was eventually led to safety by a man from the Salvation Army. ”
“She told me that she was on the run from Mrs Thatcher,” said Billy.
“Ah well, I don’t suppose that’s much of a worry for her now.”
“Well, apparently once you’re on the MI6 hit list, you are never taken off it. You die on it – one way or another.”
“Isn’t it MI5, the Security Services? MI6 is foreign spies and all that isn’t it?”
“The CIA according to Natalie. Apparently Mrs Thatcher took charge of the CIA during one of Ronald Regan’s lost weekends – ‘Nobody knew about them, dear. They were never made general knowledge. There are still no official records. If anyone ever asks you about it, deny all knowledge. Say you’ve never met me. It’s for the best. I have grown used to being persona non grata, even in the Co-op.’ – and she never gave it back.”
“So why was Mrs Thatcher after Natalie then?”
“Poll tax, apparently. Natalie was the leader of the main organised opposition to it.”
“Only you never saw her face. She said that she was undercover and always wore a cap in public: she gave up all property ownership in the struggle and she handed in her Tesco Clubcard. She became a marked woman. She was ‘Most Wanted’ in every one of the World’s nuclear powers, including Lichtenstein – ‘It’s not common knowledge, dear, so don’t go bandying it about in conversation.’”
“I only met her last week,” said Tom. “She told me that she was an incognito literary agent keeping tabs on local talent; looking for the next big thing. I asked her who she was looking at here?”
“What did she say?”
“She said that she couldn’t possibly tell me. Mind you, if we were to have a quiet chat over a nice double gin and lime I might find out something to my advantage.”
“And did you?”
“I found out never to put ice in a gin and lime, and also that a gentleman always buys a lady peanuts with her drink.”
“I wonder where she is?”
“I wouldn’t worry,” said Deidre, glancing at her watch. “This isn’t the first time she’s missed a week. You might remember that the last time she was absent, she reappeared the following week with cuts and bruises all over her, but she wouldn’t tell anyone what had happened; said it was best for our families’ sakes that we never knew.”
“Best not mentioned, dear,” mimicked Phil. “And ask the bar man for a slice of lime, but watch that he cuts a fresh one. He fishes them out of other people’s glasses if you don’t watch him. I always suck mine so he can’t re-use them.”
Even Deidre’s face softened into something approaching a smile. “I’m sure she’ll be back next week. Shall we go back upstairs?”
One by one the writers of the Circle drained their glasses and joined the little knot of fellow authors as it made its way up the narrow staircase and into the meeting room, where it stopped as a single entity, host to a collective breathlessness: eleven faces, twenty two eyes turned in a single direction.
There, sitting primly on a chair within the circle, dressed head to toe in ill-fitting tweed, hands folded neatly across her knees was Natalie. She looked nervous, but she wore a determined smile. She barely acknowledged the club members as they slowly, silently, made their way back to their seats. Natalie did not move, although her eyes flitted from person to person, watching them all as they settled. Nervously they looked from Natalie to Deidre and hoped, for once, that Deidre would take charge of the situation, but she was just as non-plussed as the rest of the group. Of course they were all happy that Natalie was there; had, presumably, decided to join the meetings on a more formal basis, but they were thrown by the manner in which she had chosen to do it. So they sat and they waited for Natalie to make the first move. Silence hung like a pall around her until, with a nervous cough and something that could have been a sigh, Natalie rose to her feet. She cast her eyes around the circle and then, fleetingly down at the ground, before raising her head and, staring resolutely forward.
“My name is Natalie,” she said “and I am an alcoholic…”