Since the departure of Dick Hart, Terry Teasdale was perfectly aware that he stood alone as the least liked member of the Circle: not so much its bête noire as its own black dog. It was not a position that he had chosen to inhabit and he had been working slowly, but determinedly to become, if not exactly liked, then at least accepted by the other members. He had not missed a meeting in six months and those around him had slowly grown used to him being there: like a wart on the nose, he was not something with which one necessarily wished to be associated, but the truth was that the more often one looked into the mirror, the less jarring was the realisation that it was there. The transition from excrescence to birthmark was, never-the-less, not without its difficulties. He was trying to change his life – at least the parts of it that others might see. He began to recognise his own sharp corners, and he worked at chipping them away. He had attempted in his own way to soften his image, joining in conversations, being self-effacing, smiling in a way that he was aware did his face no favours. He tried to joke, although with the kind of success that was normally reserved for ‘bottom of the bill’ in an autumn end of the pier review. He wanted to become a bona fide member of the club. He wanted the others to miss him when he was not there. He had even started to write.
Phil’s ‘reverse genre’ game had given him his opportunity. They would all expect him to be inept, writing in a style to which he was not used. That he was not actually used to writing in any style would not occur to anyone. At first he thought that he might be able to ‘borrow’ the prose of others, but he knew it would be spotted: Deidre, Phil, Frankie, Louise, they were all plagiarism Ninjas. They could spot a misappropriated sentence at a thousand paces. He had, at least, the self-awareness to understand that if he chose a battle there he was destined to lose. And he didn’t want a battle. He’d had many. He’d lost them all.
The story he had told them when he had first joined the group had been the truth, but he had couched it in a hard-hearted manner that he believed would be comical. He believed that they would see it as some kind of grotesque ‘Carry On’, but what they saw in it was actually nearer to the truth than he would care to admit. If he had bridges to build, they were bridges that he had himself first burned. In fact, his much vaunted exposé had never made the papers. Any interest in the story he had to tell was lost when those much closer to the editors decided to spill the beans on Devine before Terry had even got his ghost writers into line. Devine’s goose was cooked and Terry had not even had time to put on his toque. It had proved to be a turning point. Terry Tease was no more, Devine had put paid to his career, although not in the way that he had intended. The intense heat of tabloid investigation had burned all of those who were in any way associated with the main target: those deemed to be ‘worth the effort’ were shamed and vilified; Terry was ignored and abandoned. There is no point in harbouring dreams of revenge, when it has already been wreaked by others. In the short time in which he had been a member of the Circle, Terry Tease had to all intents and purposes, ceased to be, and Terry Teasdale was just beginning to re-emerge, a semi-likeable never-was from the sloughed skin of a detestable has-been.
He had no need to work. If nothing else, Terry Tease had provided for his retirement. He was by no means rich, but he had plenty with which to retain his new-found anonymity. The man who used to be the warm-up man for a discredited star was recognised by no-one. The only time he was ever approached in public was by people who knew, but could not quite place, his face. They invariably believed they knew him from school and he was happy to let them. The person they did recognise had gone; he would rather be the person they thought they recognised.
He no longer craved fame or even notoriety; all that he desired was the acceptance of those with whom he now chose to share his life. He had taken his time; he had worked and re-worked his little story. He had honed it into a lean, professional-sounding piece of writing and then slowly, carefully, he had dissembled it; made it less of what he strove to be and more of what he wanted to be: imperfect but meliorated. What he really wanted to be was part of something. Not the Sun, not the Earth, not even the moon: he would be happy to be Pluto (the planet, rather than the Disney dog) even if it was no longer accepted as a full-blown planet – as long as they did nothing to actually kick it out of orbit, he would be happy. So he patiently waited his turn and he was ready to face the Circle, accepting that many of them were not yet ready to hear from him again; hoping that he could soften the reaction when they did. He rose to his feet as the eyes of all assembled fell upon him. He sensed that he might just have seen a fleeting smile of encouragement from Penny, but he couldn’t be sure: if such a thing had crossed her lips, it had done so swiftly and had long since departed. He was, none-the-less buoyed by the fact that nobody looked actively hostile towards him. Antipathy had, in the main, made way for apathy and that, for Terry Teasdale, was progress of a sort. And progress he could work with…