The Writer’s Circle #16 – The Lure of Summer

Jane Herbert (horror) was the second member of the Circle to face her peers having made an attempt to write in the genre drawn, at Phil’s suggestion, from the pool of those written by every other member.  Romance could not have been more alien to her and she had the added pressure of Deidre analysing her every word but, like Phil who had preceded her, although she found the exercise challenging she also found it rewarding and, as the attention of the group turned towards her, she felt ready to read them what she had written…

“…Frost prickled on the grass, turning each separate blade into a sparkling dagger and fringing the bursting leaves of the overhanging yew trees with a lattice-work of shining, icy lace.  The morning sun reflected and glittered out from every surface, although it yet provided little warmth to the air.  Sparrows fought over the squirming bounty unearthed in newly-turned soil: the desperate comedy of survival cast along the long, long morning shadows; the only other sound the cellophane crackle of bouquet wrappings.

Desmond Demona (Des to his friends, of which there were precious few) sat on the stone-flagged floor in an isolated pool of sunlit warmth, his back against the honeyed limestone of the church tower wall, eyes closed, the black plastic cup gently steaming the scent of stewed milky tea into the air, warming his soil-stained fingers, soothing his senses, calming his soul.  He had the smell of the earth in his nostrils, he could still feel the weathered grain of the spade handle against the skin of his palms.  He was happy in his work, but he took his breaks very seriously – almost religiously.  His timing was meticulous and steady.  In rain or shine, summer heat or winter chill, swaddled in multi-layered clothing or stripped to the waist, his routine remained unvaried: thirty minutes digging followed by ten minutes rest until the job was done.

The job was digging graves and Desmond took great pride in it.  The symmetry of his excavations was revered throughout the diocese.  Even when the unexpected was encountered, in the form of old church outbuildings, clay pipes or illicitly interred beloved pets, he found a way to ensure that the box nestled level, precisely six feet below the sod.

Sometimes he was bothered by the taunts of the local kids as they went to school.  He started his day early, tailored his routine to be as far away from them as possible, but he couldn’t avoid those who chose to loiter around the graveyard during holidays.  He kept his head down and he dug and when they started to pelt him, as they occasionally did, he was always at the bottom of a hole and unable to get out quickly enough to challenge them, so he simply collected the rubbish in a bag (he liked a clean grave) with a view to rubbing their noses in it if ever he caught them.  He never did.  He knew he never would, but the promise of revenge fortified him none-the-less.

The vicar was good to Desmond, managing to find him jobs even when no-one was dying: cutting grass, cleaning headstones, tidying decaying tributes and flowers.  Occasionally he was asked to carry out some menial tasks inside the building; varnishing pews, Hoovering prayer cushions, dusting the surfaces that the vicar could not reach without standing on a chair.  Desmond always did his best – occasionally bringing his own chair from home as it was a little higher than the vicar’s and more stable – but he did not feel suited to ‘inside work’.  He liked to dig.  It was what he was good at.  He liked to feel the sun on his back.  He liked to sit in the shade of the giant yew in the summer as he napped away his thirty minute mid-day break.  For six precious weeks from late May to early July, the sun crested the tower and beat down on his little spot.  Those were his favourite weeks of the year and, although they were still some months away, he sensed them coming in the air and he looked forward to the time when he could rid himself of the cloying cold of the grave by basking in the heat of the noon-time sun.  He loved to feel the heat prickling on his darkening skin, adding definition to a body toned to perfection by a life spent digging.

At least, it was pretty close to perfection as far as the vicar was concerned.  She had been here for five years now and, if anything, she looked forward to the summer months with greater anticipation than Desmond himself.  She had tried to talk to him so many times, to draw him into conversation, but all he ever wanted to hear from her was where to dig and, if there really was no digging to do, he would hold her with his doleful eyes until she found him some tasks, preferably outside, with which to pass his day.  There were times when she had to find him jobs to do around the church itself – when people were just not dying or when the bloody kids just wouldn’t leave him alone – but she could tell that he was not happy there.  She devoted every moment she could at such times in attempting to draw some conversation from him, but she always knew that, for both their sakes, she would very soon have to find him work outside in the fresh air, where he felt able to remove his shirt – where she was able to surreptitiously observe him doing so.

But today, she watched him through the frost speckled windows of the vestry as he screwed the cup back on top of his flask and rose, fully-clothed to his feet.  He moved, she thought, like a cat.  What went on inside his head?  She realised that the paraphernalia of vicarhood hung around her like an invisible cage.  Few men ever think about vicars as suitable girl-friend material but then, truth be told, few vicars ever think about a withdrawn gravedigger as being the man to lead them up the aisle, and she was almost certain that even fewer ever see themselves quite so vividly breaking so many commandments simultaneously.  Slowly she raised the cassock above her knees and sighed contentedly as the heat of the tiny electric heater slowly caressed her legs.  For her, the summer just couldn’t come soon enough…”

The Writer’s Circle started with ‘Penny’s Poem’, here.
Last week’s Writer’s Circle ‘The Mud, the Blood and the Beer’ is here.

The Writer’s Circle #15 – The Mud, the Blood and the Beer

Penelope (Penny) Farthing had been named by her father just a matter of weeks before he walked out of the family home, never to return.  He wasn’t missing, just gone – at least that’s what her mother always said.  His absence was seldom discussed and Penny had never really felt the desire to try to find the man who had given her her name.  Whenever anybody spoke of meeting him, she always thought of ‘A Boy Named Sue’* and how unsuited she was to kicking and gouging in the mud, the blood and the beer.  Also, she always suspected that her mother knew much more than she was prepared to tell.  Penny felt, instinctively, that she had been involved in some way with his disappearance – maybe she had killed him – but she had never dared to ask.  It was her mother’s claim that she had been too timid to object when her father had registered her name, but Penny had serious doubts: her mother was many things, but never timid.

Why her father should play such a trick on his own child – a child he had never really got to know, a child he was planning to leave – Penny could never quite understand.  Certainly her mother’s late-night, post-sherry taunts that “Nobody expected you to still be single at your age,” led her to believe that her role in the whole elaborate prank was far greater than she wanted her daughter to know.  If Penny retained any desire at all to meet her father, it was so she could ask him that one thing.  “Did the old witch know what you were doing?  Was she a part of it?”  She would never be able to do so now.  The only thing that bound her to him – outside of DNA – was her mother, she held all the clues and she was no longer able to focus long enough to remember anything that she did not choose to.  An almost selective form of dementia – so typical of the bloody woman to retain all of her defences whilst rationality abandoned her.  To lose the facility to recall her own daughter’s face, but not the contempt in which she held it, it took a certain kind of mother.  It is not an easy thing, to feel nothing for your own mother, not good for your soul, but it was all Penny had left since she had spat compassion back at her.

Everyone at The Circle had noticed the change in Penny over the last few weeks.  She was just that little bit more assertive, more spiky somehow; still the little mouse, but more inclined to nip if cornered.  The unexpected appearance and subsequent disappearance of Charlie had preyed on her mind.  His failure to return, to explain, had somehow brought her father to mind with a presence that she had not felt in many years.  She would not in any way compare Charlie with her father; Charlie was a good man, she had missed him while he had been away and his return had kindled some kind of hope inside her, but both he and her father had disappeared from her life and the disappearance of the man she missed had, once again, made her curious about the man she did not.  What if he had been a good man?  She had only her mother’s word that he had not.  What if it wasn’t him that had given her that hated name at all?  Again she had only the unreliable word of the hollow woman that she visited daily, religiously, in the home.  She cursed herself for not doubting her sooner, for not pressing her for answers whilst she still had them, but she had trusted her mother, just like she had trusted Charlie when he said he was coming back, that he was getting better, and she didn’t fully understand herself, why she felt it such betrayal.  Except…  Charlie was a member of The Circle, a good man, whom she felt had, in some indefinable way had let her down.  The Circle was the closest thing that she had to a family now and, like a family, nobody else ever seemed to notice if you weren’t at your best.  Nobody noticed if you were just that inch or two out of your depth…

The consoling arm on Penny’s shoulder took her by surprise.  She opened her mouth to speak but, as hot tears swelled unheralded into her eyes, Terry put a finger to concerned lips and silently handed her a tissue.  “Wipe your eyes,” he whispered, “and as long as you don’t tell, neither shall I.”  He winked.  “After all, where would The Circle be without a little feud to keep it going?”  Penny took the tissue and smiled weakly at Terry as he retreated slowly, back to his customary place on the periphery.  “That,” thought Penny “is the problem with families: you never quite know where you are with them…”

*‘A Boy Named Sue’ by Johnny Cash

The Writer’s Circle stories started her with ‘Penny’s Poem’ here.
The previous Writer’s Circle story ‘Funeral Songs’ is here.

The Writer’s Circle #14 – Funeral Songs

“…I’d like loads of fuss: anguished wailing, gnashing of teeth; the whole nine yards…”  It was a typical mid-session conversation at The Circle, this time sparked by Frankie’s passing mention of having ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ as his funeral song and Phil, as usual, was having his say, although what was coming out of his mouth bore little relation to what was going on in his head.  “Can you still get those horses with big white plumes on their heads?  I’d like those.  White horses, of course.  Nothing tacky…”
“Well,” interjected Deidre, the venom in her voice just about concealed by the syrup in her smile, “I’m sure we all look await the occasion with bated breath.”
“What is bated breath?” asked Elizabeth.  “I mean, why is it ‘bated’?”
“I think,” said Billy, “it’s ‘abated’ shortened, so kind of postponed.  Your man Shakespeare again, I think.”
“Right, so if we all bate our breath whilst waiting for Phil’s funeral, it’s very likely that we’ll all get there before him.”
“I used to work for a man who loved funerals,” volunteered Louise.  “He used to go from church to church, sitting at the back, singing hymns.  He loved to sing.”
“I hate funerals,” ventured Penny.
“They certainly don’t have much to recommend them,” said Terry.
Penny stared at him hard.  “Some might,” she whispered.
“My grandad was the same,” offered Frankie, picking up the stitch that Louise had dropped.  “He loved a good funeral did my grandad – although he did, at least,  restrict himself to people he knew.  Broke his heart when he couldn’t go to my grandma’s funeral.”
“Why couldn’t he go?” asked Deidre.
“Because she wouldn’t die.”
“Ta-da!” said Phil who, unlike Deidre, had seen it coming.
“It’s weird though, isn’t it,” started Elizabeth as the laughter subsided, conscious that Deidre was about to say something that would almost certainly dampen the mood, ‘how all that tension in the church dissipates the second the first sherry is served.”
“And why sherry?” asked Jane.  “Does anybody drink sherry other than at funerals?”
“Great aunts on Christmas Eve” suggested Vanessa.
“Well, that’s a given,” said Jane.
“I had a great aunt who drank nothing but Milk Stout,” Said Billy.  “It killed her in the end.”
“Don’t tell me,” laughed Frankie.  “She was knocked over by the delivery truck.”
“No,” said Billy.  “She had cirrhosis.  As I said, she drank nothing but Milk Stout.”
“Always one of the first signs that Christmas was on its way,” said Terry “the adverts for British Sherry.”
“I prefer mine dry,” said Penny, which brought a smile to Terry’s lips.
“When I was a kid, my mum used to send me to the local offy with a pound and an empty milk bottle for a pint of draught sherry.”
“Didn’t it make your tea taste funny, Bill?” quipped Frankie, who never learned.
“It was always snowballs in our house at Christmas,” said Deidre.  “Instead of sherry, I mean.  A snowball.  Although we never had lime in it, or a cherry come to that.  Just advocaat and lemonade.  Oh, what was it called?”
“Warninks,” answered Billy.  “‘Eveninks and morninks, we all drink Warninks…’”
“I think we had Bols.”
“I bet that took some swallowing.”  Frankie was in his element.
“Yes, thank you very much for that, Francis.”  Deidre was not.
“I never knew my mum or dad to visit the pub,” Terry said.  “When my dad died – I was very young – but I remember mum put a fiver behind the bar to buy all the drinks.  The landlord ended up footing the bill, because he didn’t like to tell her it was nothing like enough.  As we left, she told him to keep any change there was.  I really didn’t like the way she winked at me…”
“I wonder why we make the association between funerals and Christmas?” asked Vanessa.
“And alcohol,” added Phil.
Vanessa nodded.  “And alcohol…  Forced bonhomie and conversations with people with whom we would rather not spend our time…”
“Family gatherings,” said Billy.  “Like carbuncles: hard to endure, but when they’ve gone, the relief is immense.”
“So what’s you funeral song then Bill?” asked Phil.
“I don’t think I’ve got one,” he answered, just a beat too quickly.
“You have,” said Phil.  “I know you have.  You must have.  Everybody has.”
“Well, my dad had ‘My Way’ and my uncle Derek had ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’…”
“A bit clichéd, don’t you think?”
“Exactly my point,” said Billy.  You either go for something ridiculously clichéd or totally bonkers.”
“I like a song by Judie Tzuke called ‘Joan of Arc’,” said Penny.  “I think I’d have that.”
“I’ll make a note,” said Frankie.
“You’ll be gone long before me,” Penny laughed, despite herself.
“Mm,” Frankie stroked his chin, “I suppose I am probably the eldest here,” he chuckled.  “Together with Deidre, of course.”
Deidre groaned, as if shot, but not wanting to ‘protest too much’, she smiled wanly.
“Would any of you come to my funeral, I wonder?” asked Terry.  “Other than Penny of course, who can’t wait to dance on my grave.”
“Well, not ‘dance’ exactly,” said Penny.
“Shame,” said Terry, “because I was thinking of having ‘I’m in the Mood for Dancing’ by The Nolans.”
“I hate that song,” said Penny.
“Me too,” laughed Terry, “but fortunately I won’t have to hear it.”
“I’d have ‘Magnificent’ by Elbow,” said Jane.
“That’s a great song.”
“I know, I’ll be sad to miss it.”

Sitting at the end of the bar, just on the fringes of the group, cradling his half-pint, Tom Bagshot listened intently, but did not interject: it was, after all, his first meeting and, truth be told, although it was far less intimidating than he had feared, he would be pleased if he could make it through without having to provide any input.  He nodded from time to time, laughed when everybody else laughed and quietly attempted to assemble in his mind a map of where everybody fitted in.  And then, fleetingly, he caught Frankie’s eye…
“What about you, er?…”
“What about you, Tom, sherry or snowball?”
“Sherry, I think, but dry like…”
“Like Penny.”
“And what about your funeral song?” asked Phil.
“Maybe ‘One World’ by John Martyn, although I do think ‘Magnificent’ is a great shout.”  He smiled at Jane and Deidre glanced at her watch.  “Well everyone,” she said, “as hard as it will be to drag ourselves away from ‘The Joy of Funerals’ I think it is time that we went back upstairs to hear what Penelope has got for us this week.”  Tom, along with the rest of the group, rose to his feet and Deidre smiled at Penny.  “Is it about birds again, dear?” she asked…

If you enjoyed this week’s Writer’s Circle meeting, it all started here with ‘Penny’s Poem‘.
Last week’s Writer’s Circle, ‘Charlie’s Diary’ is here.

The Writer’s Circle #13 – Charlie’s Diary

Charles (Charlie to his friends) Fairford had been a founding member of The Circle, an ever-present until his illness.  He had been more of an occasional visitor for a few weeks after his diagnosis, still the same old wryly amusing Charlie, but as the effects of his chemo slowly dragged him down, his visits became increasingly infrequent before, about three months ago, they had stopped altogether.  But now, to everybody’s great delight, he was back; his dark hair replaced by a light, downy covering, his face gaunt, but still Charlie looking out from behind perpetually amused eyes.  Everybody wanted to know whether he was back for good, but nobody wanted to ask.

Even Deidre could not hide her pleasure when he walked through the door.  “Charles,” she had almost sighed.  (She considered herself a friend, but would not consider calling him Charlie.)  “Phillip, Francis, get Charles a chair.  Put it here.”  She indicated the space beside her.  There was always a space beside Deidre.  Phil fetched the chair and held it tightly, as though it might otherwise fall apart, whilst Frankie helped Charlie down into it.
“Really, I’m fine,” he said, slightly embarrassed by the fuss, but none-the-less grateful for the help.  Everybody came to greet him, to shake his hand, to pat his shoulder, to hug him warmly, before returning to their seats; Vanessa introduced herself and he smiled warmly, it was good to meet new members.  Terry did the same and Charlie didn’t seem to mind at all. 
“So, what’s been going on?” he asked when The Circle at last settled back down.
“Well, as you see, we have new members,” said Deidre.  “There is so much writing being done.  Phillip has abandoned his book and is working on a play; Jane is formulating ideas – have you ever heard of ovinaphobia? – Mr Teasdale has told us a little about himself and William (Billy bridled as she knew he would) has let us in on the start of his new work.  You’ve met Vanessa, she’s going to read to us soon, and Francis… Francis still blesses us with his humour from time to time.  And Penny has read us some lovely poetry, haven’t you dear?”
“And you, Deidre?”  Deidre blushed slightly as she was able to do when the situation demanded it.  “I’ve seen your latest book advertised in the local press.  When are we to hear some of your new one?”
“You’re coming back… again I mean.  You’re coming back again?”
Charlie smiled.  “I don’t know what else I’d do with my Thursdays.”

“What about you, Charlie?  Have you had time to write?  Is it Charlie?  Do you prefer Charles? I…”  Vanessa had spoken instinctively, feeling that he had a story to tell, but not knowing nearly enough about what that story might be.  She regretted it instantly. 
“Lots of time,” Charlie’s smile was as genuine as it was warm “just not much to say.  I kept a diary.  I will probably try to do something with that.  My fingers are still a little numb at the moment; I struggle to hold a pen, so I’m doing battle with a laptop.  Does anybody use a pen these days?”
“Just me, I think,” said Frankie.
“Of course, Mr Dinosaur,” neither Charlie nor Frankie could hide their happiness at being able to have this conversation.  “Now don’t expect me to look surprised,” Charlie continued.  “At least, not until I’ve grown my eyebrows back.”
A palpable sense of relief flooded the room.  It could be spoken about.
“How are you Charlie?”
“I’m fine.  The drugs help of course.”  He smiled.  “Nobody ever says you’re cured: it can always come back – I push it all to the back of my mind and I live a normal life.  From today – everything starts today – each step is back to normality.  Speaking of which, do we still have a gin at tea break?”
“Are you allowed?”
“Deidre, when you have been where I have been, the only thing that keeps you going from time to time is the thought of gin and tonic, probably warm because the landlord has run out of ice again, and almost certainly decorated with a glace cherry because the lemon has turned and the young idiot with the dragon tattoo can never remember what colour an olive is.  Not only that,” he patted jacket pocket with a triumphant smile, “I have managed to smuggle my wallet out of the house which means that I can once again start paying for your friendship.”
“Well,” said Louise.  “I, for one, am prepared to sing ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ if it’s going to get me a dry white.”
“Two if you don’t,” said Charlie.

The meeting became a single elongated ‘tea break’ with the whole of The Circle clustered around Charlie, telling him their plans and listening to his stories.  As always, Charlie had a thousand stories.  They were always amusing.  They were never mean.  Eventually plans were being made to pick cars up in the morning, taxis were being booked and everybody prepared to go home.  Deidre looked at Charlie’s empty glass, not the first of the evening.  “Have you driven here, Charles?” she asked.
“No, I’m being picked up,” he answered.  “I’ll ring them now.  They’ll just be a few minutes.”  And so, assured that Charlie was settled, one by one the members of The Writer’s Circle said their goodbyes and drifted off home, leaving him alone, awaiting his lift home.  Only after the last of his friends had left did the man in the corner take to his feet and wander over to his table.  “OK now?” he queried.
Charlie nodded and wearily allowed the hospice nurse to help him to his feet.  He’d enjoyed his evening.  Everyone had seemed so happy to have him back, he didn’t have the heart to tell them that it wouldn’t be for long…

If you want to read further Writer’s Circle stories, episode 1, ‘Penny’s Poem’ is here.
Last week’s episode ‘Seriously Unfunny’ is here.

The Writer’s Circle #12 – Seriously Unfunny

“I wrote this for a magazine.  I thought it was funny.  They returned it to me.  They didn’t think it was funny.  They thought that it was a GCSE essay that I’d sent to them by mistake.  Anyway, as I wrote it, I thought that I might read it to you all before I feed it to the shredder.”  Frankie began, solemn-faced, to read from the sheaf of papers he held in his hand.

“‘In common with most nations (and some sunglasses), the UK is seriously polarised.  At one end of our society there is a sub-set of the poor and disadvantaged who believe that all of their woes have arisen as a result of the actions (or inactions) of ‘the rich’; at the other end a sub-set of the rich and privileged who really do believe that those without wealth are that way simply because they are workshy; that those without education are that way simply because they are stupid; that those who choose to eat their meals in McDonald’s do so simply because they are too lazy to get the 4×4 out of the garage and nip round to the wine bar.  Both views, although palpably flawed, are none-the-less deeply entrenched into the British class psyche.  It is an obvious, if not particularly edifying fact, that when things get stacked-up – as societies are apt to do – something always winds up at the bottom – like Grimsby.  Whilst the vast majority of us occupy the middle ground between two extremes – ineffectively dangling our balls over either side of the fence, grumbling under our breath like a disenfranchised Social Democrat about the behaviour and attitudes of those both ‘above’ and ‘below’ us – it is the rift between these two ‘poles’ of society that drives all comedy.  The stooge in all comedic confrontations will be either an upper-class twit or an ill-educated lout.  We feel empowered to laugh at them both because we are neither.

Our comfortable little Larnaca poolside sunbed in the ‘green zone’ between the two sides engaged in the class war is the place from where we can look in any direction and see something ludicrous.  We are the sane centre of an insane universe and the idiots either side of us can’t even see it.  We see that the rich are wrong to deride the poor and the poor are wrong to censure the rich, but we do not see that the one thing that unites the two is the contempt with which they view those of us in the middle.  Neither one nor the other, neither twixt nor tween, neither Abbott nor Costello: we are an homogenous gloop, like vichyssoise, and there’s nothing funny about that.  

Comedy is always painful for someone.  I have been to many comedy gigs that were excruciating.  (The problem with a bad joke is that you don’t know it’s bad until it drops onto your foot.)  All jokes are battles: all punchlines are the moment when Indiana Jones shoots the giant swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The skill of the comedian is in telling you something you already know, whilst allowing you to think that they thought of it first.  How many times have you watched a mammoth James Bond fight whilst thinking ‘Why doesn’t he just shoot him’?  Some degree of foreknowledge from the audience is vital.  Imagine a comedian with no audience (perhaps Jimmy Carr).  If I fall over in a forest and nobody is there to see it, is it still funny?  (Answer: only to my wife.)

In the United Kingdom, we can add to this caustic little brew the fact that the four home nations actually have very little time for one another (we are perpetually either preparing for divorce or engaged in the kind of dalliance that will almost certainly lead to one) and – except for when any one of us has an Olympic champion – we’d actually far sooner be United with anybody else other than our closest neighbours (excluding the French, obviously).  All the jokes I knew as a boy featured an Englishman (smart), a Scotsman (tight) and an Irishman (stupid): there was seldom a Welshman in my proto-teenage repertoire as I was not familiar with any comedic Welsh stereotype other than a fat man singing loudly at daffodils.  The English man – always a man: misogyny would have been a really good Olympic event for us back then – always top of the pile as far as we were concerned, but bottom for everybody else.  For us the stiff upper lip, for everybody else an iron rod up the arse.  The characteristics we most valued, being the most reviled by everybody else.  Charming eccentricities are all well and good, providing that you don’t expect everybody else to share them.  Ok, so we have the best sense of humour in the world, so why does nobody else get it?  Perhaps they just need educating.  (Many deride the French sense of humour, but they forget Marcel Marceau – or a single word he said – some say the Germans have no sense of humour, but they forget… actually, they don’t forget, perhaps that’s the problem.)  Hating the English is the only thing that actually unites the rest of our Queendom (and, at times, the world).  English plutocrats, looking down our noses at our feckless Celtic cousins: a class war of nations.  We are the butt of their jokes as they are ours.  A fun day out at the circular butt-kicking convention.

And God forbid that anyone is knowingly droll or amusing: that is just not how it is done.  English characters do not wise-crack, they pratfall.  Basil Fawlty was a clown, Del Trotter was a clown, David Brent was a clown: if they’d have been witty, they’d have been smart-arses and we wouldn’t have liked them at all.  Funny is accidental, stupid, absent, but never intentional.  Witty is annoying.  It is difficult to think of a single successful sit-com character who ever ‘made’ jokes, rather than being the butt of them: an unwitting victim of circumstance.  Most successful comedians stress their own fallibilities rather than those of others.  Frailty becomes their strength.  ‘Making fun of’ is seldom funny.  Mocking political satire merely turns the ‘enemy’ into the ‘victim’.  Even with a target as broad as our own Boris, it is difficult to score points without appearing mean.  Nobody likes a bully, and the desire to be liked is the common thread that joins all comedians.  The class clown is traditionally the shy boy/girl who has no friends until they discover that putting a drawing pin on the teacher’s chair will buy them a class full of them – as long as they find something equally funny to do the next day.  It is like being court jester to a medieval king: ‘make me laugh my head off or I’ll laugh yours off’.  ‘You’ve got to give it to him though, that’s a bloody hilarious pig’s bladder he’s waving.’  Has any sane person ever laughed at a circus clown?  ‘So, your car fell apart, well so did mine sunshine, and nobody laughed then either.’  The biggest prize for those with no friends is the friendship of those with many.  The biggest prize for those with many is the ability to thwart the aspirations of those with none.  Money does buy friends, and also the ability to have no need for them.  Those that have do not need, and those that need do not have, and whilst we may well be the only ones to see it, the joke, none-the-less, is always on us.’” 

He winked.

“I really have no idea why Woman’s Own would not accept it…”

The Writer’s Circle began here with ‘Penny’s Poem’
Last week’s episode, ‘Ulysses’ is here.

The Writer’s Circle #11 – Ulysses

“…You cannot deny that it’s a masterpiece.”
“I can and I do.  It is impenetrable, pretentious claptrap.  The only people that ever claim to have enjoyed it are those who have never actually tried to read it.”
It had been several weeks since James Joyce’s opus had last been the topic of debate at the Writer’s Circle, but once again Frankie found himself at odds with Penny – whose poet’s heart had been stirred by the lyricism even though, truth be told, she understood barely a word of it, and Deidre – who had read it on holiday in ‘The Lakes’ once a year for as long as she could remember, on one memorable occasion making it as far as the first couple of pages of chapter seven.
“It’s a wonder to me,” continued Frankie, “that he could drink so heavily whilst obviously having his head so firmly up his own arse.”  Like Deidre, Frankie had also attempted to read the book annually for decades, although never with the expectation of finishing it.  It was just something he did.  Like walking on glass, it was only possible to find satisfaction when it was over.  Frankie was always happy when he’d finished it.  ‘Finished’ as in given up, that is – definitely not as in getting anywhere near the end of the bloody thing.  He had no intention of ever making it to the end.  It was like any other method of self-flagellation: you had to know when to stop.

For Penny it had been a literary rite of passage, a trial of intellect, and she had made it all the way through from start to finish – although, as Frankie was often at pains to point out, it would have made just as much sense if she’d read it from finish to start – and she loved it.  She bathed in the sound of it, the rhythm of it, the feel of it without any sense of knowing what on earth was going on.  And having achieved the feat she, sensibly, made no attempt to ever repeat it.  She realised that the sheer incomprehensibility of it would start to irk with a second reading.  If reading 1 had left her fulfilled although mystified, she felt sure that reading 2 would leave her feeling somehow inadequate – and she didn’t need a book to do that to her.  Unlike Frankie, who knew condescending twaddle when he saw it, she still believed that the meaning was there, waiting for her to find it, one day.  Although, as it was a timeless masterpiece, she decided that there was no hurry.

Louise Child, cast her eyes to the smoke-yellowed ceiling; she liked Penny, but tonight she wanted to strangle her. The writer of Modern Thrillers and one of the most obviously ‘educated’ members of the circle, seldom took part in these conversations, but today’s topic had roused something in her: a ghost from the past.  She was haunted by the memory of her High School English tutor, an unlovely and unloved man, who had coerced her into reading both ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ because it would be good for her.  “They’re not on the curriculum, Sir,” she had whined, but he was insistent: he knew that Louise was going to ‘be something’ and, a man of great vanity, despite his penchant for tweedy suits and bushy sideburns, he wanted to be the man that she eventually credited with her awakening.
“It will help your development as a reader,” he’d assured her.  “It will open your mind.”  He was wrong.  It had merely bored her out of it.  She had decided to go on to study ‘English Novels’ simply because even a lifetime of ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ was preferable to ever having to consider Joyce again.  She wanted everyone to know what she thought of the blessed thing so, she seized a moment of silence and leapt headlong into it.
“Ulysses is a pantomime,” she declared with uncharacteristic conviction.  “A fairy tale.  It’s a charade.  It means nothing.  It was simply a means of getting people prepared for what was to follow: throwing words at the page and seeing what stuck.  It’s a child’s pasta collage dressed up as fine art.  It is Brian Sewell discussing roadkill, simply because the badger was struck by Damien Hirst.  It’s being too vain to care what people really think, only what they say they think…”  She stopped, suddenly aware that she was centre of attention.  It was not a position she chose to occupy.

Penny sensed her discomfort, but she also felt affronted by the strength of her opinions, so she abandoned any attempt to intervene.  As usual, she regretted her decision almost immediately, but felt, none-the-less, completely constrained by it.  To everyone’s surprise, including his own, it was Billy who first leapt to Louise’s defence.  “I’ve never read it,” he said.  “But I know exactly what she means.  It’s like being expected to like Shakespeare, but you can’t, because you know it’s nonsense.  Some brilliant one-liners, a few clever epigrams and what?  There is no plot.  Go and see it in the theatre and you get the director’s plot: you get what he or she thinks Shakespeare was banging on about, but try and work it out for yourself, just from the text and, be honest, your guess is as good as anybody else’s.  What’s the point in buying a book if you’ve got to make the plot up yourself?  Well, that’s what I think anyway…”
He looked around the Circle and, for once, he did not sense the hostility his contributions usually managed to engender.  Even Phil managed a slight nod in his direction.
“And it’s just so bloody long,” said Frankie.  “Like War & Peace.”
“Have you ever read War & Peace?” asked Phil.
“No I haven’t, it’s too bloody long.”  Laughter filled the room.  It happened from time to time and it always annoyed Deidre, who would really have quite liked a world without it.
“Are you seriously suggesting that all long novels are bad?”
“Not necessarily,” answered Frankie.  “Although I would rather like you to name me a good one.”
“What about Middlemarch?”
“Have you read it?”
“Well I…”
“No, I thought not.  Watched the TV series I expect.”
“You could count the ‘Lord of the Rings’ as a single book,” ventured Billy.
“Indeed you could,” admitted Frankie.  “It is, after all, profoundly dull without the benefit of CGI.”
Deidre glanced at her watch and decided it was probably time to call an end to the evening’s meeting.  “I think, Mr Collins, that you are probably being deliberately obtuse.  Perhaps we should call it a day and bid one another farewell for now, before anyone can be offended.”
The Circle began, haphazardly, to rise and disband.
“Ah,” said Frankie, a triumphant grin spreading from ear to ear.  “‘Think you’re escaping and run into yourself.’”
“I have no idea what you mean by that,” sighed Deidre.
“Nor do I,” said Frankie.  “It’s codswallop.”
“He’s right,” offered Louise as she struggled her arm into the sleeve of her overcoat “and, as we are leaving, I would also ask you all to remember, ‘Longest way round is the shortest way home.”  She smiled at Frankie, who beamed back at her.  “Pure codswallop…”

This [Ulysses] is obviously the wave of the future, I’m glad I’m dying of tuberculosis.  Katherine Mansfield

‘The Writer’s Circle #1 – Penny’s Poem’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #10 – Phil’s Baby’ is here.

The Writer’s Circle #10 – Phil’s Baby

Well, as the whole of the evening’s session resulted from a stupid, slack-mouthed, off-the-cuff suggestion made by Phil, he felt obliged to make the first contribution.  “Perhaps,” he had said a couple of weeks ago, “we should all have a go at writing in one another’s genre.  It will help us to understand…”  He could recall exactly how his voice had trailed away as he realised that everybody else actually saw this as a good idea.  He had meant it to stir up disagreement: something to spice up the last few minutes of a drab meeting, but it had been met with universal approval.  Deidre had drawn up a list on the spot, they had all chosen a random number and Phil had chosen ‘Play’; the knot in the pit of his stomach tightening immediately with the realisation that Billy would become his main critic.  Anyway, the die was cast so, despite the attraction of wanting to hear what Penny would make of the ‘Horror’ ticket she had drawn, Phil offered to go first – it was, after all, his baby.  Such was the general enthusiasm that they all agreed to make it a monthly diversion and gave Phil two weeks to make his ‘pitch’.  Two weeks can pass so quickly…

“Right,” Phil started, sounding very much more at ease than he felt.  He had worked very hard on this.  He actually thought he was onto something, but that was the last thing he wanted any of the others to know – especially Billy.  He had pages of dialogue at home: he couldn’t quiet the voices in his head; they kept him awake at night.  He felt that what he had was good, but it was much too close to him to let the others hear much of it yet.  He pulled half a dozen neatly typed, but deliberately ‘distressed’ sheets of foolscap from his pocket.  “This is what I’ve got…  It’s probably not very good,” he continued in a voice that even Terry recognised as insincere.     “The scene is simple: a single park bench facing the audience.  The setting is a graveyard and the cast is three old men discussing life and death, and the inconsequential nature of everything between the start of one and the end of the other.  It will be wordy, because there is no action and each of the characters each have monologues to deliver to the audience through the progress of the conversation.  I guess it would make them tough roles to learn – but it would be very cheap to stage.”  He paused for a moment expecting to hear Billy’s voice questioning whether it would be ‘real’, but it never came.  ‘Give him a little more rope…’ was what was dancing around Billy’s brain.

Silence can be good, but, in truth, it seldom is.  Phil decided it would be the right course of action to fill it. 

“OK,” he continued.  “It starts like this…

(As the lights come up on stage a three seat bench is centre stage facing the audience.  Behind the bench, his hands resting on it’s back, stands Frank)

FRANK                       It never seems quite right – a funeral on a sunny day.  You’re looking for gloom aren’t you?  Cold.  A chance to wear one of those long black coats like they do on the telly.  A bit of rain would be good; a swirling wind perhaps.  Maybe you could hold a big black umbrella over the grieving widow’s head.  Lift your collar.  Watch the rain drops collect on the coffin lid…  Funerals should all be in the winter.  Everybody should die in the winter, when the weather is right for funerals.  Not like today.  The world should be a drab place on the day that you’re buried, like one of those old newsreel films of the miners leaving the pits after a day’s shift; young men trudging off to fight in the war; the same men, now old men, trudging back, empty-eyed, from the war – the world should be monochrome on the day that you’re buried: dank and dark and cold for everybody else, like it is for you…

But look at this.  Bright sunshine.  Nobody wants to be buried in bright sunshine.  Unseasonally warm the weather man said.  Spring flowers pushing through the grass.  A world alive with daffodils and discarded ice-cream wrappers; confetti from yesterday’s wedding; birds singing in the trees, fighting and mating, scrabbling round in the newly-dug graves, searching for worms in the freshly turned soil.  You should go away little bird, come back in a couple of years when the worms are big and fat.  They say that we share 99 per cent of our DNA with worms.  It’s no surprise, is it?  I wonder what the other one percent is?  God perhaps.  Do we all contain one percent of the almighty?  Like the one percent of pork in a pork sausage – are we all God?  Is that what the Church means when it says that God is in us all?  God is all around us?  We are all minutely God?

(He walks around the bench and sits in the centre)

I read once that when bodies are exhumed, they find evidence that most of them were not actually dead when they were buried.   All those people asking to be interred with their precious possessions, when really they’d have been better off with a Black & Decker or a Walkie Talkie.  You’d at least want a neat little flat screen telly in the coffin lid.  Or a torch and a good book.  Imagine waking up and expecting a little bit of comfort in your plush silk lining only to find your stingy bloody kids had buried you in a cardboard box.  Eco-friendly.  Laid to rest like a Shredded Wheat.  I suppose, ultimately, we’re all recyclable aren’t we…

(He takes a piece of paper out of his jacket pocket and looks at it briefly)

One side of A5, that’s what your life boils down to isn’t it?  One side of A5.  Two prayers, a hymn and a eulogy from a vicar who can’t even remember your name.

(He folds the paper and puts it back in his jacket)

Sometimes you do have to wonder if you’re at the right funeral.  The person that they’re all talking about, it’s never the person you knew.  Nobody ever mentions that he stole from the tea fund; dropped old buttons in the charity collection; fed all fifty seven of the gerbil’s offspring to next-door’s boa constrictor…  Always the friend you could rely upon – always the rock in everybody else’s storm.

Everybody who ever died was a wonderful parent: I wonder what happens to all the crap ones.  Maybe they never die.  Maybe they live forever.  Strange thing to have as the key to immortality – ‘Are you a bad parent?  Yes?  Then don’t bother taking out life insurance, you’re here forever baby…’  You wouldn’t even have to worry about what the kids might say about you at your funeral : no-one would ever know that you’d never read them a bedside story; that you’d never sat with them when they were ill; that you never put actual English currency into their piggy banks on their birthdays.  You’re never going to die – you’ll never have a funeral – you don’t even have to worry about the ancient photographs of you with long hair and a kipper-tie being passed around the wake.

I wonder why people have such a compulsion to embarrass you after you’ve died.  ‘Look, here’s a picture of him with a really stupid haircut.  And here’s one when he had that really silly ginger moustache, do you remember that?  Ooh and look, he’d had far too much to drink on this one.  Wasn’t he funny?  Such a shame he’s dead.  Do you want another sherry?’…

Well, that’s all I’ve got really.  I know I’ll never make a playwright…”  He folded up his papers and forced them back into his top pocket.  “But it has made me think

about how these things are plotted.  I’m sure Billy will have a few pointers for me.”

As one, the Circle turned to Billy, who even now was toying with his own draw: ‘Detective Novel’.  “Right, well,” he gathered himself.  “Very good – for a non-playwright – although I can see many pitfalls ‘construction-wise’ and I think what we really need to ask ourselves is, ‘Is it real?’”

“Or is it a play?” asked Frankie.

Phil grinned broadly.  As far as he was concerned, the reaction had already been worth the effort and, truth be told, what had set off in his head as a means of laughing at Billy had become a project that he was now determined to pursue.  Meanwhile, the heated discussion he had hoped for had started, although Billy, whose thoughts were now fully occupied elsewhere – how would it be possible to kill someone without ever being caught – was strangely quiet…

‘The Writer’s Circle #1 – Penny’s Poem’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #9 – The New Chapter’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #11 – Ulysses’ is here.

The Writer’s Circle #9 – The New Chapter

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…

‘The Writer’s Circle #1 – Penny’s Poem’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #8 – Ovinaphobia’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #10 – Phil’s Baby’ is here.

The Writer’s Circle #8 – Ovinaphobia

Jane Herbert smiled nervously as she looked around the Circle.  “I don’t have anything to read to you,” she said.  “But I have an idea I want to pitch.”  None of the other group members really knew much about Jane.  She was an ever-present, always pleasant company but certainly no open book.  It always appeared that whatever small revelation she was prepared to make had been well thought-through beforehand.  She played her life like a poker hand.  The others knew that she wrote horror stories, she had described herself on one occasion as ‘Stephen King in a frock’, but other than the little insights she chose to impart in and around the bar, little was known about her or her writing.  “The tale starts with the discovery of a dismembered cat in field near a farm.  Nothing unusual in that; must happen all the time – foxes, stray dogs, drunken youths…  Nobody pays much attention, even when other mutilated small creatures start appearing – rats, rabbits, one or two more cats – nobody really bothers, until that is, the first of the brutally dismembered larger animals appears and it gradually becomes clear that nothing is safe any longer: dogs, foxes, badgers, deer are found – all horribly killed and half-eaten by who knows what?…”

“My God!” whispered Frankie.  “That’s like no Tale of the Riverbank I’ve ever seen.”  Jane Smiled, she was happy with the reaction.

“The killings become more regular; more brutal with each passing day,” she continued.  “The local people begin to discuss the possibility of some slavering mythical beast.  The national tabloids catch wind of the story and they descend on the village: farm animals are locked away at nights, watched over by reporters, farmhands and CCTV cameras, all hoping to uncover the truth of the Beast of Westhall, but the killings stop as suddenly as they began, interest wanes and the farms slowly return to the mores of normal rural existence.  It is widely believed that it has all been some kind of morbid publicity stunt, or even, perhaps, some kind of arcane sacrificial ritual.  Over time, as things return to normal, only one reporter remains, an atypically thorough journalistic investigator, determined to uncover the truth.  It is he who finds the first human victim, stripped of flesh and clothing,  and huddled under a hawthorn hedge surrounded by nothing more than a bloodied muddy lake, fringed by ungulate footprints and wisps of wool fluttering in the breeze where it has snagged on the barbed wire fence…”

“What’s an ungulate?” asked Phil after a pause that was just long enough to make him feel that he was the only one who didn’t know.
“I think it’s an animal with a cloven foot, isn’t it?” said Frankie.  Jane smiled at him once again.
Phil turned to Frankie and mouthed the words, “Teacher’s Pet.”  They both grinned.
“So, is that what’s doing the killing then?” Phil persevered, aware that he may still have been the only one of them in the dark.  “Something or other with a clover foot?”
“Cloven,” corrected Deidre, who was never one to turn up such a chance.
“Well,” answered a thoughtful Jane.  “It’s likely, isn’t it?  Although it’s even more likely that the ungulates, whatever they may be, could just have been curious bystanders.  They are, after all, herbivores.”
“What about pigs?  Are they ungulates?  My grandad had a pig during the war – it ate anything.”
“But did it kill anything?”
“I’m not sure, could have done.  I’ve never trusted pigs since they sent Boxer off to the knacker’s yard.”
“What about the wool on the barbed wire?” asked Penny.  “…Unless that’s a red herring.”
“Do herring have wool?” asked Phil, ashamed of himself almost immediately as Penny flushed instantly crimson.
“Well, they are weird, aren’t they, sheep?” chipped in Louise.  “Evil little eyes.”
“They don’t kill though, do they,” said Terry.  “At least, not in real life.”
“They have plenty of motive to start killing humans, I’d say,” countered Vanessa.  “I agree with Louise, evil little eyes.  Although Penny’s right,” she cast a glance at Phil, “the wool could just be a red herring.”
“Why do we count sheep do you think?” asked Frankie.  “When we want to go to sleep, I mean.  Why sheep?  Why not rabbits, or kittens, or koalas, they’re far more restful…  Maybe sloths would be even better.  Counting sloths – how peaceful can you get?”
“They are sinister, aren’t they, sheep?  Lambs are cute, like baby hyena, but by the time they’re adult and they’ve seen most of their contemporaries carted off to the abattoir, they definitely give the impression of an animal with a grudge.”
“Killer sheep – or maybe just one killer.  Be a nightmare to identify in the middle of a flock wouldn’t it?” said Phil.  “Mind you, knowing what sheep are like, they’d all want a go.  They’re notoriously…” his voice trailed away, “…sheep-like aren’t they?”
“What about deer?” asked Billy, keen to join in the conversation.  “They can be big and aggressive.”
“Didn’t Jane say that some of the victims had been deer?”
“Wouldn’t put it past ‘em,” Billy muttered darkly.
“Bloody hell,” said Frankie.  “Psycho Rudolph!  This could be more disturbing than The Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
“Nothing could be that scary.”  Penny looked genuinely alarmed at the prospect.
“Imagine,” grinned Billy, “you’re just drifting off to sleep, peacefully counting sheep, when one of them leaps out and starts to chew your face off!”
“I really…”  Penny turned very pale indeed.  “Why do we count sheep do you think?”
“I think it’s because they come in flocks,” suggested Deidre.
“Starlings come in flocks,” said Terry.  “And pigeons.”
“Much too difficult to tie down,” said Vanessa.  “It would keep you awake, the possibility that you’d missed one.”
“You’d have to count so quickly,” added Penny.  “I think it would keep you awake.”
“Unlike a demented sheep?”  Billy chided, winking at the grinning Terry.
“I think we’d all agree,” said Vanessa, “that consideration of the demented in any species is probably inadvisable in the moments before sleep.  Nobody should have to try and sleep in the company of the psychotically unhinged.  Do you have a partner Mr Hunt?”
“I…”  Billy’s mouth lolled open like a dying carp.  He looked towards Terry for support.  He got none.
“Good,” said Vanessa, unaware of Deidre’s appreciative stare.  “So, Jane, what are they, these killer ungulates: sheep, pigs, deer or just plain old red herrings?”
“Well, there’s my problem, I’m really not sure,” she frowned slightly.  “I haven’t really got it straight in my head yet, and I’m afraid to say that it’s keeping me awake at night…”

‘The Writer’s Circle #1 – Penny’s Poem’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #7 – Vanessa’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #9 – The New Chapter’ is here.

The Writer’s Circle #7 – Vanessa

Vanessa had joined the Circle only six weeks ago, but had already achieved the status of ‘regular’ simply by getting into Deidre’s good books (a joke she had made to Phil and Frankie, who didn’t get it).  In fact the mood within the group had improved immensely since she had appeared simply because her arrival coincided with the departure of Richard Hart, who knew an ex-copper when he saw one.  Detective Inspector Vanessa Winthorpe had interviewed Richard Hart many times during his ‘career’ and she had proved herself to be every bit as tough mentally as he was physically.  She had the kind of intellect that could slice over-ripe peaches and the kind of tongue that could subdue a hungry polar bear.  He would have liked to have done her harm, but he feared that that was what ‘they’ wanted.  Surely the police could leave him alone now – he had done his time (at least for the small percentage of the crimes for which he had been convicted).  In the old days, they would have patted one another on the back – one for the times they had caught him, one for the times they hadn’t – had a drink together and let bygones be bygones.  The modern police force was no longer full of gentlemen!

He did consider confronting her; he might have done so too, if he wasn’t so scared of Deidre.  Deidre had seen in Vanessa a kindred spirit and had given her the seat at her right hand.  It was too much for Richard who had never abandoned anything through fear, but was totally unfamiliar with confronting any challenge that could not be met with a punch in the mouth.  He had gone out of his way to be friendly with everyone in the Circle, yet his charm offensive, to most of them, was exactly that: offensive.  He knew that they were afraid of him, but that was ok.  Everybody was afraid of him.  He had never had a friend who would turn away from him.  At least, not if there was any possibility that he was concealing an axe about his person.  Deidre, however, was different.  She was not scared; she knew that Mr Darcy would have made mincemeat of him in a fair fist fight.  She did not know that Richard had taken part in more fist fights than Darcy had had hot dinners, but never a fair one.  Preparation was the key.  Shooting your assailant through the kneecap before starting to punch always made things a little easier.  Having a knuckleduster on each of your hands, plus those of all twenty of your ‘friends’, always tilted the balance slightly.  For Richard Hart, victory was always in the winning.

Maybe in the past he would have rubbed them all out, possibly one at a time, but more likely in a single incident: a freak bulldozer accident, or similar, but his heart was no longer in it.  Age had softened him.  He dreamed of following Mad Frankie Fraser onto the stage, perhaps after dinner speaking, but Frankie had to leave his old life behind him first and that is what he would have to do too, even if it killed him.  The Writer’s Circle had been his first step.  They knew who he was of course, they knew not to misbehave, but he did want to fit in if he could and he almost certainly would not have killed any of them.

His paranoia – a by-product of his psychopathic nature the prison shrink had said – had gone into overdrive when he first saw Vanessa.  She had not spoken that first week, other than to introduce herself to the group, but as soon as she said her name he was certain: they were still after him.  Perhaps they thought he would have forgotten her, or perhaps they knew that he would not have.  Perhaps they believed that he would unknowingly reveal something to the group that he had kept hidden from the police for years.  He knew she was ‘mic’d-up’, she fidgeted constantly, she scratched at her arm.  He was too old a pro to be so indiscrete in front of strangers and it annoyed him that they thought he would fall for that.  It might not have been their game of course.  They might have anticipated him recognizing DI Winthorpe, perhaps in the hope that he would be tempted into doing something stupid; well, they would have to think again.

Richard Hart went home as usual sharp at ten and attacked his prison tag with a hammer.  It hurt – a lot – but it eventually came off and he hurled it at the wall before turning on the TV and drinking his tea.  They would be round for him in the morning.  There’d be lots of them; one or two of the young ones he would really enjoy picking off, but he would not put up too much of a fight.  Just enough.  Break the odd nose, that sort of thing.  Just sufficient for them to have him returned to prison.  He was safer there.  His cell would be just as he had left it – or else somebody would answer for it.  He would stay in there for the rest of his life if it meant that they couldn’t send him down for longer.  Oh yes, no fool Richard Hart.

The Circle was much more relaxed after that.  Terry and Billy had settled back into their former position of ‘most abhorrent members’, Phil had stopped leaving his phone’s Voice Memo’s switched on and Frankie had stopped stuffing a metal ash tray under his hat.  Oh, and as for Vanessa, well, her surname was actually Morrison.  She had eczema that itched like hell when she was nervous.  She had never met Ms Winthorpe and she had never been in the police force, although, even in her own estimation, she did look just like someone who should have been…

‘The Writer’s Circle #1 – Penny’s Poem’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #6 – The Point’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #8 – Ovinaphobia’ is here.