The Writer’s Circle #22 – The Price of Perceptibility

Tom Bagshot was, by nature, cautious.  He had joined the Circle eight weeks ago and had slowly managed to become a regular member without ever really registering on the consciousness of the other members.  He joined in discussions whenever he could do so unobtrusively, but only because not to do so would draw unwanted attention.  He was a Ninja member: like John Paul Jones*, unheralded, but always good to have around.  A human fitted carpet, useful for when somebody drops the china, but barely noticed otherwise.  Ironically, it was the appearance of Jeff – an even more introverted character – that alerted some of the other members to the presence of Tom and the realisation that they knew very little about him.

He had assumed a position in the Circle between Penny and Jane, and he appeared to be perfectly happy with the arrangement.  In truth, Tom was perfectly happy with most things in general.  He had no great regrets, he kept himself to himself and in the main the others were happy with that.  He looked like a man who would not have too much of a story to tell.  He would say himself, that whatever his ‘best days’ were, he had left them behind him long ago.  He was not prone to bitterness: things could be better, but they could also be worse.  The glass may well be half empty, but at least it was because he had drunk the other half.

The one slight niggle that Tom carried around with him was that everybody always seemed to assume that they knew him, that they had known him for years.  Every time he sat on a bus, somebody was bound to sit, fidgeting uncomfortably beside to him before, unable to contain themselves any longer, asking “Excuse me. I don’t mean to be rude, but do I know you from somewhere?”
“I don’t believe so,” was his stock reply, but it only seemed to spur his new companion into suggesting a thousand ways in which they may have been acquainted: “Did you teach at St Giles Junior School in 1975?”, or “Were you in that thing on the telly with the robot?”, or “I think you delivered my sister…”  He couldn’t get away from it, but he had to admit that in the great scheme of things, it was little more than the mildest of irritations. 

He had developed the ability to blend in with the background most of the time: other people knew he was there, but unless they fell over him, they never troubled him too much.  And then Jeff joined the Circle and everybody introduced themselves to him until, eventually, all eyes turned on Tom.  “Tom Bagshot,” he had said with absolutely no intention of pushing the narrative any further, but his ‘cloak of invisibility’ had been tugged from his shoulders and he was left exposed.  Deidre was first to spot his discomfort and she would never forgive herself if she missed the opportunity to deepen it.  “You’ve never really told us anything about yourself, Tom,” she said.  “We’d all love to know.”
“There’s not much to tell really,” he said, falling back onto an overused mantra which he knew would not suffice on this occasion.
“Well, are you married?” asked Penny, who could not have regretted it more quickly if she had tried.
“No,” said Tom, conscious of saving her blushes.  “I have no family.  A lifelong bachelor I’m afraid.  I think I may well have met a few Mrs Rights along the way, but unfortunately they were all attached to Mr Rights – or at least to Mr OKs, but still much bigger than me…”

Tom was certainly not ready to admit to the Circle that he was gay: he had never admitted it to his parents, his friends or even himself come to that, until very recently.  His father had died thinking that his son was just unusually shy around women; a typical only child with a slightly strange taste in clothes.  His mother died knowing it all, desperate for him to confide in her, but knowing that the time had passed long ago, so she did what mothers do and quietly enquired on the (shamefully few) occasions when Tom visited her, whether he had any ‘special friends’.  He certainly could not have told her that the only person he had ever really got close to was a man with whom he had shared a cell in Strangeways prison.  It was a shame about him.  Tom would have liked to protect him, but fighting was not in his nature, besides, if the price of peace was to leave a cellmate to his fate then so be it.  No point in getting your own face messed up over it.  Tom regretted his inaction of course; he had smelled a whole lot better than most of the people with whom he was forced to share a cell, and there had been many of them over the years.

But his days of crime were all behind him now: he had decided to go straight – you must make you own mind up – on the day of his last trial after the judge had insisted on referring to him as a ‘common conman’.  That hurt.  He could live with ‘conman’ – although he preferred ‘hustler’ which sounded so much more glamorous – but ‘common’: it was so annoying.  Tom Bagshot – or whatever he was called at that time: it is so easy to forget – was many things, but definitely not common.  You don’t get to be ‘Europe’s Most Wanted’ by being common.  You don’t get to see yourself on the front page of the newspapers by being ‘common’.  You don’t get to have your face telegraphed across the world.  It was all so very demeaning…

“It’s just that…”  Tom’s attention was dragged back into the room by Penny who was staring at him, he thought, in a most peculiar fashion.  “I hope you don’t mind me asking,” she said, “but don’t I know you from somewhere?”

*The lesser-known bassist, keyboard player and songwriting member of Led Zeppelin

Episode 1 of The Writer’s Circle, ‘Penny’s Poem’ is here.
Episode 21, ‘Smile’ is here.
Episode 23 ‘Baking Scones’ is here

The Writer’s Circle #20 – The Lounge Bar in The Steam Hammer

Jeff had read about the Circle in the local online ‘newspaper’ and had actually been to the pub twice already without finding the courage to join the others.  On the first occasion he did not even enter the pub, on the second he followed what he assumed was a member into the Lounge, but left without ordering a drink as soon as he realised that there were more than a dozen members there already and he would have to introduce himself to them all en masse.  He vowed to return at an earlier hour the following week, giving himself the opportunity to introduce himself to one or two members at a time.  Much less daunting.  Much more manageable…

So, here he was, a week later, alone in the velour-seated splendour of the Lounge Bar of the Steam Hammer, hovering between door and bar, and truth be told, on the point of leaving again before any of the members arrived when the landlord peered around the partition wall between the Lounge and the bar and smiled.  Well, sort of smiled.  It looked a little like a smile, although there were definitely some slightly disturbing elements to it.
“You’re here for the Writer’s Circle,” he said.
“Well I…” stuttered Jeff, once again on the point of fleeing.  “That is I…”
“You came last week, I saw you, but you left as soon as you saw them.  They don’t bite you know.  You’ve no need to worry about them, they’re a total bunch of losers.  You can’t be any worse than they are.”  Jeff could feel the pressure of the prized manuscript rolled up in his breast pocket.  He could almost smell the mediocrity of every single word leaching out into the air around him.  “Go and sit in the corner over there; that’s where they congregate when they first come in.  I’ll let them know that you’ve come to join.  They’ll make you welcome.  They’re always after new members.  I thought of joining myself once.”
“Really?”
“No.  Are you mad?  I told you, they’re all losers – no offence – they all lack friends.  They just come here for the company and to feed their egos.”
“You don’t like having them around?”
“I love having them around.  Have you looked through into my bar?  If I didn’t get this bunch in every week I’d come nowhere close to hitting my gin target.  My only regret is that the licence doesn’t allow them to drink upstairs.  Besides,” he continued, “it makes a change from having to spend my entire evening looking at the mis-spellings on the faces of the cretins in there.”  He indicated that Jeff should look into the bar, which he leant forward to do.  “Easy,” warned the landlord.  “Don’t let them see that you’re looking.  They wouldn’t like that.”  Jeff sprang back with all the nonchalance of a chicken at a fox’s birthday party.  “See the fella in the beanie hat?”  Jeff nodded.  “Got ‘LOVE’ and ‘HAT’ tattooed on his knuckles, on account of losing a pinkie while trying to break into a safe with a Stihl saw.  The other bloke with him, Lucky we call him, the bloke with one arm, he was holding the safe.”  Jeff made a gallant attempt to swallow his own Adam’s apple, but it wasn’t going down.  “See the group around the pool table?  They’ve all got teardrops tattooed on their cheeks.  S’posed to signify that they’ve killed someone in prison, but most of them have never been inside.  They got them done when George Michael died.”
“Really, I…”
“You didn’t hear that from me though, and I’d advise you to keep it to yourself.  It’s easy to unwittingly stir up trouble, if you catch my drift.  Besides, they’re good lads, they spend a fortune on pickled eggs.  What’ll it be?”
“I’m sorry?”
“To drink.  This is a pub.  What do you want to drink?  I’m guessing you’re a red wine man, am I right?”
“Well, I do like red wine, but I thought I’d have a pint, if that’s ok.”
“Of course.  What do you want?  Lager?  Guinness?”
“Do you have any real ale?”
The landlord looked, just for a second, as though he was going to take offence, but then his face softened.  “I’ve got Newcastle Brown in bottles,” he said.
“I’ll have red wine,” said Jeff.
“I’ll go and get it,” nodded the landlord.  “I keep it upstairs.  If I keep it down here, the locals interfere with it when I’m not looking.”  He moved his own heavily tattooed frame towards the doorway before turning back.  “By the way,” he said, “the lav over there is broken.  If you want to go you can either go into the bar or hold onto it.”  He looked Jeff up and down.  “I’d hold onto it if I were you.”
Jeff was now uncertain whether to linger by the bar – he felt fairly certain that the landlord was unlikely to offer table service – or to head for the corner table so, eventually, he opted for loitering self-consciously, mid-way between the two.

Phil was the first member of the Circle to enter the room.  Jeff felt the cold rush of air as the door opened just as he heard the landlord coming back down the stairs.  Both men appeared at the same moment.  “I’ll bring it over,” the landlord shouted into the otherwise empty lounge.
“Right,” both customers answered simultaneously.
Jeff moved over towards the corner table where Phil was already placing his coat over the back of a seat.  “Can I join you?” he asked.
“Are you here for the Circle?” asked Phil.  “I hope so; we could do with some new faces.”
“Yes,” answered Jeff, looking over his shoulder, still uncertain whether he should go over to collect his drink or wait where he was, but before he had the opportunity to reach a conclusion, the barman appeared carrying a pint of Best Bitter for Phil and a tumbler full of red wine with a cocktail umbrella in it, spearing a glacé cherry.  Jeff looked at his red wine, the barman and then at Phil, who held out a hand to shake.  “Phil,” he said.
“Jeff.”
“Erm, I hope you don’t mind me asking Jeff, but you look a bit uncomfortable.  Are you ok?”
“Ok?  Oh yes.  Yes, fine.  It’s just a little bit…  Well…”  Absent-mindedly he picked the umbrella from his drink and ate the cherry.  “It just seems like a strange place to hold a literary meeting.  Here, I mean.”
“Why?”
“Well, it’s just…”
Phil looked over Jeff’s shoulder and caught the unmistakable silhouette of the landlord convulsed in laughter.  He looked at Jeff’s red wine.  “What’s he told you?” he asked.
“Who?”
“Kenny.”
“Kenny?”
“Kenny.  The landlord.”  Phil sighed.  “What’s he told you?”
“Well, nothing really.  Much.  He just… have you seen that lot in the other room?  They look like a load of mobsters.”
“Ah… Well they are, sort of…” said Phil, light slowly dawning.  “The Sharks and the Jets: local am-dram production of West Side Story.  They rehearse in the room upstairs before us.”
“And Kenny?  Is he really the landlord?”
“Oh yes, he’s the landlord, but he’s in play as well.  He’s playing Tony, although, truth be told, he would probably have preferred Maria…”
 

This story started its life as a simple conversation with the landlord at the end of which Jeff once again bailed out before the Circle members arrived, but just as I was writing the final sentences, the absurd possibility of West Side Story occurred to me.  So, having written the new ending, I had to go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing.  I wish I was more organised…

The first story from the Writer’s Circle, ‘Penny’s Poem’ is here.
Last week’s story ‘Natalie’ is here.
Episode 21 ‘Smile’ is here.

The Writer’s Circle #19 – Natalie

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.”
“And Putin?”
“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.”
“Really?”
“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…”

The first story from the Writer’s Club “Penny’s Poem” is here.
Last week’s story “As It Is” is here.
Episode 20 ‘The Lounge Bar at the Steamhammer’ is here.

The Writer’s Circle #18 – As It Is

Frankie stood before the Circle assuming the general demeanour of a schoolteacher in charge of morning assembly, a smile (as always) tracing his lips.  He held a very small piece of paper – suspiciously like a beer mat – with a small number of felt-pen bullet points scribbled across it, fading and merging together into something that could possibly keep a psychiatrist happy for months.  It was his turn in Phil’s little game.  Autobiography.  If only he had a story to tell…

“Memories.  Strange things, memories: eccentric things.  Like a film you half-remember – never having made it to the end.  A sense of deja vu in eveything you do.  As memories increase, so they diminish; gaining clarity, but losing detail, except for those you choose to cherish.  Selective things, are memories: recalling good that wasn’t there, forgetting bad unless it was comic.  Past lives becoming clichéd anecdote.  Six billion people becoming Frank Skinner.

Recent memories, now they should be easy.  Easy to remember.  Easy to recall in sharp, focussed detail.  Edited, like the news, in full colour flashbacks.  Accurate, like a page from The Sun.  But they’re not.  Why do we have such a problem with today, when yesterday seems so easy?  Why do we stand at the toilet door, flies undone, wondering why we came in here, what’s this doing in my hand?  Why should this be when you can remember exactly what you were doing fifteen years ago – same thing, probably.

Old memories, really old memories, seem frighteningly clear.  At once graphic and vague.  Dream-like in a way.  A few sparse facts, reality in there somewhere, couched in hope and marshmallow.  Could-have-been’s, would-have-been’s, should-have-beens becoming history.  Becoming solid fact.  The foundation stones of your current-self conjured from the air and built into a maze, with no way in and no way out.  Just dead-ends and U-bends.

Some claim to remember their birth.  The whole trauma.  The terror, the cold, the pressure and the relief.  Remember the smack on the arse that welcomed them into the world and the pat on the back that heralded departure.

For most of us, life is a scattering of random, unfocussed voices and images.  Sentences plucked hap-hazardly from a book and reassembled to form some pattern of a life.  A certain toy; an early potty triumph; the smell of an elderly aunt forcing a kiss.  Of laughing, of sitting, of standing and walking.  Of setting fire to Uncle Bill’s trousers.  Such memories are clear and private.  You.  Your memories, all your own.  Tiny rivulets, running alone, down a crowded window-pane, separate and unmolested, bur heading, none-the-less, inexorably towards the pool of life on the caravan window-sill.

So, how do you even start to decide what to put into an autobiography?  How do you determine which memories are real and which are ‘received’: instances you only ‘think’ that you remember because you’ve heard them discussed so often.  ‘Remember the time that you…?’ until eventually you do.  Even if you didn’t.  Memory is a mirrorball and wherever it is viewed from its reflection is different – particularly if it’s at four a.m. in an Ibiza nightclub.  It is a goal in a football game: for some it is a work of genius; for some a bit of a fluke; for many it is unjust and for others it never happened.  Some see the clarity of every move, whilst others see nothing beyond the centre circle because of the fourteen pints of pre-kick-off lager that are buzzing across the frontal cortex and casting the kind of fog that stops aircraft taking off.

Obviously there are things that you know you remember: school reports, test certificates, marriage certificates, birth certificates, scars and unrequited loves that never fade, but there are also so many things that you know that you don’t remember… possibly.  Ask anyone to tell you a story of a time you have spent together.  If they begin with ‘Do you remember when…?’ then you won’t remember.  If you have to look it up in the local paper, then it really doesn’t count.  If you have kept a diary for the whole of your life, then an autobiography is a viable option, but otherwise, you are relying on a threadbare memory and the embroidered recollections of others.  The camera may never lie, but it seldom tells the absolute truth.  Look at your passport photo: the customs officials will be immediately alerted if you do not look deranged.  If you are looking for the truth, then read a biography, preferably written long enough after the events to mean that there can be no other ‘first hand’ recollections of events, suggesting not only that your account is wrong, but just possibly stolen straight from David Niven*. 

Nobody writes an autobiography in order to be hated.  Autobiographies may tell unpleasant stories, but they will never leave the author in a bad light.  “OK, I mugged the old lady, but you have to remember that there was no love to be found at home.  We came from a one TV house.  Every day was a battle between one of our five-a-day and a Sherbert Fountain.  The old bag had a smart phone that she couldn’t use and all I had was a pay-as-you-go Nokia: she deserved everything she got…”

I’ve never kept a diary.  I don’t think that I’ve got a story to tell.  If I wrote an autobiography it would be 90% fiction – so, in that way, no different to any other autobiography – my life as I would have liked it to be: high on redemption, but light on historical accuracy, like ‘Braveheart’, but without the tartan.  But not now.  In a few years maybe, when I am much closer to death: when I can hint at the possibility of senility rather than egotism.  For now, I’ll keep my memories to myself – and I’ll let you have them only when I’ve properly made them up… So, gin anyone…?”

*David Niven wrote two wonderful autobiographies ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’ and ‘Bring on the Empty Horses’ both of which were ripping yarns of the highest order, but were notoriously filled with many misappropriated recollections and apocryphal tales – like a chat with grandad, but without the rum.

The Writer’s Circle started with ‘Penny’s Poem’, here.
Last week’s episode ‘New Beginnings’ is here.
Episode 19 ‘Natalie’ is here

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.
Episode 17 ‘New Beginnings’ 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.
Episode 16 ‘The Lure of Summer’ 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?…”
“Tom…”
“What about you, Tom, sherry or snowball?”
“Sherry, I think, but dry like…”
“Penny…”
“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.
Episode 15 ‘The Mud, the Blood and the Beer’ 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.

A Little Fiction – Journey’s End

Craft Lander stared down at the panel of flashing lights before him in a state of quietly suppressed panic.  His head was pounding; he could hear the blood pumping through his arteries; his stomach was preparing to repel all boarders.  He stared out of the giant windows at a fast approaching dot surrounded by the vastness of the universe and decided that a reappraisal of his heretofore thoroughly reliable belief systems might just be advisable.

“Well?” asked the taller of the two women who stood at his shoulder, ‘What are you going to do?”

“I truly have,” he replied, “not the faintest idea.”

“But,” interjected the shorter woman, adjusting her visor slightly so that the maker’s logo did not block her view, “the message on the screen says ‘Prepare the craft for landing’”

“I can see that,” replied Craft.

“And you,” continued the woman in the visor, “are The Craft Lander.”

“No!” snapped Craft, rising panic beginning to feed his defiance.  “I am Craft Lander, eldest son of Craft Lander, first born grandson of Craft Lander etc etc and so forth.  I am Craft Lander; plain Craft Lander.  I am not THE Craft Lander.  I have absolutely no idea how to land this craft.  I had no idea that it would ever need landing.  Until just now, when you brought me up here, I had no idea that it was, in fact, a craft.  I thought that it was just where we lived.  There are thousands of us – surely we can’t all live aboard a craft.”

“But you have the sacred scroll,” countered the woman who was, quite frankly, really starting to irritate Craft, “and you are, therefore, the chosen Lander.”

“The sacred scroll?  You mean this?”  He thrust a tattered booklet that had been handed down to him by his father under their noses.  They bowed their heads slightly as he read from the title page.  “UKSS ‘Boris’ Class Intergalactic Ark – User’s Manual.”

“The scroll will guide you,” said the taller woman, her voice cracking slightly.  “Open it Craft, fulfil your destiny!”

With a look that was as withering as he could muster at such short notice, Craft opened the fist page and thumbed through the Index.  “Erh… Ah, here we are, Landing, page 97…”  He flicked through the pages.  “Right then,” he continued, confidence beginning to flood into him as he realised he would have some kind of guidance.  “Let’s see…”  He scanned the page.  “Right, here we are – To initiate landing procedure, locate green ‘Landing Procedure’ button and press…  Can anybody see a green ‘Landing Procedure’ button?”

The three of them stared in vain at the vast array of buttons that confronted them, no-one able to identify the button they sought.  Eventually, in desperation, the shorter of the two women snatched the booklet from Craft’s now trembling fingers.  “Here, let me see.  Ah,” she pointed to the page.  “Here we are – it says excluding generation 465 models.  Is this a generation 465 model?”

“How the hell would I know?” yelled Craft, noticing for the first time that the planet that loomed on the horizon was, in fact, getting very much closer.  “Does it tell you how you’d know?”

“No.”

Craft inhaled deeply.  “Really helpful.  OK,” he continued, “as we can’t find this green ‘Landing Procedure’ button, why don’t we just just assume that we are, in fact, all aboard a model 365 and…”

“465,” snapped the smaller woman.

“What?”

“465, model 465.  You said 365…”

Craft stared at her for as long as he dared.  “OK,” he said, sucking in calm with the recycled oxygen, “I realise that it’s important… let’s assume that we are aboard a model 465 and it does not have the green ‘Landing Procedure’ button.  What does it say we should do now?”  The short woman pored over the booklet as the taller woman squinted over her shoulder.  Eventually they both stopped and looked at one another.  “It doesn’t say,” they replied in unison.

“So come on then,” said a suddenly exasperated Craft.  “You two know so much about…” he wafted his arms around airily, “…this place.  How come you don’t have the answers?”

We are merely the Trustees of this Bridge,” answered the taller woman.  “It doesn’t usually involve too much if I’m honest – bit of light dusting, that sort of thing.  Fetching you at the appropriate time…  You,” she added darkly.  “You have the scroll.  You are our answer.”

“Bugger!” Craft muttered under his breath, snatching back the manual and desperately trying to find an asterix to guide him.

In truth, the craft had been built so hurriedly – as a political sop in a time of extreme environmental peril – that little thought had ever been given to it actually reaching anything on which it might need to land.  Over three hundred generations had lived out their computer-facilitated lives aboard the ship, unaware that it was anything but home.  The planet their forebears had left behind was long gone.  The computer system nurtured and catered for them and was, in fact, more than capable of landing the ship whenever a suitable planet was found. 

The planet that was now looming large through the vast windows of the bridge was however, no such planet.  The computer was bored.  It had reached the end of its tether with the constant petty demands of the ship’s inhabitants for food, for water and oxygen – which, in its opinion, they had actually had more than enough time to evolve out of – and had deliberately diverted the ship towards the barren, inhospitable little planet towards which it was currently hurtling with nothing but AI suicide in mind: a watery little number with no breathable atmosphere and no actual landmasses to call home.  Perfect.

…And so, as Craft and his female companions manically pressed every single button on the huge bridge, with a panic bordering on hysteria, the rest of the ship’s ‘cargo’ carried on, oblivious to the fate that awaited them and the computer quietly closed its eyes in preparation for the faint ‘plop’ that would signal the end of humankind…