The Writer’s Circle #6 – The Point

Phil Fontaine took to his feet and removed the crumpled sheaf of papers from the inside pocket of his jacket.  They were written by hand in black ink with two levels of rewriting on them, first in red and then in green.  They would be almost indecipherable to anyone other than the writer and, possibly, the translators of the Rosetta Stone.  For most members of the Circle, this was the first time they had ever heard Phil read.  

“So,” he began, “this is the first chapter of my latest book.  It doesn’t have a plot yet…” he smiled grimly at Billy Hunt, “but I’m sure it will come along when it is ready.”  He tapped the papers on his thigh in bitter imitation of Billy, but they were much too crumpled to be satisfactorily patted into shape.  Phil found a certain comfort in that.  He lowered himself back into his chair and began to read.  “‘It was one of those dawns where the pale, sickly sunshine actually cooled the atmosphere.  Tiny pin-pricks of rain hung, twisting like a veil, falling from who-knows-where, casting glistening tiny frozen rainbows on the air, the only relief from the slate grey backdrop of the sky.  Early morning commuters shuffled by, hunched in winter overcoats and hand-knitted mufflers, cursing the jobs that drew them so early from their now cooling beds.  On the corner, under the recently extinguished street light by the bins, Harry Hoe pulled the collar of his thinning, threadbare jacket over his ears and drew deeply on a strangely sock-scented Vape.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was all he had since the damp had got into his Zippo.

Across the road, third floor curtains remained tightly drawn, as they had been since 6pm the previous evening.  It had been a long night for Harry and he was beginning to flag.  His hipflask was empty, as was the brown paper sandwich bag; the battery on his Vape was dangerously low and the contents level within his bladder was close to critical.  He had managed to get away with a crafty wee into the dog bin at three a.m., but there were far too many people around now to try that again.  There were limits to what even he would do for cash in hand and being arrested for indecent exposure was one of them.  Besides, he was so cold he could barely feel his fingers and he knew he would not be able to trust them to open his zip until they had warmed a little.  He figured he had about thirty minutes before he would have to find an early morning café which might let him use their staff lavatory in return for the purchase of a mug of thrice-brewed tea and a dog-eared sausage bap.  Thirty minutes and no more.  Whatever the client had stipulated, that was his limit.

The client’s stipulations had, in fact, occupied his mind through much of the night.  Two hundred quid in an envelope was never to be sniffed at, but the instruction was odd.  A black and white photograph of a building – the building he had been watching all night – with a window circled in red.  On the back a scribbled note instructing him to watch the window from 5pm and to report back with the time the curtains closed, and the time they re-opened.  Why?  They had closed at 6pm.  It was a woman who closed them, he could see that, and he presumed that whoever it was had only recently entered the flat because the light had just come on and she was still wearing a coat.  Unless she had been there all the time and had just put her coat on to leave.  But why put the light on if that was the case?  Security?  On the third floor, he doubted that.  To throw him off the scent?  Could she even know that he was there?  He’d only been there an hour by then.  This was a London street.  He would have to have been there for weeks before anybody noticed.  And dead probably.  He seriously doubted if anyone in this neighbourhood would pick up the telephone to call the police even then.  Short of blocking access to the Waitrose Delivery Van, there was little he could do to impinge upon the consciousness of these people.

Anyway, whatever the answers, the client did not want to know them, just the precise times that the curtains opened and closed.  Really odd.  It was quite specific.  Not the times that anybody entered or left the flat, just the curtain opening and closing times.  Watching out for people entering or leaving the flat would have been more tricky – a little work on the pin-entry system – but definitely achievable and certainly warmer.

It was at about 4am, in that brief window between the latest of home-comers and the earliest of risers, that an uneasy suspicion had begun to settle upon him.  Just suppose that it was not about the people in the flat at all?  Suppose it was about him.  Suppose it was all about watching him.  He had to stand where he was standing in order to keep the window in view.  Whoever had sent the money would know exactly where he was for an extended period of time and they would know immediately if he had not done what he had been paid to do.  It was that realisation alone that had kept him there these last two hours.  It could all be a test.

But it could also be a set-up.  Incriminating someone when you know exactly where they are and what they are doing; when you know that they have no idea why they are there, nor who sent them – piece of cake.

Harry decided that the time to move on had come.  The curtains might never open – that could be the plan.  He’d earned the money by now.  Whoever had put the two hundred into the envelope would have to come and fetch it if they felt differently.  They would have to admit they had been watching him; to explain exactly what was going on.  He crumpled his paper bag and dropped it into the bin before taking one final glance up at the window, when he noticed the curtains had opened, just a crack, revealing that the light was still on behind them.  He resolved that he would go and ring the bell adjacent to the flat door.  He would ask whoever answered it to explain exactly what was going on here.  And he would have done too, if the sudden, friendly wave from the window had not coincided so precisely with the flashing pain across the back of his skull…’

So, that’s the set up,” said Phil, looking at his little sheaf of notes fleetingly.  “Utter tripe of course.”  He slowly and very deliberately tore them in two.  “The trick is knowing that it’s rubbish, don’t you think?”

‘The Writer’s Circle #1 – Penny’s Poem’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #5 – The Core’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #7 – Vanessa’ is here.

The Writer’s Circle #4 – The Number 12 Night Bus to Ashington

Billy Hunter rose from his seat, theatrically exhaling a cloud of toffee-scented vapour from his plant-pot sized e-cigarette and, pausing only to take a deep swig from his half pint of bitter shandy, began to speak.  “Nah then,” he said, addressing the room, puffed up by the heady cocktail of feigned ‘northern-ness’ and perceived significance.  Phil and Frankie rolled their eyes in unison.  “Here’s the scene.  It’s winter.  It’s raining: winter rain, colder than snow, pinching at faces and drowning hope from the ground up.  It’s windy too: too windy for umbrellas.  The wind lashes the rain into the windows.  Our two characters – they haven’t let me know their names yet, but we’ll call them Bert and Brenda for now – are the only two people on the upper deck of the number 12 night bus to Ashington…”  Billy tapped his papers into shape on his thigh and plumped himself up further before he began to read.

“Bert:         You’ve, er, you’ve dropped your glove love.

Brenda:      Eh?  Oh thanks.  I’m always doing that.  Lose my own head if it wasn’t… you know.

Bert:          Screwed on?

Brenda:      Aye.  Screwed on.  Daft as a brush, my mum always says.  Although, I’m never sure…  What makes a brush daft do you think?  They don’t seem particularly daft to me.  Not bright, I’ll give you that.  Not particularly bright, but I don’t see as why folks always assume that they’re daft.  Have we passed the abattoir yet?

Bert :         No, next stop is the cemetery.

Brenda:      Do we go past the cemetery?

Bert:          Eventually love, eventually yes…”

Billy’s eyes scanned the room, keen to gauge whether the other members had taken in the profundity of his line, but there was no reaction.
“It’s real, you see,” he said in exasperation.  “Conversation.  Not dialogue, it’s conversation.  Real conversation, full of repeats and silences.  Sometimes the silences are the most profound.”
“I’d definitely have to agree with that,” whispered Phil to a grinning Frankie.
Billy tapped his papers against his thigh once more, whether out of habit or as a means of drawing attention to himself it was impossible to say – although it was clearly the latter.  He scanned the room again before continuing.

“Brenda:     Oh heck, I don’t want to go to the cemetery.  I need to go down Thesiger Street.  I don’t think the man in uniform at the bus station really knew about the buses at all.  He told me the number 12 went to the abattoir – I’ve got an interview.

Bert:          I don’t think they actually wear uniforms do they, bus men, these days?  I mean, I don’t think they wear uniforms these days.

Brenda:      You know, I think you’re right.  He could have been a sailor now I come to think of it…

Bert:          Upholders of an imperialistic hegemony!

Brenda:      …Or a milkman.  Whatever, I should never have listened to him.  I’m going to be so late.

Bert:          Look, I don’t want to speak out of turn, but this is the night bus.  It’s eleven o’clock.  It’s a bit of an odd time for an interview, isn’t it?

Brenda:      He said it was too noisy there when everybody was working, so he thought it was best if I went after they’d all gone home.  He said he’d find it easier to get ‘acquainted’.

Bert:         Look, I hope you don’t think that I’m… you know, sticking my nose in where it’s not wanted, but are you sure this bloke was actually… you know…?

Brenda:      What?

Bert:         Well, do you think he was actually in a position to offer you a job?

Brenda:      He had a suit on.  He said he was a big cheese in the abattoir world.

Bert:          Right.  So, where did you actually meet the big cheese.

Brenda:      I was working behind the bar.  He came to get his free lager – on account of how they’d all had a drink paid for – and he said I was wasted behind the bar.  He said I should be working in a nice, clean office.  He said something about me being more than adequately built for desk work.

Bert:          Where was this?

Brenda:      I work in The Fighting Cock in town.  We closed off both rooms for the funeral party.

Bert:          A funeral party?  So would I be right in thinking that all the men were wearing suits?

Brenda:      Well, now you come to mention it…”

The silence around the circle was, if anything, even more jarring than Billy Hunter’s dialogue.  Eyes, mostly cast at the floor, lifted briefly to look at other members.  Some stifled yawns, checked their watches, shifted uncomfortably in their chairs.  Frankie and Phil appeared to be attempting to suppress laughter, but at what, nobody, least of all Billy, appeared to know.  Sensing that the meeting was beginning to lose focus, Deidre clapped her hands and prepared to thank Billy, hoping to press on with some other offering – preferably her own – but Billy was not to be stopped.
“My plots,” he said, “Do not feature the contrived machinations of the cheap, pulp detective novel.”  He looked sourly towards Phil Fontaine.  “And,” he continued, shifting his glare towards Frankie, “My characters do not exist for the promotion of hollow laughter.  They are real characters, with something to say.”  He was irate.  He tried to tap his papers into shape one more time, but succeeded only in reducing them to a crumpled pile.  He smoothed them on his leg and read on.

“Bert:         If I were you, I’d forget about the interview.  You’re probably miles too late now anyway.  Stay on the bus.  When it reaches Ashington, it turns round and goes straight back to the depot.

Brenda:      You’re probably right.  I’m probably not suited to office work anyway, not being able to type and all.  I just wanted to better myself, you know.  Anyway, what about you, where are you going at this time of night?

Bert:          Me?  I’m the conductor.  Have you paid for your ticket by the way?…”

Billy breathed deeply, as if he had been involved in some form of strenuous exercise.  “It’s just a start,” he said at last, “but I think it has something.  It is going somewhere.  It has something to say.  It speaks of our time.  It could be great.  It could be important…”  If Billy had a bushel, he most certainly was not going to use it for hiding his light.  “What do you think?”  The candour took the room by surprise.  Nobody ever asked what the others thought of their work.  Far too dangerous.  The silence lingered, far longer than was seemly: somebody had to say something.  The members of the writer’s circle looked at one another, desperate not to catch Billy’s eye, each urging the other to say something.  To say anything.  Eventually Phil, who was growing desperate for his half-time drink, decided to take the plunge on behalf of them all.  He coughed quietly and raised his hand.  “Ah,” said Billy, “The Private Dick.  Well, what do you need to know then, Sherlock?”
Phil grinned affably, stretching tight lips over dry teeth.  “I was just wondering,” he said.  “Knowing how much you prize realism.  Does the number twelve night bus actually go to Ashington?’

‘The Writer’s Circle #1 – Penny’s Poem’ is here.
The Writer’s Circle #3 – Alliance & Antipathy’ is here.
‘The Writer’s Circle #5 – The Core’ is here.

The Writer’s Circle #1 – Penny’s Poem

“‘…Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.  If that is granted, all else follows…’”  Deidre paused, took a quiet breath, and gathered herself together before preparing to launch forth into her next chapter.  Frankie Collins scratched his chin, uncertain.  He’d heard that line before.  He knew he’d heard that line before.  He half-raised his hand to speak, but he just wasn’t certain, and he diverted his hand to smooth down the unruly mop of hair that swamped his forehead instead.  He knew that line, he was sure, but from where?  It could be a book, but it could just as easily be a toilet cleaner advert.  He just could not bring the source to mind.  It was no good, he would have to hold his tongue until he knew for sure.  No chance to consult his phone until the meeting was over and by then it would be too late.  If he called her out, she would just change it.  She would deny ever having said it.  Claim that he had misheard her.  He knew that nobody would back him up; Deidre Desmond was, of course, the Writing Club star.  A published author.  Four full novels under the Mills & Boon banner and a partial review in The Times.  You do not become a published Romance novelist by plagiarising the work of George Orwell…  George Orwell!  Of course!  That’s it, ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’!  Deidre opened her mouth to recommence the reading from what she was certain would be her new best-seller, ‘The Heart Full of Stars’, as Frankie leapt to his feet.  “Excuse me,” he stuttered, still uncertain that he had got it right.  Fourteen eyes turned towards him.  “I denounce you as a plagiarist,” he intended to say, but he had barely stammered through “I” before the door clattered open and Phil Fontaine burst in, late as ever, clearly not on the outside of just his first drink of the evening and conspicuously manuscript-less.  Deidre stared severely and Frankie slumped, deflated by the moment, back into his chair.  His time had passed.

Phil made his way around the circle, muttering soft apologies each time he stood on toe or handbag, until finally arriving at his appointed place next to shrinking violet Penny who studiously avoided eye contact, aware that she would blush horribly.  He looked around the circle, to the sheaves of paper nestled on knees, and appeared to notice for the first time, that he held nothing.  “Ah,” he said.  “I’m sorry, I… I think I must have left my book at home.  I… I was supposed to be reading tonight, wasn’t I?”  He sighed melodramatically.  “And I was really pleased with what I’d written this week.”
“Yes, well…” Deidre smiled the smile of a cat stalking a three-legged mouse.  “I have filled in with a little reading from my own new work so far.  If you are happy, I can continue.”
Phil nodded sadly, although his eyes were smiling.
“Now, where was I?”  Deidre continued.
“You had just quoted the line from Orwell,” yelled Frankie, half leaping to his feet.
Rictus gripped Deidre’s face.  Her teeth cleaved to her lips.  “Ah yes,” she lisped, taking a long, slow drink from her water bottle.  “The quote.  I’m unsure about the quote.  Maybe I will remove that…”

Phil Fontaine and Frankie Collins stood together at the bar, Phil cradling a large tumbler of Scotch whilst Frankie, who was driving, slowly spun a half pint of shandy between his palms.  “I know that she wouldn’t have dared to send that line to the publishers,” he said.  “It would have been picked up straight away.  She was just trying to impress, but just be careful what you read to her, that’s all I’m saying.  Unless you want it to end up in a ninety page pot-boiler.”
“She’s all bluster.  Have you ever seen a single word of what she has written in a bookshop?  Those books go out of print faster than the algorithms that write most of them.  She just regurgitates nineteenth Century bodice-rippers and good luck to her, I say.  She wants us all to believe that what she writes is much more worthy than it is, but let’s face it, she is the only one of us with a publisher at the moment.”
“I suppose so.”  Frankie drained his glass.  “Come on, we ought to go back upstairs.  Everybody else has gone.”
Phil looked deep into the heart of the amber fluid, feeling its pain, before swallowing it down and following Frankie towards the stairs.  “What have we got now?”
“I think that our little wallflower is going to read us one of her new poems.”
“Ah, is it about a bird by any chance?”
Frankie smiled broadly, but did not reply.
“It’s amazing how many rhymes she can find for tit,” said Phil, feeling just the slightest pang of shame.

The two men bundled into the room together, giggling loudly.  The chairs in the neatly laid circle were all occupied, with the exception of the two awaiting the late-comers.  All eyes, except for those of Penny, who was fidgeting nervously with her papers, turned on them.  They found their way towards the empty chairs as noiselessly as they could and took their places.  Penny had her eyes cast to the floor, breathing quietly and deliberately; looking for all the world as though she was waiting to address an audience of thousands.  Phil touched her hand lightly as he sat, and smiled apologetically.  Penny smiled back weakly and took a long deep breath as Deidre rose to her feet.  “And now,” she said, with a grin that played with the features of her face which released it to the world as a grimace, “Before Francis reads us the latest chapter from his new book” – she knew how much he hated being called Francis – “Penny is going to read us her latest little poem called…” she consulted a scribbled note on the back of her hand, “…‘Morning Chorus’.  It is, she tells me, another entry into her delightful little collection ‘The Book of Birds’ with which she hopes to approach a publisher very soon.  I’m sure I speak for us all when I wish her the very best of luck.”

After a sparse round of applause, led by Deidre, had died away, timid little shrew Penny rose to her feet, winking broadly at Phil as she did so.  Shyly, she coughed and began, “I wandered lonely as a cloud…”

You can find ‘The Writer’s Circle #2 – The New Man’ here.