Mr Straker looked around the room. Nearly a full house. Odd how the whiff of controversy brought them out, the halt, the lame and the sick. He probably shouldn’t be here himself, truth be told, but there were some things that even heart conditions couldn’t prevent one wanting to see. In the same way motorists slowed on the motorway, taking their eyes from the vehicle in front to gawp at a car crash on the opposite carriageway, folks were content to risk their own mutilation and destruction to watch the horror show unfold. The direction of travel didn’t even matter. Coming or going it was all the same.
He remembered being passed at high speed one quiet Sunday morning, north bound on the M5, by a spectacularly clad biker sporting a wasp’s head helmet, a picture in black, yellow and gold. There in the rear view mirror and gone in a second. Defying at once both the laws of physics and the Road Traffic Act. Quarter of an hour later police cars and plastic cones filtered vehicles off onto the hard shoulder. They all slowed to see the once proud machine, smeared across three hundred yards of tarmac in two lanes, and the rag doll of a wasp, still and lifeless at the end of the trail of debris. X marked the spot of the journey from hubris to nemesis in abridged form. The gods’ attention span has shortened as well as our own.
Mrs Williams was nodding and smiling, always a worrying sign. Parker and Davies shook hands with Straker. He had thought Parker dead these six months and the man’s general appearance did nothing to contradict that opinion. Undead lore notwithstanding however, Parker’s ambulatory abilities rather quashed that theory. Ashby drifted over to Straker, coffee in one hand, chocolate chip biscuit in the other. The packet said cookies but Ashby refused to accept that losing the American colonies did not mean we had to adopt their idiosyncratic mannerisms, spellings or nomenclature. Ashby didn’t use the word idiosyncratic, but Straker always mentally Bowdlerised Ashby’s speech to render it safe for recounting to his family. Straker was old fashioned enough to believe there were some words which should not be used in front of women and children.
‘I see you’ve dragged your carcass in then?’ Ashby offered, popping the remainder of his biscuit into his mouth and extending a becrumbed chocolate stained hand. Straker steeled himself and shook the meaty paw.
‘Thought I ought to you know. Given the circumstances.’ He disengaged his hand and, as discreetly as he could, wiped it on a tissue. Not discreetly enough apparently.
‘Lick it off man, that’s Waitrose chocolate that is. None of your emulsified chocolate coloured lard extract.’
Straker grimaced. ‘It’s the salt and sebum content I’m worried about John, bad for the heart.’
Ashby looked puzzled.
‘Your sweat.’ Straker explained.
‘Cheeky bugger. Honest toil that’s from.’
‘You sell insurance John, a concept antithetical to honesty.’
Ashby laughed. ‘Can’t fault you there. Do you want a coffee? Dianne’s stopped being a feminist for the night, she’ll make you one if you like.’ He nodded to the corner of the room where a slight bird like woman was organising drinks and everyone who wanted one, whether they wanted to be organised or not.
‘The doctor says I shouldn’t but, yes please.’
Ashby raised his voice over the murmuring of the hive, ‘Large one over here Dianne.’
‘So I’ve heard darling.’ said a blonde lady of uncertain years sidling through the crowd to be next to Straker. Ashby guffawed while the bird like woman glowered ‘You’ve got one John’ she piped over the background hum of conversation.
‘It’s for Julian, not me.’
The woman did not reply but turned and began spooning coffee into a cup.
‘I think you’re in there Jules.’
‘She can get in line.’ the blonde woman said stroking Straker’s arm. ‘How are you Julian? Feeling better?’
‘Much. Thank you Steph. How’s Benedict?’
She pouted at him. ‘Do we have to talk about him? I want to enjoy myself tonight.’
‘Just being polite. He used to be quite an active member.’
‘Not with me darling, that’s the problem.’
Ashby snorted coffee down his nose and had to excuse himself while he found a handkerchief and mopped at his face.
‘Steph, can we have a nice civilised evening please?’
She raised her eyebrows and cast her gaze around the room. ‘You think?’
Straker smiled. ‘As civilised as possible then?’
‘You used to be more fun.’
‘That was a very long time ago Steph.’
‘Memory lane’s always open Jules.’
There was a loud clanging as June Simpson rang a large brass bell and announced the meeting was about to begin. People took their seats and Straker found himself between June and Ashby. Dianne thrust a cup of coffee into his hand and flashed what he realised with some surprise, passed for a smile in her lexicon of expressions. She scurried off to the other side of June and pulled out a sheaf of papers.
June waited a few moments for the assembled group to find seats and then called the meeting to order.
‘Good evening everyone. I think you all know why we’re here tonight for this Extraordinary General Meeting of the Literary Group.’ she paused as mumbled commentary broke out on the floor of the meeting.
‘Should have happened years ago.
June looked severe ‘If we can have quiet please.’ She looked over the rim of her glasses until the noise subsided. ‘Thank you.’ She took a deep breath. ‘For those of you who don’t know, although the EGM notice did say, there has been a proposal from the required number of members that the Group should no longer encompass both a writing section and a reading group.’
‘Hear hear. One thing or the other.’
‘Fish nor fowl.’ Davies shouted.
‘Thank you Eric. The proposal is that ‘The Westley Literary Group shall be dissolved and the assets divided equally between two new Groups, the Westley Book Club for reading and discussion of works of literature, and the Westley Writers Group for the promotion of local Writers. I’d now like to ask Mrs Dobson to explain the reason for this proposal. Then we can take opinions on it, for and against, and its implications before moving to a vote.’ June surveyed the members in front of her. Judging by the number of open mouthed goldfish impressions, many had not bothered to read the explanatory note which accompanied the EGM notice. ‘Lillian…’
‘Point of order Madam Chair.’
A frown crossed June’s forehead. She was not used to being interrupted.
‘The proposal is void. It proposes a dissolution of the club and then dictates what happens next. You can’t do that. This meeting can’t bind members who won’t be members after the dissolution.’
There was a hubbub amongst the membership.
‘I think the intention is to ensure the money is distributed fairly between the existing aims of the society.’ June explained.
‘Maybe, but that money belongs to the Group. If we dissolve the Group the money has to go back to the members and then they can decide what to do individually. You can’t dissolve the Group with a promise to give the money to two new Groups who don’t exist yet.’
‘He’s right you know.’ Parker croaked from the back of the room.
‘Rubbish! We can do what we want if we vote for it.’ Shouted Mrs Watson a florid woman in a large print floral dress.
‘Be quiet, you’ve never done anything for years.’
‘I pay my dues Rebecca Watson, which is more than some people do.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘Exactly what I say. Not everyone pays up as they should.’
‘Take that back!’
The bell clanged through the shouting.
‘Can we have some order please?’ June shouted.
The noise subsided to a low hum of discontent as pointed looks were exchanged across the room.
‘Now, we’ll have one conversation please. Raise your hand if you want to be recognised.’
‘You know who we are.’
‘There’s no need for flippancy thank you David. Now, Dianne what does the constitution say?’
There was a pause while the secretary flicked through her papers. Ashby leaned close to Mr Straker. ‘This could be fun.’ Straker said nothing but opened his folder and read the Constitution. It was clear there was no specific provision for the dissolution of the Group. A simple majority could effect any changes consistent with the requirements of the bank’s rules for small non-profit community groups. It was clear from these that a vote to end the group’s existence would require the closure of the account by the then current named signatories. There were however some quite precise requirements for timings of EGMs which had to be called to effect constitutional changes outwith the normal AGM and the required notice periods for proposals to be put to them. Straker raised his eyes heavenwards.
‘Dianne?’ June was beginning to lose the room and her patience.
‘Well, it appears there are no specific provisions for dissolving the club…’
‘…but it seems illogical to pass a proposal that terminates the existence of the group and then tells it what to do with its assets after it ceases to exist.’
‘Told you too.’
‘Mrs Dobson? Lillian?’ June implored.
An imposing presence raised herself from her seat and waved both arms in a downward motion like an overfed buzzard failing to take off.
‘All right, I accept it might sound odd like that, but let’s take two motions, to split the assets in half and allocate them equally between the writing and the reading sections and then dissolve the group.’
‘You can’t do that.’
‘Rubbish. If we vote we can.’
‘David?’ June pointed to a balding gentleman who had his arm raised.
‘Why half and half? There are more readers than writers. We should split it pro rata.’
‘But there are some who are both, you can’t allocate their money one way or the other’
‘What about the writers competition and festival, that needs a bigger share.’
‘Waste of time!’
‘Order! One conversation please. I suggest we put it to the vote to take the two parts as Lillian suggested and then move on to vote on them. Is that acceptable?’
‘Aye, get on with it.’
‘Excuse me June, Mrs Simpson?’ Straker had had his hand raised throughout the recent interchange.
‘Yes Julian. What is it?’
‘I’m sorry to put a spanner in the works, but the Constitution says, para 14 (b), that a motion to effect a constitutional change outside of the normal AGM requires a two week notice period to allow members to arrange attendance and peruse the motion before the EGM.’
Voices erupted from the assembled litterateurs.
‘Yes, and we’ve had three.’
‘Thanks to David’s “little problem”’
‘There’s no need for that Stephanie Williams.’
‘Order please! Lillian is right though Julian, we have had the required notice.’ June Simpson said.
‘For the proposal we’ve already heard. If you start splitting it or altering the effective meaning of the thing you’ll have to get the required numbers to put it forward and start the required notice period running from scratch.’
‘We’re here now. I say we vote.’
‘I’ve cancelled my macramé tonight.’
‘I had to get Alice over to sit for Betsy.’
‘Is she ill again love?’
‘No, but she’ll chew everything if she’s left.’
‘Our Buddy used to do that.’
‘I didn’t know you had a dog.’
The bell rang again.
The bird like woman was nodding, the gold framed glasses bouncing off her nose. ‘I think he’s right June. The rules are quite clear, there has to be a two week notice of the exact wording of the proposed changes. If there are proposed changes to that, they must be submitted in writing and distributed within one week but any proposed changes after that are either void or must be recognised at the EGM and promulgated to all members to start a new notice period running before a new EGM.’
‘Who thought that one up?’
‘I’d never agree to something that daft.’
‘Well you were here when we agreed it.’
‘I say we vote, you can’t stop democracy.’
Everyone looked at June, who looked at Diane, who shrugged.
‘We could always talk about it now we’re here?’
‘Oh bloody hell, here we go again.’
Straker stopped at the door and held it open for Stephanie and Ashby.
‘Thanks. You two off to the pub then?’ Ashby asked.
‘I don’t think so John.’
Stephanie smiled but shook her head.
‘All right then, I can see when I’m a spare part. See you at the next meeting. Bloody silly constitution if you ask me.
‘So, I’ll see you in two weeks Jules.’ Stephanie raised an eyebrow and ran her finger down the lapel of Straker’s jacket. ‘Unless you’d like to come back for a drink? Benedict’s away.’
‘Just a quick one for old time’s sake eh?’ Straker said.
‘Doesn’t have to be that quick Jules.’
The memory of the two wheeled wasp flicked through Straker’s mind. He was too old to live fast and die young.
‘Sorry Steph. Maybe when my heart’s stronger eh? I’ve got to get back. See you in a fortnight.’
He tried to remember why he had put that clause in the constitution. It had probably seemed the right thing to do at the time.
‘So we’re free then. Taken back control. On our own. Sailing into a bright blue entrepreneurial sunrise of opportunity.’ Ashby said.
Stephanie raised a perfect, if nowadays little too highly set, eyebrow. Straker offered a thin smile,
‘We lost the readers section John. It’s not as if Lillian Dobson is Donald Tusk is it?’
‘Not as attractive.’
‘That’s sexist John.’ Stephanie chided without rancour.
‘Fair enough. Sorry love.’ Ashby said. He was of a generation and inclination which translated ‘PC’ into ‘Police Constable’ on a good day, but in reality that meant ‘policeman’ to him. The world of WPCs and Police Officers lay in a distant neverland of unimagined horror for John Ashby. Gender neutral language was on a list of works in progress that never seemed to get any shorter or accumulate ticks in any of the requisite boxes.
‘Besides,’ Straker said trying to divert Ashby from riding off on one of his many hobby horses. ‘We may have a few published authors, but we aren’t exactly brimming over with JK Rowlings or Paulo Coelhos are we?’
‘Who?’ Ashby said
‘I thought you’d have read all the Harry Potters John.’ Stephanie said.
‘Cheeky mare. You know I meant that Kwayloo bloke. It is a bloke is it Jules?’
‘Brazilian author. Wrote the Alchemist?’
‘Never heard of him.’
‘He speaks very highly of you.’
‘All right clever clogs why would we want him anyhow?’
Straker hesitated a moment, thinking of how best to explain Coelho’s work. The exploration of personal legend probably wasn’t going to sell anything to John, and the critical reviews of much of Coelho’s later works in particular would not be helpful. But of course there were the sales, the way to Ashby’s heart.
‘Because he’s made about four hundred million dollars.’
Ashby stared. ‘Bloody hell.’ he offered after a few seconds. ‘Bloody hell.’
‘Words into gold.’ Stephanie said.
Julian smiled. ‘Maybe we should write a joint effort called ‘The Philosophers Stone’ and see how much we can make.’
‘Back to Harry Potter.’ Ashby said
‘Good point. said Stephanie. She looked at her watch ‘Where is everyone?’
‘Do you think they think the whole thing was wound up?’ Ashby said
‘I suppose anything is possible after that evening.’ Straker sighed.
They fell silent for a moment. Memories of the bickering turning into shouting and beyond seemed to manifest themselves across the centre of the table, almost as if a slightly badly programmed hologram were running.
They all nodded, remembering the frantic clanging of the bell as June Simpson tried to bring order to proceedings. Who exactly had tried to seize it from her hand was still not clear, but the struggle that precipitated the scrum around June to the floor had also struck Parker a blow to the head. A glancing blow it had transpired, rather than a solid contact, but enough to cut the scalp. Matters were not made easier by the concoction of anti-coagulants Parker was taking for various medical problems. Handkerchiefs and spare bits of clothing were used to apply pressure to his head but still the blood flowed.
‘Ooh, those blood thinners are terrible.’ Someone observed. Soon the assembled members of the crowd around poor Parker were arguing about whether Aspirin, Warfarin, Edoxaban etc actually thinned the blood, or really interfered with various phases of the action of clotting factors in the blood. Naturally that overflowed into a keenly fought series of observations on precision in language and the role of modern linguistics in obfuscating well established grammatical approaches to language.
Parker had been ferried away to A& E or whatever it was called these days. He had waited some hours apparently before someone with the relevant expertise and access to the correct procedures to staunch the blood flow had arrived and sutured him.
‘Staples.’ Ashby said. ‘That’s what they use these days. Butterflies or staples. Why they can’t use a needle and a bit of cobbler’s thread is beyond me.’
Whatever the merits of different types of wound closures, Parker’s injury had instantly calmed matters down and no-one had felt the need to summon the police. The meeting eventually agreed on the mechanisms for separating the writers and readers assets in the Literary Group and the future use of bookings for the room. Then they had parted, if not amicably then at least civilly enough considering an hour previously someone had struck a pensioner with a dicky heart with a George V fire bell.
Stephanie spoke to clear the memory.
‘We haven’t actually got any officers have we? I mean we have a Writers’ Group and some money…’
‘If Lillian ever sorts the accounts out.’ Ashby interrupted.
‘…but we haven’t met as the Writers yet to vote a committee in.’
Straker arranged his pen and notebook on the table again. ‘We won’t be quorate by the old rules at this rate.’ He spun the pen a little. ‘Did we send the notice out to all the usual suspects from the writers section?’
There was a silence, before Ashby spoke.
‘Well I didn’t write to anyone. Did you Steph?’
‘No, I thought we just arranged to meet here as usual after Parker was wheeled off.’
Straker sucked the end of his pen.
‘It looks as if it was just us that heard it. I mentioned it to June but she was very upset by the whole thing.’ He looked a little shamefaced. ‘I confess I didn’t write to anyone.’
There was a pause while the implications sank in.
‘Come to that then, have we actually told anyone at the council about the split?’ Ashby asked. ‘I mean this booking is for the old literary group. I’m surprised half the reading lot haven’t turned up.’
Right on cue, the outer door opened and footsteps clipped along the corridor outside.
The three of them looked at the door of the meeting room, half expecting a wave of readers waving books to flood through the opening. Instead June Simpson, former Chair of the Literary Group walked in. She stopped, confronted by three pairs of expectant eyes.
‘Oh, hello. Good evening everyone.’ she said. ‘Is this all?’
‘Hello June, I’m not sure anyone else got the message.’ Straker said.
‘Oh. Was I supposed to….?
‘No. I don’t think anyone thought of that. The second meeting was a little more, er, engaged than I thought it might be.’ Straker admitted.
‘Poor Bill, I feel terrible about that.’
‘Wasn’t your fault June. It was the readers, they went crazy’ Stephanie said.
‘But it was my bell. It was supposed to be a funny thing, not a way to maim poor old Bill.’
‘It was an accident.’ Straker said ‘Nobody intended to hurt anyone.’
‘I couldn’t vouch for Rebecca Watson.’ said Ashby.
‘Yes, she was a little wound up wasn’t she?’ Stephanie said.
‘She was still bearing a grudge from the first meeting. You remember; about Lettie saying she didn’t pay her dues?’ Straker said.
John Ashby snorted, ‘Well she doesn’t’
‘Whatever it was about, I feel guilty and I shan’t be bringing that bell again’ June said, ‘I’m going to use this.’ And with that she triumphantly flourished a referee’s whistle on a lanyard.
‘Isn’t that going to be a bit loud for a library annex?’ Straker asked.
‘It’s usually shutting when we meet and I can’t have anything that can be used for violence.’
‘Only thing keeps some of ‘em in check.’ Ashby said.
June bristled at Ashby’s levity and Straker decided to move the meeting on a bit.
‘We need to sort out who will be blowing it don’t we?’ he said.
June paused mid way through pulling notepads and pens from her bag.
‘Oh. Well I’m quite happy to stand down if you want Julian. Though I don’t think even you could have controlled that last meeting any better. I have no idea what came over everyone. But if I’ve let people down I am quite prepared…’
‘June.’ Stephanie interrupted her. ‘All Jules means is we haven’t even got a group formally set up yet. No constitution, no aims, no officers.’
‘And no money.’ Ashby said.
Stephanie gave him a sharp look at his second interruption of the night and continued. ‘And all he meant was that we need to sort that out.’ She smiled. ‘Then you can do your Nigel Owen impression to your heart’s content.’
June’s ruffled feathers settled a little.
‘Owen. Rugby referee. Takes the mickey out of footballers. Good bloke.’ Ashby told her.
‘Well I hope I don’t have to referee anybody.’ June said. ‘Assuming you decide I’m still fit to be chair.’
‘I’m sure we will June.’ Straker said.
‘We’ll all have to be officers at this rate.’ Ashby said ‘What do we need? Chair, Secretary, Treasurer, Competitions officer.’ He stopped and thought. ‘Are we going to carry on doing that? I think we need to have a meeting about the first meeting.’
‘Well I presume Lillian has gone to the other side, so we’ll need a new treasurer anyway I suppose. What about Diane? I thought she’d stay with us. Her historical stuff was great.’
‘I don’t know Steph.’ Straker said, ‘She hasn’t done a lot new since that history of whatever his name was. And that was hardly creative writing was it?’
‘That’s a point, what are we going to be?’Ashby said. ‘”Westley Writers”? And is that going to be a writing group or a creative writing group? Otherwise we’ll have Jules here reading us his company reports.’
‘Vote of confidence noted John.’
‘No problem matey. Always an honour.’
‘I saw Diane the other day.’ June said. ‘She was actually very positive. I think she thought the readers monopolised the group a bit you know. Though the break might free us up a bit.’
‘Well I hope so. Some of the stuff they discussed was absolute b…’
June cut him off, ‘Thank you John. I’m sure we all catch your drift.’ she said.
Straker looked at his watch.
‘It doesn’t look like Diane will be coming tonight anyway. So in her absence why don’t I email everyone this week and let them know when the next meeting will be. I can set out an agenda for deciding who we are, what we want to do, how we want to do it etc? Then if we still want to go ahead, we can elect officers and start to sort out finances. How does that sound?’
‘Good.’ Steph said.
‘I was wondering when you’d get round to it.’ Ashby said.
‘Thank you Julian. Are you going to email the readers as well?’ June asked.
‘Well we were all technically readers and writers, so I see no reason not to offer the olive branch and invite those who did both to carry on the writing side with us if they want. Anybody disagree?’
The other three shook their heads.
‘Right then. Is that it?’
Stephanie looked hard at the notepads lying on the table.
‘Unless anyone’s got anything they want to read? she said.
The others stared at Stephanie for a second. Reading their work! That was the reason for their existence as a writers’ group, but really there had been so many distractions it was hardly surprising the point of their meeting had slipped past them.
‘Oh of course! Sorry. I was so caught up in the business stuff I forgot that.’ June said. ‘Would you like to start then Stephanie?’ She became flustered again, ‘I mean if you’d like. I mean I’m not chair am I so…’
‘That’s fine June. We can’t all read at once, we need someone to sort us out.’ Stephanie said. I’m very happy to start if that’s okay with everyone else?’ The two men nodded their agreement and Stephanie opened her notebook and explained she was going to continue her story about waking from a dream to discover that the events in it were happening in reality. Possibly. Or it may a dream in a dream. She started reading.
The others listened and all made notes. She finished and looked up, waiting for thoughts, criticisms, praise, offers of advice.
Ashby was never short of an opinion.
‘I like that. But I can’t always tell which bit is the real dream and which bit is her thinking about the dream and which bit is the dream coming true.’
‘That’s sort of the point John.’ Stephanie said.
‘Oh. Fair enough then. Success.’
‘Did you think it was too confusing though? Should I make it more obvious somehow? Will the reader get too teed off to bother working it out?’
‘Maybe you could make it a bit clearer by font or something? June offered.
‘I think you should leave it for now. Carry on a bit longer until you get to some sort of resolution and see how it feels then. The problem with judging little bits at a time is you can’t get a feel for the arc of the plot. It may hold together and become blindingly obvious or it may just be problematic. At the moment it seems okay to me but it needs some way of helping the reader sometime soon.’ Straker suggested.
‘So you were lost?’
‘No. I’m just wondering how long you can keep the average reader in a holding pattern.’
‘I thought you weren’t supposed to underestimate your readers?’ Ashby said. ‘Let them work things out?’
‘You were the one who said it was confusing.’ Straker said.
‘Aye, but it’s like you said, it’s difficult from a short piece. Now I know it’s supposed to be for the reader to work out what’s real or not, it’s like a psychological fake news thing isn’t it? It’s really good.’
And so it went on, with each of them reading a piece and then discussing whether it worked or not for them and why and what might be done or not to improve the piece. With no readers section about, matter proceeded more swiftly. No one was comparing a piece with Magic Realism and then spending fifteen minutes debating whose work constituted Magic Realism and what Magic Realism actually was. They had had that discussion some months ago until someone quoted Leal and noted that if you could explain it, it wasn’t Magic Realism. Which brought a sudden silence and then a heated discussion about logical dead ends and in Ashby’s case a declaration some people were too far up their own behind’s for their own good. Straker had a definite sense that this was the incident which had prompted the split between those interested in deep reading and critique of modern trends in literature, and those who wanted to write stories.
Straker finished reading his offering as the last piece of the evening. He was rather embarrassed about as it had been a rather mundane piece of thinly veiled autobiography dressed up in over bright clothing. It was received well, however and it made him wonder what people looked for in writing. Some of what he considered his more interesting works had received as many thoughts on how to change things as praise. Here he offered a straight piece of simple recounting of fact in thin disguise and it was praised without demur. He shouldn’t complain he supposed.
‘I think that wraps it up then.’ June said. ‘When’s the next meeting?’
‘It will be in two weeks, here in the morning.’ Stephanie said.
‘The library half day?’ June said.
‘Yes. I suppose we need to sort out a more frequent schedule as we’ve split the booking with the readers.’ Stephanie said.
‘Do you think they’ll keep meeting here?’ Ashby asked. ‘They’re a feckless lot.’
‘Well it’s what we agreed. So until they change their minds, we’ll need to think of something else if we want to carry one with weekly meetings.’ June said.
‘Why don’t we wait until a fortnight’s time and when, if, we sort out our aim and officers, we can talk about when and where we will meet after we exist?’ Straker said.
‘Good idea.’ Ashby said.
‘Suits me.’ Stephanie agreed.
‘In two weeks time then.’ June said and with that she blew her whistle softly and went a bright shade of pink.
They stood in the car park for a few moments, saying things about stories read that had not seemed appropriate in the meeting itself or exchanging tangential thoughts about writing in general and then June and Ashby departed.
Straker looked at his watch.
‘Go on then, just a quick one.’
Stephanie drove them out to the Dragon. There was a fire in the grate and the place was about half full. Not bad for mid-week. Half the pubs around the village had closed in the last ten years. Straker was pleased to see no-one he knew.
‘What will it be Jules?’
‘An orange juice thanks.’
‘Nothing stronger? You’re not driving are you?
‘No, but I’d like to keep my wits about me thanks.’
‘Jules! I’m not going to leap on you. Not without a bit more positive feedback anyway.’
‘It’s the positive feedback I want to control. So an orange juice please.’
Stephanie beamed at the barman and ordered the drinks. Julian carried them to a table tucked away in an alcove.
‘What did you really think of my piece?’ Stephanie asked as they settled down.
‘Good.’ he said. ‘No seriously. I can understand what John was saying about it needing work to remember which level of the narrative we were in but he was right at the end as well. You need to read it as a piece, not in segments strung out over weeks to do that easily. You should email a chapter to him and he’d pick it up easily enough.’
‘Do you pick it up?’
Straker looked at her over the rim of his orange juice. There was no obvious flirting going on. It might have been a straightforward question.
‘I did. I remember the last few excerpts you’ve read and I like the dream in dream reality.’ He smiled. ‘Not at all like the protagonist waking at the end of an entire series of soap opera.’
‘Joke.’ It’s not. It’s really engrossing’
‘Hmm. Thanks, I think.’ Stephanie took a sip of cranberry juice. She was driving after all. ‘I liked yours. A bit biographical wasn’t it?’
‘You noticed did you?’
‘Don’t worry. Your life’s been a bit more complicated than most. It makes a good novel, or two.’
‘I’ll take that as a compliment’
‘You should.’ Stephanie took a sip of her drink and continued, ‘So the boy, William. He’s Crispin?’
‘Not an exact copy but there are facets of him in there.’
Stephanie nodded before proceeding.
‘And how is he?’
‘Crispin? Speaking again.’
‘Bad divorce was it?’
‘They never actually got married.’ Straker sighed, ‘Which was behind most of the problems.’
‘Well, I took that as read but no, it was more all the legal complications about the kids and the house and, well just about everything.’
‘But it was fairly amicable?’
‘As far as these things ever can be I suppose. I thought given they both wanted to go their own ways it would have been simpler. Lots of buggering about with signing off saying you had considered the cat’s mental welfare and taken its best interests into consideration, that sort of crap.’
‘Jules! I’m shocked. You used to be such a progressive thinker. All Guardian and Left Bank Show sort of thing.’
‘I still am really but, well you know, some of it’s yoghurt knitting Tofu spinners.’
‘I bet you read the Telegraph and go “harrumph” every morning.’
‘Do not.’ Straker looked a little uncomfortable. ‘Well, I do read it, but only for the rugger and the cricket. The Guardian’s not interested in rugger, unless it’s women’s. And I’m sorry Steph but I can’t take that seriously. I know it’s a fault but there it is.’
‘Short sighted Jules. I always enjoyed scrumming down with you.’
‘Don’t worry Jules.’
‘Look, you know I still fancy you but I’m married…’
‘So am I.’
‘Yes, but you seem to regard Benedict as an optional extra or something.’
‘Listen Jules, my relationship with Ben is my business. But you and me, we were always something else. God knows why we didn’t…’
‘Steph, no offense but you’d be having this discussion with someone else and I’d be sat at home, or wherever Benedict is tonight if we had stayed together’
Steph slid a gloved hand along his thigh.
‘Don’t think so, Jules. Not bored yet.’
‘But having me on tap for twenty years would have been different. It’s the rarity value, the forbidden nature that make you still want what we had.’
‘I don’t remember you being this logical in Pembroke.’
Straker swallowed hard.
‘Well I wasn’t, and Pembroke was a mistake.’
‘Felt like the best thing that’s happened to me in years. I thought you enjoyed it too?’
‘Steph it was gorgeous, just like you. But the guilt nearly killed me.’
‘Because I’m married and I owe Emily a lot.’
‘I notice you didn’t say you loved her.’
Straker finished his drink and stood up.
‘I need to get back Steph. Could we go please?’
Stephanie finished her drink, got her car keys out of her handbag, rose and then paused at the table.
‘What if I said “No”? What if I said I wouldn’t drive you home until you’d given me a kiss in the car?’
‘I can still walk three miles you know Steph.’
‘Good to know.’ And with that she walked out of the bar.
‘Morning Julian, how are you?’
‘I’m well, thanks June. And yourself?’
‘Oh you know, hanging on.’
‘Sounds a bit grim. Things getting on top of you?’
June sighed and stopped unpacking her bag. ‘You know the Readers section are getting uppity about this place?’
Julian took off his coat and hung it over the back of the chair at the other end of the table from where June was unpacking.
‘No. I haven’t really heard anything from them since the split. What’s the matter with them?’
‘Oh some of them think they should have three weeks out of four here as they are bigger than the Writers group.’
Straker pulled a face of discontent at this news.
‘We sorted all that out the meeting and told the library didn’t we?’
‘Well yes, of course but…’
‘What do the library say about it?’
‘Well they’ve just apportioned the bookings 50-50, alternate weeks but they don’t want any trouble or too much attention, so we must be careful.’
‘Attention? I can understand them wanting to avoid trouble, but surely they want the attention. The council are always saying nobody uses the place and here are two local community groups fighting for access.’
‘For a service we don’t pay for.’
Straker’s mouth creased open in a wry smile. ‘Ah of course. An empty conference room not making cash. The horror!’
June looked around the room. ‘Hardly a conference room. It seats about 20 people at pinch. But I suppose that’s what some councillor will call it when he’s asking why the library isn’t making maximum commercial use of the facility.’
‘They used to teach night school classes in here’
‘Yes, languages wasn’t it? Nobody does that any more.’ June looked over at Straker.’ You used to teach some didn’t you?’
Straker dipped his head in acknowledgement.
‘For my sins.’
‘What was it again?’ June asked.
‘Bloody Russian. Who wants to learn that?’ Ashby walked in
‘Quite a few before austerity. False economy if you ask me.’
‘Why? Who needs to speak Russian round here? Not going to have Putin coming round on a bear wrestling expedition are we?’ He peered at Straker, ‘Are we?’
‘Don’t look at me John, but I think learning about other cultures through their language has its own reward.’
‘Bloody hell. Sorry June. When did you become a hippy?’
‘There are no hippies left John. I just think it’s interesting.’
Ashby laughed. ‘Depends what you do with that interest.’ He raised an eyebrow in Straker’s direction, ‘Doesn’t it Julian?’
June had heard this sparring contest many times and John Ashby never got anything out of Straker about his facility with the Russian language.
‘Are we expecting the others?’ she asked.
‘I hope so. I emailed everybody as agreed. Well not Sarah or Alan obviously.’
‘Are they still not online? I can’t see the point of having a computer if you aren’t online.’ Ashby said.
June looked at her watch. ‘Well it looks like it’s just us. Stephanie normally turns up though. Shall we wait or make a start?’ She voted with her feet and went to make a cup of coffee.
Ashby put his bag on the table and shed his coat.
‘We’re supposed to be electing officers and agreeing a constitution today.’ Straker said. ‘Not sure we can go ahead with three of us.’
‘Course we can.’ Ashby said. ‘Three best writers are here anyway.’
‘Not sure we should be judging people like that John.’ June replied, but the pride in her tone was evident. ‘I really think we need Steph here as well though, she’s always so practical.’
‘If people were online and paid more attention’ Ashby murmured, ‘they’d maybe realise why Stephanie wasn’t here.’
Straker paused on his way to the hot water jugs and coffee.
‘Still not bothering with Social Media then Julian?’
‘Not particularly. I’ve never seen the need to listen to speculations about lizard people or watch cats falling into wastepaper bins myself.’
‘Well forewarned is forearmed is all I’ll say.’
The day when John Ashby kept quiet about anything would be a day of miracles and wonders, Straker knew, so he kept quiet and moved off to make a coffee.
As June finished making hers and went to sit down Ashby bustled over.
‘She posted quite a witty piece about being stood up in a country pub the other day.’ He spooned coffee. ‘Sounded as if it were from the life.’ He raised an eyebrow in Straker’s direction. ‘You know, like it had really happened.’
‘Thanks John, I know what “from the life” means.’
‘Wonder where she got the idea from?’
‘It’s called creative writing John. You make it up from the imagination.’
‘Oh aye. If you say so.’
They pumped hot water from the flasks provided by the library.
‘So why did you think that meant Steph wouldn’t be coming today?’
‘Couple of things in it suggested maybe she, excuse me Julian,’ he interrupted himself, ‘I mean the protagonist of the story, had fallen out of love with the idea of writing for the time being. Emotional conflicts and all that.’ He raised an eyebrow in Straker’s direction and displayed the subject matter on his phone.
Straker let a little smile play on his lips.
‘She really can capture a feeling of moment can’t she?’ he said and dropped the used spoon into a spare mug. ‘Almost like one were in the room at the time.’
Ashby followed Straker back to the table and they busied themselves with notepads and pens.
June asked if they were ready to start but before either of them could respond the door opened and a gaggle of latecomers pushed their way into the room.
Straker looked at Ashby, expressionless as they both noted Stephanie Williams was among the group.
The noise levels rose as people exchanged greetings and comments about the weather, the library and of course the momentous events of their last meeting. Straker remembered that this was the first time many of them had been together since the split.
‘Thanks for the email Julian.’ Diane Eaton said. ‘Sorry I missed the other week, I was so worried about poor old Bill here.’ She pulled Parker into view. ‘I missed everything that was said after that.’
‘That’s okay, good to see you.’ Straker turned to Parker. ‘You okay now Bill?’
Parker nodded and prodded at a strip of plaster on his head where the skin surrounding it was still discoloured by bruising.
‘Rather sore still but the doc says I’ll live.’ He smiled at June. ‘And I’ve decided not to sue.’
Diane punched him gently on the arm while June blushed.
‘Leave her alone Bill. You know how upset she was.’
‘Only joking ladies. Smiling through the pain and all that you know.’
Diane raised an eyebrow.
‘I’ll give you some pain if you don’t leave it. Tea is it Bill?’
‘Aye, one sugar please.’
Parker sat while Diane went to get the drinks.
Veronica Goodman offered a tight smile and slid round the table to sit opposite Ashby. Straker offered a flash of teeth in return and Ron ducked her head.
‘Julian.’ Steph said and sat next to him.
‘Stephanie.’ He responded. ‘Can I get you a coffee?’
‘Thank you, but Diane’s getting me one.’
Stephanie turned round to face him.
‘Seriously Jules, she offered as we came in.’
‘It’s okay. I believe you.
‘Me too. My feet were killing me by the end.’
‘Serves you right.’
‘There you are Steph.’ Diane said. ‘What serves him right?’
‘Walking for miles at his age.’
‘Only about four miles.’ Straker answered.
‘Nothing for a man of your years.’
‘That’s what I thought when I started.’ Straker grimaced. ‘Anyway Steph, I read your Facebook piece. Very good.’
‘Yes, thanks. I was inspired. I didn’t know you were on Facebook?’
‘I’m not. John was kind enough to show me this morning.’
Stephanie leaned back and beamed at Ashby.
‘Thanks John, it’s appreciated.’
‘No problem Steph. Glad to be of service.’
Straker listened to that exchange. That was, he decided, an odd bit of phrasing. He’d remember that and use it in a story somewhere. He couldn’t make his mind up whether it was a deliberate tell of a conspiracy, an accidental giveaway, a meaningless exchange of pleasantries between two acquaintances or a piece of deliberate misdirection. He blinked. That way lay indecision and inaction. But then he didn’t need to decide right now did he. There was time for a longer game yet. He smiled.
‘Shall we get this meeting started then June?’ he said. ‘With any luck we can read some of the things we’ve been writing as well. I’m sure people will have made good use of the period since we last met.’
June put her coffee down and raised her whistle to her lips.
PEACE IN OUR TIME
June blew a short shrill blast and brought the meeting to order.
‘Bloody hell June!’ Ashby said wiggling his finger in his ear. ‘Can we go back to the bell?
‘No. Nobody’s going to end up in A&E if I lose control of this.’
‘Might end up in audiology. I’ll be deaf as a post if you keep blowing that in my ear.’
‘Pardon?’ Bill asked
‘I said…’ Ashby tailed off as he caught the twinkle in Parker’s eye. ‘Very funny, Bill. Maybe I’ll go and get that bell myself and give you another bash with it.’
‘Now you two, behave! Veronica snapped.
The two men raised their eyebrows at each other.
‘Yes ma’am.’ Ashby said.
‘Well, I’m sorry but violence isn’t a joke and I don’t think I’ve recovered from the EGM yet. I still can’t believe we’ve split from the readers section. ‘
‘No, you’re right Veronica. We’re all sorry it happened. John and Bill were just playing but we should remember how close it came to being very serious for Bill.’ June blushed a little at the memory of what she’d done to Parker at the EGM and pulled her papers closer to her before continuing. ‘Now we’ve got to decide a few important things today. Like what we’re called, what our purpose is and how often we will meet. And of course elect officers. Diane, you were secretary, any thoughts?
‘I’d be happy to carry on as Secretary of the writers. Or did you mean about what we should be called?’
‘Both I think.’ June said.
‘Are we quorate?’ Veronica asked.
‘I’m not sure we can be Veronica. Technically we don’t actually exist yet.’ Straker pointed out.
‘Okay’. June said heaving a sigh. ‘Do we want to form a writers group? Raise your hand if you do.’
Seven hands went up in various states of embarrassment.
‘Good. Now what are the purposes?’
‘Of a writers group?’ Ashby asked. ‘Do we really need to state that?’
‘Do we want to read each others’ work? Do we want to hear it read? Are we supporting the members writing only, or writing in the area more generally? Do we want to publish our work? Anthologies? Is it creative or all genres? Are we…’ Stephanie was on a roll.
‘All right, all right. Point taken.’ Ashby conceded.
‘Writing in the Westley area’. Diane said firmly, writing it down. Whether she was secretary or not she wanted a record of things. ‘That gives us wiggle room to stretch to Ravenbury if needed.’
‘To encourage writers in the Westley area develop their talents and skills by providing a forum for discussion, reading and performance of their work and offering written and verbal feedback as required.’ Parker suddenly intoned.
‘Bloody hell Bill, that were a bit good.’ said Ashby who gave Parker a small round of applause.
‘That way we keep the council on board and make it easier for the library to host us.’ Parker said, winking extravagantly at anyone unfortunate enough to catch his eye.
‘Maybe add something in about helping publication within our means and as appropriate? Straker offered. ‘I know quite a few people were keen on the anthology we did, and that way we don’t have to squeeze the meaning of the word ‘performance’ too hard to accommodate another volume if anyone wants to go down that road.’
‘Could you repeat that?’ Diane asked. ‘From “…by providing…”‘
There followed a few minutes intense cross talking while everyone offered their version of Parker’s mission statement with or without amendments. June decided to try and bring the meeting to some sort of order without using the whistle but despite her best efforts no-one seemed inclined to cease putting their point forward. The shrill blast had Ashby wiggling his little finger in his ear again and everyone else silent.
‘What was that for?’ Veronica Goodman asked.
‘Nobody could tell what anyone was saying. It was all talk and no listening. It was just too loud.’
The door opened and a librarian’s head appeared in the opening.
‘Is everything all right?’
‘Er, yes, thanks. I’m sorry about the noise.’ June said
The librarian blinked and stared pointedly at the whistle in June’s hand.
‘Perhaps a gavel may be less piercing. There are people concentrating out here.’ She said and shut the door, gently, before anyone could reply.
‘Maybe I’d better find a gavel or something less carrying.’ June said, red faced from the admonishment of the librarian.
‘There’s never anyone in there reading anyhow.’ Ashby said.
‘There are people using the computers though.’ Straker observed. ‘Not that I’m criticising, June.’ He added hurriedly.
‘Should buy their own bloody computers.’ Ashby said. ‘Feckless lot.’
The conversation turned to the price of computers and how everything now was done through them from banking to benefit claims and buying groceries. Straker snatched a glance at Stephanie and raised his eyebrows. She smirked back. The implicit bet was on how long before someone said ‘When I was young’ or some equivalent. Straker harboured a view that hardly anyone every really said this. Stephanie had a more jaundiced, or as she called it, realistic, view of her fellow writers.
‘Well I was trying to get a TV aerial fixed the other day and could I find a phone number with a human being on the other end?’ Parker was saying.
‘You can’t get anyone on the phone now, it’s all automated systems and if you do get through it’s a call centre with people whose accents you can’t understand.’
‘Indian you mean?’ offered Ashby.
‘Northern Irish. I can make out the Indian fellers now after all that business with the garage roof but I can’t tell half of what the Ulster one’s say.’ Diane said.
‘Course it was different in my day.’ said Ashby. You could ring a local office and have the thing sorted in minutes.
Stephanie smiled and Straker hung his head. His faith in human nature his downfall again.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ Ashby said.
‘Nothing John. Just the vicissitudes of fate.’
‘Hang on a minute,’ Ashby said, ‘never mind the vicissitudes of fate. Who is in there “concentrating”?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean the library’s normally closing as we start. That’s why you said you’d be all right with that thing.’ Ashby jabbed his finger in the direction of the whistle.
‘You’re right John. I wonder what’s going on.’
Straker rose from his seat and walked out of the room.
‘Where’s he going?’ Ashby asked.
‘Going to see what’s happening.’ Stephanie said. ‘You know what he’s like.’
‘Nosy bugger you mean?’
‘I was thinking more proactive, but it often amounts to the same thing I suppose.’
‘Oh I do hope he doesn’t upset anyone!’
‘When does Jules upset people June?’
‘I can think of one or two he can wind up when he’s in the mood.’ Ashby said looking at Stephanie.
‘Different kettle of fish John. As you well know.’
‘Well we’ll soon find out, here he is now.’ Ashby said as he saw Straker approaching through the glass panel in the door.
‘Who’s in there?’ Veronica asked before Straker was in the room. A smile flickered across Straker’s face as he shut the door behind him.
‘Our former selves. Well, our alter egos.’
‘Meaning?’ June asked.
‘Well bugger me! The readers section isn’t it?’ Ashby guffawed. ‘They’re stalking us.’
‘What are they doing?’ Stephanie asked as Julian sat down at the table.
‘Without meaning to sound sarcastic, reading.’ Straker paused ‘I suppose it should be “Reading Group” shouldn’t it? As they’re an entity in their own right now.’
‘In the library?’
‘Yes, June, in the children’s section.’
‘We should do that.’ Veronica said.
‘Move to the children’s section?’
‘On alternate weeks, yes. That’s what they’ve done isn’t it?’
‘We could ask the librarian I suppose.’ June said.
‘Was Lilian Dobson there?’
‘I believe she was John. Being rather forceful about cancel culture and an author’s right to say what they mean.’
‘Bit of a cheek considering how she moaned when I put her in a story.’
‘I suspect that is a different issue than the one she has with publishers John. Why did you want to know?’
‘I was thinking we could ask about the money. As they’re using the library, I presume for free, it would be a good time to sort out getting our share of the balance. They don’t need to hang on to more than their share do they?’
June looked around the table for support.
‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea in the middle of their session is it?’
There was a muttering, the meaning of which was hard to determine
‘Middle of ours too!’ Ashby said ‘It’s not the money it’s the principle of the thing.’
‘No John, with you it’s the money.’ Straker sighed and walked out of the room again.
‘We’ll end up in a fight again. I can feel it.’ Veronica twittered nervously.
‘No, he’ll sort it out. He’s not belligerent.’ Stephanie said. Bill Parker raised an eyebrow.
‘Remember him playing rugby?’
‘Dunno, I can see Lilian as a prop forward myself.’
‘Uncalled for John’ June said trying to hide a smile. ‘Although I take your point.’
The door opened again and Straker walked back in followed by Lilian Dobson. Tight smiles flashed across faces.
‘June. Everyone. All well I trust?’
‘Yes thank you Lilian.’ June said
‘Very kind of you to send your best wishes to us. Nice to know there’s no hard feelings. I don’t want to disturb you now, I know how much some of you put into your work. If you want to see me after in the library I’ll sort out a cheque for you. See you later.’ And with that she left.
‘Bloody hell, what did you do?’ Ashby said.
‘You hypnotised her didn’t you?’ Parker said. ‘I’ve read about it, the power of suggestion. Your lot are trained to do it aren’t you?’
‘You know, who you worked for.’
‘I was a civil servant Bill. I was trained to write reports and make tea. Not hypnotise stray women,’ he glanced at Stephanie, ‘unfortunately.’
‘One problem.’ Stephanie said, a sweet smile on her lips, ‘who does she make the cheque payable to? We haven’t decided on a name yet, never mind opened a bank account.’
Everyone clucked at the oversight.
‘Perhaps I was a little premature in my subterfuge.’ Straker admitted, but I think we can trust June or Diane to accept the money on our behalf and pay it in as and when we open an account.’
‘And you think Lilian Dobson is going to go along with that do you? Ashby offered.
Well, we’ll have to see won’t we John.’ Straker looked at his watch. ‘If we hurry we can appoint a treasurer so they can take the cheque as an official. Then maybe we can read some of our writing this week. I believe Steph has been busy.’