In the meeting room, Stephen returned to his seat on the back row. Mary was chaperoned to a chair nearer the front by the elderly man who had confronted him in the bar. He gave Stephen a warning look before he sat down.
Margot got to her feet and squinted at her list.
‘Ted?’ she queried.
‘You really ought to go back to glasses, Margot,’ said Ted, as he picked up his clipboard from the floor.
Margot blushed and sat down.
Ted marched to the podium, nodded to Harriet and addressed the membership.
‘Ted Hughes, not the famous one,’ he announced.
A gentle titter ran around the room.
‘I was going to read a new poem, but as I don’t have to share reading time with my grandson tonight, I’ve decided to read the latest chapter of my novel instead.’
Ted patted his pockets, looked back to his seat, then patted his pockets again before eventually finding his spectacles on a thin chain around his neck. He cleared his throat and read from the clipboard.
‘The Jonah. Chapter 14. Unlucky for Some.’
The membership stopped fidgeting and concentrated on Ted.
‘Captain Farthing strolled into the coffee bar from the dusty street and took a table by the window, he ordered tea from a native waitress. It was stinking hot. The waitress sniffed, gave him a queer look and turned the propeller fan above their heads up to full speed.
Captain Farthing added two large spoonfuls of sugar and milk from a jug on the tray and stirred his tea slowly. He sipped the tea idly and thought about Fiona. Would she turn up after their last meeting? He doubted it. He remembered how he had trapped her ball gown in the door of his car and her horrified face when she realised it had dragged through the mud.
He hoped she had forgiven him.
There was a tinkle and Fiona stood before him. ‘Hello Farthy,’ she said. Fiona sniffed from her delightful nose. She lifted first one foot then the other and checked her shoes.
Farthing groaned as he realised in horror that the smell must be emanating from his shoes. He checked them under the table. Sure enough it was him, somewhere out on the dirty, dusty street he had trodden in dog shit.
Fiona was sympathetic. ‘You get all the bad luck, Farthy,’ she said, ‘you must be the unluckiest man in India…’
As the story progressed Stephen developed an almost uncontrollable urge to laugh. He bit his lip, then his cheek, but still the laughter welled up inside him. He decided he had to get out before he collapsed in a heap on the floor.
Stephen held his hand in front of his mouth and lurched towards the door. He yanked it open and ran for the toilet block. Within seconds he was bent over the sink laughing hysterically and praying that he couldn’t be heard.
Five minutes later his riotous laughter had been reduced to a continuous, childish giggle. He had cramp in his stomach and his face was wet with tears. As he straightened up, he heard a rap on the door and the sound of Margot’s voice.
‘Hello, are you alright in there?’
Stephen stared at the ceiling and willed the giggling to stop.
‘Yes,’ he spluttered, eventually. ‘I’m fine thanks, I just felt a bit unwell there for a moment. Thought I was going to be sick. I think I may have caught a bug.’
‘Well I hope you haven’t given it to the rest of us, whatever it is,’ said Margot.
He heard her footsteps fade as she went back to the members’ room.
Stephen ran cold water onto his hands and dabbed at his eyes. He checked himself in the mirror and tidied his hair, then, confident that he was no longer in danger of losing it, he left the toilets and headed back to the hall.
Stephen closed the door behind him quietly and tiptoed back to his seat. Ted had finished reading and had been replaced on the podium by a woman in her early sixties.
‘I’m sorry, I’m a little nervous,’ she said. ‘I keep losing my place.’
‘Faversham Hall,’ called Ted helpfully. ‘You were in the rose gardens, Sheila.’
‘Oh yes, so I was,’ said Shelia. She checked the bottom of the page then turned it over. ‘I’ve done that bit, where’s page two?’
Sheila shuffled through her papers but couldn’t find the missing sheet.
‘Sorry,’ she said eventually. ‘I was editing it before I came out, I must have forgotten to print it off. Maybe the word processor deleted it.’
‘Never trust computers, ‘ said Deirdre. ‘You’re better off with pen and ink.’
There was a murmur of agreement from the membership.
‘I once lost a whole book,’ said Martin Stanley. ‘I found it months later in the antivirus program folder. God knows how it got there.’
Deirdre nodded. ‘You can’t trust them.’
Mary’s protector joined in.
‘I’ve got to get an engineer to mine,’ he announced. ‘I can’t do anything with it. I just keep getting a message about some program using up all my virtual memory, whatever that is.’
‘It’s like another language, Mick,’ said Ted.
‘Bloody thing says I’m infected,’ moaned Mick.
Stephen got to his feet.
‘You are infected, Mick, I think you’ve got a Trojan.’
‘Who asked you?’ shouted Mick. He pointed to his nose. ‘Keep this out.’
‘Trojans! ‘ hissed Deirdre, ‘ and you wanted me to get one of those things.’ She looked accusingly at Margot.
Harriet got to her feet and called for order.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, please…’
The members ignored her and continued their heated discussion on the merits of computers.
Margot stood beside Harriet and slammed her clipboard down on the desk.
‘Members. PLEASE! Can we have a little decorum here?’
The members returned to their seats looking shamefaced.
‘Thank you.’ Margot checked her watch. ‘It’s a little early but I think we’ll call it a night. I’ll read through the suggestion box while Harriet gives out the details of the new competition.’
‘Ooh,’ cooed Deirdre,’ a new comp, how exciting.’
‘The quarterly competition is on the subject of bird song,’ announced Harriet.
‘Bird song,’ whispered the members to each other.
Harriet raised her voice slightly and continued.
‘One hundred words maximum including the title. All entries to be received by May the 31st.’
She waved a handful of paper.
‘I’ll put these by the door so you can pick one up as you leave. It also has details of the monthly competition, which this time requires you to get your poetic juices flowing. The subject is ‘Old Friends,’ no more than twenty-four lines please.’
‘Not more bloody poetry,’ called a voice.
‘I’m hopeless at poems,’ said another. ‘Can’t we do a short story about it instead?’
‘Sorry,’ said Harriet. ‘Poems only.’
‘Bugger,’ said Mick. He looked fondly at Mary. ‘I won’t be taking you out to dinner on my winnings next month then.’
Harriet walked to the back of the room and placed the pile of papers on the table by the door. Margot finished reading the cards and stood up.
‘Firstly, to whoever wrote this.’ She glared at Ted. ‘The answer is no, and I doubt you could manage it at your age anyway.’
The members nudged each other and tittered. Margot held up her hand for silence.
‘Surprisingly there are one or two ideas that are worthy of consideration this week. Let’s put them to a show of hands, shall we?’
The members muttered agreement.
‘Point one. Does the membership believe it would be a good idea to draw lots at the manuscript meeting so that every member gets a chance to read? The idea behind this is that once a member has read at a meeting, they would be automatically barred from reading at the next two meetings. Anyone in favour?’
Stephen began to raise his hand but stopped as twenty-five members turned to glare at him.
That’s a no, I take it,’ said Margot.
‘I knew he was trouble,’ glowered Mick.
‘Point two. Does the membership believe that members should be limited to a ten-minute slot on manuscript reading night, so that the discussion on their work can result in more than just a warm round of applause?’
Stephen stuck out his jaw as the membership vented its collective spleen.
‘It was just an idea,’ he complained. ‘There’s very little point in reading anything if it isn’t going to be commented on, and by comment I don’t just mean saying that something is nice. Serious writers need to know if they are progressing. A group like this is the ideal platform for that, it’s the only reason I joined.’
‘You can always leave,’ said Mick.
Mary got to her feet.
‘The young man has a valid point. We used to give constructive criticism years ago. It’s only since Hilda died that we’ve become a sort of back patting society. We used to have some great discussions on what we’d just heard. I think we should go back to that format. I think we could even take it further and bring in written critiques. We could hand them in anonymously at the next meeting and Margot could pass them on to whoever the critique was written for. That way we could say what we really felt about someone’s work without feeling embarrassed about it. I wouldn’t expect anything nasty to be passed on though.’
‘We had a few rows when we did that before though,’ said Deirdre. ‘It wasn’t all good natured.’
‘We did, but we all had a good laugh about it over a drink afterwards,’ replied Mary.
‘That’s true,’ said Elsie with the blue rinse. ‘We had a bit more about us back then. I think we stopped arguing out of respect for Hilda. But she’s been gone five years now.’
‘Right then,’ said Margot. ‘Shall we have a show of hands?’
To Stephen’s amazement only Mick kept his hand down.
‘I’m not voting for anything he thought up,’ he declared.
Margot held up a third card.
‘Does the group believe we should bring in a guest speaker occasionally? The idea is that we invite a published author, an agent, or even a publisher along to give us advice on getting our work into print.’
‘Did he think this up too?’ grumbled Mick.
‘This is nothing to do with me,’ said Stephen. ‘It’s a great idea though.’
Mary stood up again.
‘This was my idea. We used to do it years ago and we had some very interesting nights. I think we’ve allowed ourselves to wallow in self-pity since Hilda died. She used to organise us, we left everything to her, she was a fabulous club president, irreplaceable really.’
She looked across to Margot and Harriet.
‘No offence intended, we got into this rut long before you were voted onto the committee. We used to have so much fun, anyone remember when we had the editor of the Herald in here?’
‘That was hilarious,’ called Ted. ‘He was the main story in on the local TV news that night and he knew nothing about it. What was his topic, moral publishing?’
The crowd laughed as they remembered.
‘He’d only been publishing lies about the Mayor, so that he could get his wife into the job,’ chuckled Martin.
‘Show of hands? asked Margot.
The vote was unanimous.
‘Right,’ she said. ‘I’ll start looking to see who we can bring in to speak. We’ll have to reschedule everything of course. We’ll put our proposals forward at the next members meeting. Meanwhile I know that the request was refused tonight, but I really would like everyone to think about this idea of drawing lots to read. If the group has decided to move on in other areas, then I think we should give this more consideration too.’
Steven held the door open again as she members shuffled through. As Mary passed, she gave him a wink. Mick dug an elbow into his ribs as he barged past.
‘Bloody interfering sod,’ he hissed.
As Stephen was about to leave, Margot called him back into the room.
‘Are you staying for a drink?’
‘Not tonight thanks, Margot. I want to write a bit more of my novel when I get home. I’m up at six in the morning for work.’
‘Thank you for your ideas, Stephen. I really think this is going to be a new start for us; we’ve needed a kick up the backside for years. The next meeting is in two weeks’ time. I hope you can make it.’
‘I wouldn’t miss it for the world,’ said Stephen. ‘I might even enter the competition.’ f