It’s an odd old thing, this group, Marlene thinks, as she sits in the small, dust-scented room and waits to see who will show. On her pad, she has written a column of names with a space for ticks or crosses and, as her pen scans down, her mind conjures not so much the familiar faces as the writing styles. Such a mixed bag of talent. And not. The termly room-rental comes to £400 and she needs to know how many to divide that by. Currently they number eleven. But Malcolm – dishy Malcolm – has already said that he won’t be continuing and that leaves ten. Easy arithmetic at least.
She hears footsteps clomping upwards. The turret room is part of a building owned by the Ethical Society, founded to promote atheism. Atheism does not inspire the same architectural beauty and grandeur as religion, it seems, but the space does come cheap. The bare walls are in need of repainting. The room is hot in summer, cold in winter, and the sash windows always seem to be jammed shut or open, in perverse contradiction to the season. Currently the windows rattle in the bluster of a sharp March wind; a cold draught blows down Marlene’s neck, but she doesn’t want to change her position at the head of the MDF table.
Lucinda appears in the doorway. Marlene’s at-the-ready smile falters, her hope of a private tête-à-tête with dishy Malcolm quashed. How are you and isn’t it windy out, they say.
Lucinda has been coming to the group for even longer than Marlene. She’s a quiet and retiring sort, barely able to raise her voice enough to be audible. She picks up typos and punctuation errors from other’s work; it’s amazing the little mistakes that slip in. Other than typo-detection all Lucinda ever says is, ‘I really did enjoy this.’ The exact same tone for everyone. As for Lucinda’s writing, it is actually not bad when you can catch what it is she says. Her family saga, generation after generation of gentry, has quite a bit going for it, if you happen to be interested in that sort of thing.
‘Sheila said to say she can’t make it,’ Lucinda murmurs.
Marlene presses her lips together. In her group-email she had tried to encourage as many as possible to attend. Given it is dishy Malcolm’s last night. Given it is the end of term.
‘Is she continuing on after Easter?’
‘Um. I think so. I am.’
Which sort of vagueness is no use, none whatsoever, for planning. Marlene places a tick by Lucinda’s name and a question mark next to Sheila’s.
Despite being a retiree from something terribly respectable, Sheila leads too busy a life to reliably devote Monday evenings to the group. Amidst Sheila’s social buzz, she is quietly productive, writing fantasy books. She has a small press publisher who pays her next to nothing, does a tiny print run and gets the books into libraries.
Marlene’s ambitions run rather higher than that.
More clomping, heavier footsteps this time, one of the men about to arrive in a flurry of self-importance.
She hopes… but no. It is Nigel. He is breathing heavily as his large frame fills the doorway. ‘Couldn’t we get a room on the ground floor?’ he says.
The downstairs rooms are larger, nicer and cost double. She is not going to explain this for the hundredth time.
Nigel is new this term. His attendance has been dismayingly regular. Of course ten weeks is early days and his enthusiasm may wane as rapidly as it waxed. Hopefully. The word slips in beneath her mind’s breath. This is not the way she ought to think.
Nigel’s presence comes with an earthy tang and she wonders if his cuff-frayed jumper has ever been washed. He removes a pile of crumpled paper from his rucksack. Nigel writes about foxes. Poems. Short stories. Life writing. He shows no sign of recognising the peculiarity of only writing about one thing. Surely there must be a limit to the literary potential of rust-coloured nocturnal mammals.
Right now, Nigel starts talking to Lucinda about the fox-den dug between the end of his garden and the railway embankment. Lucinda nods politely; Marlene coughs to hide her desire to laugh. Perhaps he has Asperger’s, she thinks. Characters with Asperger’s are bang in fashion right now and that could be just what her novel needs. She makes a discreet note in the moleskin notebook she carries with her everywhere.
Gary turns up next. Another newcomer, at sub-thirty he is their youngest member. Ever. At least Nigel does write; Gary has never provided toner-on-paper proof of writing anything. He doesn’t appear to notice that this is odd in a writers’ group. Surely he doesn’t have Asperger’s too?
The group is a very broad church, a strange metaphor in this building dedicated to the atheist cause, she muses. Too broad, she thinks, attracting all sorts of odd-bods and covering such a wide range of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Personally, she could happily ditch the poems, though they are at least short, unlike some of the prose. She has tried to impose a word limit of no more than two thousand words. Which happens to be her own weekly target. Fifty weeks times two thousand and she’ll have something meriting the name novel.
She smoothes a hand over the set of print-outs she has brought, the paper crisp and the words hopefully sparkling.
Josephine and Jeannie arrive simultaneously. Neither of them are exactly normal either. Josephine is a barely literate, while Jeannie is not all there. Learning difficulties is the politically correct term, she supposes. LD. Difficulty with learning social norms, like not crunching an apple when someone else is reading, for example. Or dressing in a colour other than purple. Not to mention the involuntary head movements and being unable to perform even the simplest arithmetic. All of which is at odds with the fact that Jeannie’s poems have a tendency to win prizes. Prestigious ones. Marlene has sometimes entered the short story sections of those same competitions. She has never made it onto any of the dismayingly long, longlists. She is better at the longer form, she likes to think.
As well as writing prize-winning poetry, Jeannie has no tact. Malcolm excuses it, along with her general LD-ness, as a consequence of a car accident at a tender age. It’s easy for him to be understanding. Marlene is the one Jeannie has taken against. Every time Marlene reads out, Jeannie talks for five minutes in a flat monotone about what is wrong with the piece. ‘Week after week after week and nothing ever happens to these characters,’ Jeannie said last week. Which is rich, coming from a poet. Poems aren’t exactly renowned for their high-octane action, are they?
Marlene’s prose is clearly too subtle for someone with LD to understand.
Might a brain-damaged woman be an interesting addition to Marlene’s book, she wonders. Would it make the author-stroke-narrator seem too cold-hearted if said character was not sympathetically drawn?
The moleskin notebook acquires another entry. In any case, Marlene is not going to allow Jeannie to get to her tonight. Though it has occurred to her that the odd feminine tear might bring out the best, which is to say the most tenderly masculine, side to Malcolm. On the other hand, Malcolm had a scene once in which his character was irritated by a woman’s mucus ridden sobs. And though it would be a mistake to confuse writer and character, better not to risk it.
Jeannie and Josephine tend to come here together or not at all. The latter left school at fifteen, having hardly attended it. Yet amidst the absence of grammar and appalling spelling Josephine’s Victorian novel is absolutely gripping. Which feels unfair. The quality of grippiness is illusive; it is hard to pin down, or to inject. But if Marlene works hard enough at her depth of characterisation and use of language, surely it will emerge.
Malcolm appears next, arriving in a flurry of oversized umbrella, flapping scarf and large carpet bag. Malcolm two, not to be confused with dishy Malcolm. Malcolm two is their latest addition, three weeks and counting. It will be less confusing she supposes, when Malcolm one leaves in order to commence an online PhD in creative writing with some university she has never heard of.
Malcolm two writes war-novels. Or, to be precise, the opening of a war-novel. By his own admission, he never finishes anything. The opening section he read his first week here was funny. It slung into action right from the first sentence, barbed wired hooks at all sorts of angles. But anyway. War is not Marlene’s thing. Nor does she aim for humour.
The start time has come and gone. Everyone is full flow chatting. She should pull the group to attention. Or perhaps wait just a little longer for Malcolm.
She can hear… but no, the clip-clop belongs to heels not stylish brogues. She does like a man who wears leather rather than grubby trainers.
Samantha appears, all lipsticked smile, high heels and plunging neckline, followed by mousy Emily.
The brevity of Samantha’s poetry is its only plus point. Marlene doesn’t read poetry, but even she knows that modern poetry is not filled with thees and thous and generally is not required to rhyme. Samantha is as single-themed as Nigel. Her subject is flowers. Only flowers. Though with disturbingly erotic undercurrents which no one ever mentions. Samantha appears uninterested in having her pieces critiqued. She presents each as something complete and refuses to contemplate changing a single word, negating the whole purpose of the group.
Emily takes the last of the set out chairs. She is one of the hardcore of regulars. Her genre is – somewhat improbably – crime. Marlene is quite sure that Emily has never seen a mutilated body, never mind been actively involved in its demise. Yet she writes very convincingly – as far as Marlene can judge – of murder achieved in a variety of gruesome ways.
She wonders if crime writing is easier, less demanding by way of characterisation, though admittedly needing rather more by way of plot. Literary fiction is what Marlene aspires to. When asked what her novel is about, she struggles to discover the right words. It is about so many things. About love and life and hurt and loneliness. None of which sounds terribly compelling. Really you have to read her work to appreciate its qualities.
She coughs, ‘ahem …’ She inhales Samantha’s rather brash perfume. ‘Perhaps we should start.’
Silence descends. ‘Well thank-you all for coming,’ she says, though no one ever thanks her for turning up. Or for dealing with the tedious, but necessary, administrative details. ‘Nice to see a good turnout. Although I had been hoping…’
Right on cue, footsteps come bounding up the stairs and dishy Malcolm appears, looking rakishly dishevelled and sporting an apologetic and fetching grin.
‘So sorry,’ he murmurs. ‘Do carry on.’ Except it is impossible to carry on while he battles with one of the stacks of chairs in the corner, causing an almighty clattering. ‘Take no notice of me.’
It is impossible not to notice Malcolm. Marlene guesses him to be late forties, a sexy age for a man. She is a few years younger. She has never been stunning, but she maintains her figure, ensures her hair is styled and streaked, and her clothes chosen to flatter. She is sure that Malcolm has noticed these things and that for all he is pleasant to everyone, his interest is focussed more particularly on her.
‘I was just going to ask which of us have brought something to share,’ she says.
Nigel puts one hand up and points to the papers before him with the other. ‘Me, Miss,’ he says, in what presumably is a jokey voice. She smiles tightly. ‘A poem about the foxes,’ he adds. Marlene catches Malcolm’s eye, she sees the twinkle of amusement which he is choosing to share just with her. She covers her laughter with a cough, and her cough with her hand, which is far from being the right attitude for this helpful and supportive environment.
‘I have something,’ Malcolm says. ‘If that’s alright.’ Around the table there are murmurs of assent; it is his last evening, after all.
Samantha has something. And Jeannie. And Emily, ‘if there’s time.’
Josephine and Lucinda shake their heads.
‘Not tonight,’ Gary says.
‘Still a bit stuck,’ Malcolm two says.
‘I also have something,’ she says, as if it isn’t obvious that a pile of paper sits right there. As if it isn’t obvious that every week she types up her word count goal and brings the pages along. Sticking to her write-a-novel-in-a-year plan. She is ten weeks in. Twenty thousand words. Things are about to get going properly.
They start with the poems.
Samantha’s thees and thous are accompanied by inter-twined tendrils and hermaphroditic floral organs; this is followed by the fox poem and then one of Jeannie’s unintelligible offerings which is either pure brilliance or pretentious crap. Marlene daren’t be disparaging in case the poem goes on to win one of those competitions with high prize money and a well-known judge. Saying she can’t make heads or tails doesn’t seem to be a criticism as far as poetry is concerned; it risks rebounding back, making her look stupid.
She tries to find something affirmative to say about each, alongside her suggestions for improvement. Honing her skills of criticism is an important stage in her journey as a writer. Only poetry is not the best stone against which to sharpen her tools. She smiles inwardly at her own mixed metaphors.
Neither the low word count, nor the likelihood that none of the writers care much about the constructive feedback, serves to curtail the group discussion which seems interminably long, squeezing out the remaining time.
Malcolm offers to go next. Dishy Malcolm with his deep brown eyes and teasing smile. And his way of saying only positive things even when some of the offerings are decidedly amateurish. When it comes to her own work, of course, he sounds so sincere. She pictures him saying, ‘Well this is super,’ his voice soft, his Labrador eyes with girlishly long lashes gazing into hers. ‘So moving.’ Or funny, or touching, or dramatic according to the occasion. He doesn’t always choose the adjective she herself would have done, providing her with hidden insights.
Malcolm clears his throat. ‘Well. I guess this might be called my swan-song.’ Which seems to imply that he is dying. Or at least a work of beauty. Quite quickly his scene turns to his dashing spy’s favourite occupation. The text is full of sweaty grunting amidst improbable configurations of writhing limbs.
His voice rises and falls theatrically. Surely she ought to feel a vicarious thrill. She does. A little. But more as a result of stealing a glance at his full lips, than what they say. The scene continues on and on, way beyond her suggested limit. He skirts around the precise naming of body parts, so that she is left a little confused as to what exactly A is doing to B. Surely he cannot mean what he seems to?
Erotica of the S&M variety is in vogue, of course. She fails to imagine enjoying being spanked, or nipple clamps or… Well any of it really.
Perhaps her heroine wouldn’t have to enjoy it. But why would she go along with it then? Devising convincing motivations for unlikely sounding things is not one of Marlene’s strong points.
She thinks of the adage write what you know and wonders how it applies to Malcolm. Presumably not when it comes to all the spy stuff (of which there has been little). Regarding the sex, she can’t be sure. Her own direct experience of the latter is admittedly limited, but she has read a lot.
Writing the things she knows is good advice, making sure her novel is properly grounded in reality. She worries whether that doesn’t leave her story a tad dull. If only she knew more. Perhaps having sex with dishy Malcolm would open her horizons. But that would be a bad reason to have sex with someone. Well obviously.
Malcolm’s voice continues, his characters’ bodies sweat and twist. Marlene’s jaw tightens as she suppresses a yawn. The mechanics of sex are decidedly dull. Not the real life mechanics, of course, or at least not with someone as dishy as Malcolm, so she confidently assumes; but the he touched this or that while she gasped and groaned stuff is distinctly dreary.
The chapter grinds to a halt. The hush of silence reminds her, inappropriately, of a church.
She would prefer someone else to kick off with their observations, but everyone stares studiously down at the pages Malcolm has circulated. Time is running on.
‘Well,’ she says, ‘I did enjoy this.’ She wishes she didn’t blush so ridiculously easily. ‘All very…’ what’s the word she wants? ‘Visceral. Vigorous.’ Which is rather too alliterative.
Malcolm’s look is unfathomable. She doesn’t like to criticise the sex in case she comes across as staid, which she definitely isn’t. ‘We’ll really miss your contributions,’ she finishes, limply. Malcolm’s eyes meet hers and she feels herself melting down.
Marlene has been single for a while; it gives her time to focus on her writing. Men have a terrible tendency to be distracted by more superficial and vivid propositions. This is one of the themes of her book. As a teenager she read too many Brontë-Austin-ish type things in which salvation turns up on horseback in the form of a broody, dark-eyed and aloof stranger. Life has never delivered on that premise. Aloof men have always remained just that. Arrogance is never broken down. She knows how silly all these notions are. And yet.
The others are all sweet and praise-full of Malcolm’s purplish prose.
Marlene readies herself, her heart fluttering at the imminent prospect of performance. Emily has a pile of printed paper too, one veined hand lying lightly on top and it is vitally important to get in ahead of her, as they are running out of time. Emily always says she doesn’t mind.
‘Well thank you,’ Malcolm says. ‘You’ve all been very helpful.’
Marlene’s fingers pick off the first copy from her pile of crisp print-outs, at the ready to hand them round. ‘Perhaps I could …’
But Malcolm is simultaneously saying, ‘I don’t want to interrupt proceedings,’ when he is clearly doing precisely that, ‘but does anyone fancy bunking off early and going for a drink?’
Marlene’s fingers freeze. She feels the rising burn to her cheeks as she waits for someone to remind the group that it is now her turn to read. She left a chapter half-way through last week and at what she hoped was an intriguing point.
‘I’m up for it,’ Foxman says. Jeannie is up for it too. They have both already read their pieces.
Marlene smoothes her papers and clears her throat delicately. But it’s too late. Everyone is either agreeing or making excuses and either way are reaching for their bags. It would seem too self-serving to protest, though it will throw her whole writing schedule off. But in any case, she is not going to turn down a drink with dishy Malcolm.
Six of them make it to the pub; they occupy a small table which has room for four and Marlene finds herself on the edge. She feels unaccountably down. She will never now know what Malcolm thought of this particular piece and she had particularly wanted him to hear the understated way she referred to her character’s sexual longings, the way she hinted at suppressed passions waiting for the right trigger to be released.
Malcolm talks loudly about his literary ambitions. He wants to be the new… She doesn’t quite catch the over-complicated name of an author she has never heard of. Her smile muscles ache. Nigel is also on the outside, and starts to talk about foxes. She smiles her frostiest smile.
She gulps her large white wine more quickly than intended, the alcohol making her more morose. She accepts an offer from Malcolm-two for another glass. A couple of the others drift away, leaving a quartet: two Malcolms, herself and Samantha. There is now room for the four of them, though unfortunately she is wedged between the wrong Malcolm and Samantha. The noise level of the pub is high. Marlene is left trying to lean away from Malcolm-two’s stale breath while dishy Malcolm is whispering in Samantha’s ear. Glamorous, chest-thrusting Samantha who writes so determinedly and evasively about the sex organs of flowers. She isn’t bad looking, Marlene concedes. She must be at least a decade younger than Malcolm. An additional button on her already low-cut blouse seems to have popped undone. Her hair hangs loose and she looks like some fallen women from a pre-Raphaelite painting.
Two large glasses of wine must equate to the best part of a bottle and that amount of alcohol leaves Marlene in need of the loo. She heads off haphazardly towards the Ladies, negotiating the cluttered bar space and then the narrow corridor and winding stairs. A cold splash of water is only momentarily reviving. In the mirror, her reflection appears sepia coloured and she seems to see things with hyper-clarity.
She sees a life not properly lived and a novel in which nothing seems to happen. Her focus shifts, alighting on Nigel with his foxes, Jeannie her poetry wins, Sheila her books on library shelves and Emily her quiet self-possession and imagination. On Gary who enjoys the group without contributing and Josephine writing gripping prose despite her setbacks. On Malcolm-one relishing the thought of all that sex and Malcolm-two who at least knows how to get a thing started. On Samantha and her utter self-confidence in her trashy poems.
She wonders why she is bothering, why bother at all, why not admit that all those solitary hours she spends typing up words are simply a means to escape the dreariness of her existence and that she lacks the imagination even for her made-up world to command any sort of interest.
She feels decidedly wobbly as she makes her way back downstairs, as if the melancholy of her thoughts is weighing her down and threatening to tip her off-balance. Malcolm-two has disappeared leaving Malcolm-one and Samantha sitting close, the line of their arms pressed together, their noses almost touching; his eyes cast downwards, plunging into that cleavage. As she weaves her way towards the table there is a momentary perspective in which she glimpses the space beneath the table, how Malcolm’s hand is firmly placed on Samantha’s upper thigh.
She can almost hear the crack as something in her breaks. The shining of sharp light onto her misty fantasies hits her harder than it ought, given she knew all along that what she felt for Malcolm was in her head. She remembers how she failed to pin people down regarding the booking of the room and wonders what would happen if she simply didn’t.
She takes her seat. The couple barely register she is there and she says quietly that perhaps it is time for her to go.
Yet even as she enters the chill of evening, even as she is brooding over the most dismal of thoughts, she is composing literary ways to express her dejection and considering how it would be just right for her main character to have these kinds of wistful musings. Writing what she knows. Reflecting a certain type of woman, a certain kind of unrequitable love in which sexual acrobatics are fantasised over obliquely, but never come into play. Imbibing her limited knowledge with a substance and importance beyond the current hateful moment. What would she have left without that?
Sarah Evans has had over a hundred stories published in anthologies, magazines and online. Prizes have been awarded by, amongst others: Words and Women, Winston Fletcher, Stratford Literary Festival, Glass Woman and Rubery. Other publishing outlets include: the Bridport Prize, Unthank Books, Riptide, Shooter and Best New Writing. She has also had work performed in London, Hong Kong and New York.