The Writers’ Group (a short story)

“A writers’ group?” Said the barman, cloth in hand.  “We’ve got two on tonight.  There’s the Harrowman’s Weekly Writers Group  -“ he nodded to his right – “and there’s the Feminist Nationalist Writers Association.”  He nodded to his left.  Was that a joke?  She wasn’t sure.  “I’m not sure.”  She said.  “Well how about you get a drink and I’ll introduce you.”  He poured her a Deuchers and caught her name.  “Come with me.”

There was a huddle round the corner table.  “Malky, this is Sarah, she wants to join your writing group.”  Malky was wearing a fleece, partially unzipped, with nothing else underneath.  “Oh hello there Sarah, welcome, I see you’ve come prepared.” He motioned to her pint.  Was that a joke?  She wasn’t sure. They all chuckled.

They made a space for her and she joined them.  Younger, more colour in her clothes but less in her cheeks, she was a welcome contrast to the table.  “I wasn’t sure which writers group this was?” she asked.  “Well you’re in the Harrowman’s Sarah, so this is it.  You’re in the right place.”  “Good.” She smiled at the table.   The fleece was a giveaway.  They weren’t feminists.

There were four of them, she made it five.  Malky in the fleece, a bespectacled woman in an anorak, a nervous chap who needed a wash and a round man who resembled an aging cherub.  “Hullo.”  They said.  “Hello,” smiled Sarah.  She noticed there wasn’t much in the way of paper or notes for a writers group.  The table was barely big enough for their drinks (the men had pints, the woman had an Irn Bru in a tall glass).  “So Sarah,” continued Malky, “our format is simple.  We each read out 900 words or less from what we have written and then partake in a round table critique.  But don’t worry, it’s very friendly!  We’ve been doing it for years.”  He made eye contact with the cherub as he finished; this was clearly their baby.

The cherub took his cue.  “And have you brought any writing with you today, Sarah?”

“I have actually,” she said, reaching into her bag and pulling out her laptop.  There was a prolonged gasp.

“Wow,” said the cherub, “a magic box!”

“It’s a laptop Morris,” Malky assured him matter-of-factly, “they’re pretty common now.”  The others nodded sagely.  This was 2017 after all.  Sarah noted they all had bits of paper stuffed in their pockets or folded neatly in their non-drinking hands, ready for recital.

“Right,” said Malky, leaning forward and exposing the ample forest of his bosom, “who’s first?”

What followed was the most surreal, wonderful and eclectic hour that Sarah had enjoyed in a long while.  Anorak (Wendy) read out a chapter of her burgeoning detective novel; a gritty Leith based pot-boiler where clues were sign posted to the reader like advertising hoardings.  Things like, “the victim’s wife wrote her details down in her left-handed scrawl.  Detective Hansen looked inquisitively back at the hall way, where bloody hand prints covered the right side of the door.”   Malky read out a chapter from his new Lord of the Rings style opus, where a busty wench of a barmaid whimpered at the sight of great war hero and goblin slayer, Terolofor, or was it Forolotef?  Or Yegot the Hammer?  Or Yegot the Hammer’s son? There was so much backstory, the actual story was somewhat side-lined.  Nervous, dirty man (Alan) wrote a genuinely impressive poem about a reclusive millionaire being mugged by his gardener.  The cherub (Morris) recited a radio play he’d apparently been working on since 1964, because that’s when all the jokes would have been funny.  It followed two removal men based in Gorgie who got up to japes.  The latest episode had them stealing gutters from Morningside and selling them for scrap in Dalry.  It was called ‘Moving On Up.’

“I still don’t like the title, Morris.”  Malky interrupted before he’d finished.

“Let him finish!” Hushed Wendy, clearly a stickler for procedure.

Morris bumbled the last passage, clearly knocked off his timing, and exhaled dramatically, tapping the paper on the table like a newsreader during the credits.  The silence was sudden and uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry Morris,” said Malky.

Morris nodded and turned to Sarah.  “Without further ado, can we hear what Sarah has for us on her magic box.”

Sarah straightened.  “Thank you, er, I’m not sure what I have is up to your level – “

“And no interruptions please,” said Morris, “from anyone.” He peered round the table.  Admonished, they bowed their heads.

“So,” said Sarah, “I started a story that you might like actually.  It’s called ‘The Writer’s Group.’”

There was a murmur round the table. “That was fast!” Said Malkly.

“Of course it’s not about you, I made it up.” She said, before repeating the title to indicate she’d started.  “The Writer’s Group.”  Procedural silence.  “They met in a small café in the shadow of a church, just off a busy enough road for ambient noise but quiet enough to avoid prying eyes through the windows.  Six aspiring writers with folders and caffeine, dreams of grandeur and prose of mediocrity.”  Chuckles round the table.  “One wrote romance, one wrote horror, two wrote fantasy which was a bad idea as they’d become rivals, one wrote folk tales in muddled Scots slang and another just wrote what she knew, sometimes on napkins, sometimes on the back of receipts but always striving for the truth, whatever that was.”

“Good opening.” Said Malky.

He was shushed aggressively.

“They had convened in the same humble café for years now, safe in their New Town surroundings but apparently fearful of the outside.  They had not accepted a new member for 18 months.  Their format was simple and unwavering.  They would take it in turns to read out their latest works and when one had finished, the others would take two minutes to write criticism, praise and pointers before passing them to the writer.  This part was almost ceremonial, as the writer would pore over the scrawled notes for validation or dereliction.  Depending on the feedback, discussion would follow of varying degrees of passivity or aggression.  Hence the name of this troupe of try-hards – The Passive Aggressive Writers Club.”

Wendy and Morris guffawed.    Malky actually clapped briefly, before returning to fiddling his errant zip.  Alan smiled and scratched his hair.  Sarah realised they were leaning forward, towards her; she had an audience.

“This particular week there was to be a disturbance to their format, not by an exterior force but a far more disruptive, lingering source for discontent.  An internal feud was brewing.  The fantasy writers had reached an impasse, a friendly rivalry now escalating to bitter resentment faster than a stampede of ferocious goblins – “

“Goblins don’t stampede, they maraud.”  Interrupted Malky.

“Do they?” Asked Sarah.

“Well mine do.”

“How about that format?” Asked Morris, peering over Sarah’s shoulder.

“It’s just Word.” She said.

“No, giving notes after each recital.  I’ve never thought of that.”

“Please get back to the story, I’m hooked!” Wendy begged, her Irn Bru flat.

Sarah continued her yarn of the Passive Aggressive Writers Club.  How the fantasy writers began to grow suspicious of one another and hide details of their stories, reciting alternative versions to throw each other off.  This suspicion of plagiarism was to evolve into an unhinged obsession with what the other was writing.

“Before long, Derek was tracking Philip to the Stockbridge library and waiting for his moment to pounce.  Philip had a writing routine, honed down the years and reliant on having his favourite chair in the local library available to him.  He would take his time to spread his notes around him like a nesting sparrow.  Then and only then would he make his way to the library staff room, where he was given special dispensation to use the kettle, although he did have to supply his own mug and instant coffee.”

“Cheap arse library,” said Morris, taking a miniscule sip of his beer.

“It was during this segment of the routine that Derek could pounce, secluded in a blind spot between the Cooking and Crime sections.  He had by his reckoning, three minutes to photocopy his rival’s work before Philip’s caffeinated return.”

Dramatic pause.  Gasps abound.

“And that’s where I’ve got to.” Sarah closed her laptop deliberately.

“Oh, you can’t end it there!” Said Malky, “leaving us like that ‘til next week!”

“It’s called a cliff hanger,” said Wendy, rolling her eyes and tapping her pot boiler, before winking conspicuously at Sarah.

“In truth, I haven’t quite figured out how to end it.” Said Sarah, “any suggestions welcome.”

“No.” Said Morris, “this writer’s group is for critique only.  And besides how can we add to such… perfection?”

The remaining post-recital discussion ebbed by but Sarah didn’t partake, she was beaming.  They suddenly began to fold away their notes.  “So now all that’s left to say,” said Malky, “is we have nothing but praise for you.  That was breath taking.” He looked around the table triumphantly.  “Welcome to the group!”

***

The week flew by, Sarah arriving before the others for her second meeting.   Pints drawn, Irn Bru served, she was the hottest ticket at the table.

It was clear the majority of the group wanted to hear more on the passive aggressive impasse, but Malky insisted on going first, reading a particularly misogynist chapter from his fantasy epic, even for him.  “That’s really sexist,” said Wendy.  “Even for you.”

“Well I had to describe the barmaid in detail so you get the idea – “

“Heaving bosoms dripping in ale?”  Said Morris.

“Like I said – “

“Oh, it wasn’t the bosoms Malky, it’s just not believable.” Said Wendy.

“Well goblins and dragons aren’t real -”

“No, the barmaid!  She serves goblins and monsters for a living and now she’s whimpering at this army general, so scared she’ll even do that.”

“If you look at history Wendy, women have had to endure countless horrors to maintain their survival – “

“And this isn’t history Malky,” Wendy was galvanised, “This is…what’s it called again?”

”The Realm of Perdoffal.” Malky paused sheepishly.  “Volume two.”

Sarah snorted but the others held the line.  Keen to divert the spot light off her, Wendy rushed into her own recital, which now focused on the murder weapon that Detective Hansen had discovered in a skip down Coatfield Lane.  Two paragraphs were devoted to setting this grimy, rain-soaked scene before the big reveal – they were left-handed scissors.  Morris, his ego clearly contracted after last week’s response, had attempted to make ‘Moving On Up’ more relevant.  His two chancers had set up an Escape Room in their rented Slateford office, penning clues on post-it notes and charging punters £60 per hour to solve them to unlock the door.  Despite the decent premise, there were few chuckles.  The group seemed distracted, almost rudely so.  As Morris petered out, Malky swivelled to Sarah and invoked the Singing Kettle. “What’s inside the magiiiiiic box!”  Chuckles abounded.

“What about Alan?” Asked Sarah.

Alan waved her on politely.  “Oh, Alan can wait,” said Wendy, “we have to know what happened in the library!”

Were they really this excited for Sarah’s story?  She felt invigorated.  Feigning reluctance, she opened her laptop and clicked on the file.

“Without further ado, chapter two.”

“It was the photocopier’s fault, nay, the librarian’s, who’d neglected the reminder to re-stock tray 2 with A4.  Derek’s delay was fatal.  Philip returned with his coffee to witness an incriminating tableau.  Derek, his hand on his notes, the light of the copier convicting him with each illuminating slide.  The evidence was irrefutable.  There was literally a paper trail.”

Sarah had them on tenterhooks.  She breezed past her 900-word limit as the group forgot their own conventions.  “Throw Derek to the dogs!” Exclaimed Malky before the hushing simmered him down.  Derek’s looming disciplinary panel was articulated in great detail.

“The PAWG manifesto dictated the terms of Derek’s punishment – “

“PAWG?” Asked Morris.

“Passive Aggressive Writer’s Group!” Squealed Wendy.

“-a document revered with constitutional reverence by the writers, despite it being a laminated napkin at the rear of the secretary’s folder.  “Article 3,” it was announced above the disquiet, “no PAWG member shall take ideas from another’s work, at pain of exclusion, the length to be decreed by the residing PAWG judiciary panel.”

“Fair enough” said Malky, “remember Claude?”

Morris and Alan nodded solemnly.  Claude had clearly transgressed, thought Sarah.

“The issue was this.  Derek, a founding member of PAWG, was the current judiciary panel.  How could the jury sentence the accused when they were the same man?  This was a test on the very apparatus of PAWG government.  A fervent atmosphere descended on the small table in the corner of the café.  Appointments needed to be made.  Crimes needed punishment.”

Sarah closed her laptop.  “You’re not finished?” Morris asked. “I could see you had lots more.”

“Well, I’m not sure it’s quite right.  I guess I need to re-draft.”

Alan smiled.  “That’s all writing is.” There was something slightly off-putting about Alan’s smile but Sarah put that down to his general off-putting nature.  As if to emphasise the point, Alan re-read his poem on the gardener’s revenge, this time with a slightly less ambiguous, and more satisfying finale.  The group didn’t notice though; all eyes were on Sarah.

“You know, we don’t have a written manifesto.” Said Morris.

“Didn’t feel the need.” Agreed Malky.  “Maybe we’re leaving ourselves vulnerable?”

“Oh no-one’s going to cheat here, are they?” Said Wendy, finishing her Irn Bru.  The silence was about a second too long.

“Now that Claude’s gone.” Said Alan.

The evening ended with the usual barman routine, as they were hailed as the slowest drinking table in Edinburgh, which was undoubtedly true.  Sarah was given a hero’s send-off; she had a conclusion to deliver and a fanbase to satisfy.

***

Despite arriving early, Sarah was the last to the table in the Harrowman’s, a neat space set for her between the bulbous frames of Malky and Morris.  She noticed the pint waiting for her.  “How long have you been here?” She asked, unpacking her laptop and sliding between the two founders.

“Oh only a wee while.” Said Morris, shuffling through his notes. “Alan was keen we were here on time.”   Sarah noticed the head on her pint had dwindled to specks of foam clinging to the rim of the glass.

“Thank you for the drink.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Malky.

As Alan had been last to go previously, manners dictated he went first this time, which he was keen to do.  It was his tale of the gardener again, with minute alterations from the previous effort.  The group had been so distracted last week that his more obvious finale had more of an effect.

“So, the gardener’s not been paid his dues by the millionaire.” Said Wendy.

“Thus, he reaps what he sows.” Said Alan deliberately.

“Save the critique to the end please,” Malky said, before producing air quotation marks with his fingers “this isn’t the PAWGs.” Sarah thought this was without doubt the most modern thing Malky had ever done.  His fingers went back to playing with the errant zip while the others laughed.

Wendy went next, clearly realising her thriller was becoming a bit obvious, she made a raft of new character introductions, all of whom happened to be left-handed:  The joiner who’s tape measure read upside down when he used his “dominant hand.”  The caterer, who’s measuring jugs only showed metric readings when she used her “dominant hand.”  Of course, these new additions had motives for murder, namely the victim owed them money, or they owed the victim money or they stood to make money with the victim out the picture.  Sarah began to wonder where this left-handed diatribe originated.  “You should call it ‘Dominant Hand’” Said Sarah.

Wendy nodded politely.  “I think that might be a bit too obvious hen.”

“Now, normally I like to go third,” said Morris, “but how can I, when Sarah’s yet to put us out of our misery!  Assuming you’ve concluded the thing?”

Sarah pursed her lips and nodded.  Here we go, she thought.  My first three-act story, completed and ready to show the world.  She took one final panorama of the table.  They weren’t leaning in so much, more expectant than excited.  An audience used to hits were harder to please.  She was sure she’d delivered.  A double click and she began.

“Who was to decide the fate of Derek?  Fiona was secretary and a former lover, so unsuited to the task.  Philip was leading the prosecution and rumour had it, also a former lover, so unsuited to the task.  This left three candidates for the solemn obligation, none of whom took well to responsibility.  They were unemployed short-story writers after all.”  She paused for chuckles.

“I’m not unemployed.”

Sarah raised her eyes, unable to place the voice, she addressed the group.  “Oh, I’m not saying all writers are unemployed – ”

“You’re just saying I’m unemployed.”

The voice was behind her.

“Claude?”  Malky’s hands were flat on the table, the zip abandoned.  Morris’s round cheeks drained.  Sarah’s shock was frozen in the light of her screen.

Claude continued.  “It’s one of the few things you’ve fabricated in your little tale innit Sarah?  Made for an easy gag I s’pose.  Never let the truth get in the way of a good story huh?”

Claude bent towards the laptop slightly, before slipping his reading glasses out of his breast pocket.  Sarah smelt cigarettes over sweat.

“Indulge me.  Let me finish the story you’ve spun these few weeks at our expense.  You can close the laptop, I won’t need it.”  Sarah didn’t move.  Claude popped his glasses back in his pocket as he spoke.

“I was appointed as the jury on our disciplinary panel and I can tell you it brought me no satisfaction to eject our plagiarist from the club.  Just ask Malky or Morris.  Two years ago you banned me, was it not fellas?”

The cherub and the fleece nodded.

“Seemed so fickle at the time, being thrown out for stealing ideas.  Banning someone for it, I mean we’re just writing for fun, aren’t we?  All he did was photocopy some pages in the local library. But I’ve come to realise that a writer’s words are sacrosanct.  You put a piece of you on paper, it’s yours, simple as that.”

“Hear, hear” said Malky nodding.

“Same goes for taking other people’s stories and writing about them for laughs.”  Claude patted Sarah on the shoulder.

The group were leaning now, but outwards, away from Sarah, their bodies rejecting her.

“So, after the eviction, we were down to one fantasy writer and you know what?  Last week, he didn’t show up either.  Writer’s block apparently.  He needed the competition to keep him going.  Terrific irony really – I’m sure Sarah would’ve had fun with that for the ending.  It’s a great twist.”

Sarah nodded timidly, tracking the final lines of her story which did exactly that.  An ending which now lay strewn in tatters across the pub.

“After all, America needed Russia to get to the moon.”  Claude was enjoying this now.  Wendy seemed shell-shocked.

“But how did you know, Claude?” she asked.

“It was the fleece that gave the game away!”  Claude pointed as Malky self-consciously closed the zip over his cleavage.

“Two weeks ago, Sarah turns up with a story ‘bout a writer’s group no less.  In the Old Town. And there’s a fleece wearing misogynist pushing sexist guff about elvish barmaids and what not.  Total tripe. We were in hysterics.  She wasn’t to know of course, that I knew someone by that description, even if they had a different name.”

“What did she call me?” Asked Malky.

“Maxwell.”

“Maxwell!” Malky exclaimed.  “That really takes the biscuit!”

“I wasn’t sure if it was a coincidence,” continued Claude, his fingers interlocked now, “so I gave Alan a ring and sure enough, the Harrowman’s hooked on the writer’s group story.   What did you call us Sarah?

Wendy answered for Sarah, “the Passive Aggressive Writers Group.  PAWG.”

Claude chuckled. “That is a great name to be fair.  Beats the Creative Café Collective that’s for sure.”

“All this time you were writing each group off against each other.” Said Alan, serene in his accusation.  “It’s not plagiarism, it’s something else.”

Malky raised his head.  They swivelled for his denouement. “It’s betrayal.”

Claude began clearing chairs and scraping the adjacent table towards them.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Asked Morris.

“Need to make some room, we’ve got some newcomers.”

Three slightly anxious looking patrons shuffled from the bar, a tea, a dram and a bottle of IPA in hand.  It seemed they’d be waiting patiently for their cue.

“This is all that’s left of the Creative Café Collective.” Claude announced, popping three chairs down before standing expectantly by Sarah.  It was time for her to take her cue.  Biting her lip, she slipped the magic box into her backpack for a final time, and slid out from the table, whereby Claude replaced her in an instant.

“I thought, let bygones be bygones.  There’s only four of us.  There’s only four of you.  New Town and Old Town together at last! This pub beats the café any day, eh?” Sarah was by the door when she took one final turn.

“Oh, and I think there’s one more joining.” Said one of the newcomers, an older woman with a bob in bangles.  “We were talking to them at the bar.”  She motioned to an elderly gent in tweed who’d been by the fire exit on a stool.

The old man was surprisingly lithe as he paced towards the tables.  “I heard there was a merger,” he said, producing a small, creased business card from his inside pocket.  Wendy took it in her left hand and displayed it to the table.  They leaned in curiously, making out the bold initials FNWA.  “I’m the Feminist Nationalist Writer’s Association.” Said the man.  “And I’d like to join your group.”

“Welcome,” said Malky, gauging faces for approval.  He caught Sarah’s eye as she reached for the door handle, “to the Passive Aggressive Writer’s Group.”    A cheer rung out from the corner of the Harrowman’s pub and drinks were imbibed, much to the pleasure of the long-suffering bar man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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