There was scaffolding around the large, late twentieth century, vaguely ecclesiastical building close to the station. A door stood ajar, with light emanating from it, and it was here that Valerie encountered a stocky, bearded, youngish man in overalls smoking a roll-up.
‘Excuse me,’ she asked him, ‘but would you happen to know if this is the correct address for the writers’ group?’
‘Sure, it is, just through that door, first on the left,’ he replied, in an accent with a hint of Irish brogue, taking a final drag from his cheroot and flicking the glowing stub into the undergrowth.
‘Thank you,’ she replied. ‘Will this work be taking long?’ She gestured to the scaffolding and builders’ detritus in a skip. He shrugged and said,
‘No idea, nothing to do with me,’ and followed her into the building, coughing.
The room was small, with a dozen chairs which had seen better days lining the walls, most of them occupied. In the corner, a hatstand and coat rack. Seeing the man she’d addressed hang his dusty donkey jacket on its branches, she decided to keep her raincoat on. It was chilly in the room, but a petite, grey-haired woman pulled the cord of a wall heater, and its bars began to glow orange above their heads.
‘I’m Gladys, the Treasurer,’ she said, approaching Valerie and extending a hand.
‘So nice you could join us.’
‘Valerie. Pleased to meet you.’ Her reply was loud enough and delivered in a received pronunciation clipped accent which would not have been out of place in a 1950s BBC continuity announcer. A few heads turned and she was met by glances whose meanings were impossible to read. Curiosity? Approbation? Hostility?
‘How did you hear about us?’ Gladys asked.
‘At the library… Do you have a membership fee?’
‘We do, £20 per annum, and £3.50 per meeting, but...’
Valerie rummaged in her handbag and pulled a £20 from her Louis Vuitton purse.
‘I’m afraid I don’t have change,’ Gladys bristled. ‘As it’s your first time, no need for payment. See how you get on.’
Valerie glanced at her watch and realised that it was five past the starting time advertised on the flyer she’d seen in the library. The seats were nearly all taken. She perched on the one nearest the exit.
There was a tap on the door, so Valerie stepped up to open it, and a young black woman with braided hair propelled herself through it in a wheelchair.
‘Where are you from?’ Valerie asked her, leaning ominously over the wheelchair.
‘Camberwell,’ came the curt reply.
Valerie assumed that an immaculately dressed Asian gentleman must be the Chairman, but it was a bearded, older Englishman wearing what looked like a sarong who introduced himself as such. She was surprised to see that he sported a large disc in one earlobe, with a hole in it the size of a small coin.
‘Are we all ready to begin?’ he queried, and all eyes turned in his direction. Despite his outlandish garb, thirty years as a Headmaster in one of the area’s most notorious schools had conferred on Peter a certain gravitas within a group setting. Even one as disparate as this.
‘Introductions, with a brief description of what we are working on at the moment.’ He looked towards Valerie who was evidently first in the firing line.
‘I am going to write the next “Diary of Bridget Jones”,’ she announced with a self-satisfied smirk and sat back in her chair.
Peter detected the wave of revulsion passing through the group of mostly amateur writers like a Mexican wave in a crowd at a football match.
‘Thank you - Veronica, isn’t it?’
‘Valerie,’ interrupted the newcomer, curtly.
‘Sorry, Valerie. What an original idea. Welcome to the group. Now, Marjorie, what are you working on at the moment?’
A middle-aged plump woman in a pink anorak, Marjorie’s eyes were riveted on the pure gold pendant Valerie was wearing, it was identical to the Roman dove earrings which had only recently been discovered in a hoard outside Didcot. It looked authentic. She wondered how she had come by it.
‘Well, as some of you know, I have a regular column in “Treasure Hunt”, the magazine of Metal Detectorists, which comes out four times a year. That keeps me pretty busy. And I am writing a piece of Young Adult fiction set in Anglo-Saxon times.’
‘Ever found anything valuable, yourself?’ asked Peter.
Marjorie shrugged. How to explain, without appearing foolish, the fruitless hours trudging through ploughed fields with her small white dog, Pippin, snuffling around and barking as the metal detector emits a faint “beep”? The frantic digging and the disappointment, nine times out of ten?
‘The best thing I’ve found so far is a Roman coin from the reign of Vespasian, bright green with verdigris. The rest is just buckles, broken pieces of modern jewellery, hinges, and pieces of unidentifiable agricultural machinery. Nothing to write home about.’
‘Still, if you did ever find anything important-’
‘I’d take it straight to the Finds Liaison Officer at my local museum who would pass it on to the British Museum as part of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.’
‘What’s that?’ asked Peter.
‘Oh,’ said Marjorie, ‘it’s a government scheme, if there’s anything of particular historical interest or value, metal detectorists are to notify the authorities at once. If it is valuable and sold to a museum, half the money goes to the landowner and half to the person who found it.’
‘And does everyone adhere to these guidelines?’
Did Marjorie imagine it, or was Valerie squirming in her seat, fingering the pendant in her perfectly manicured fingers and tucking it surreptitiously into her blouse?
‘Well, you get unscrupulous types known as “Night Hawks” who don’t, but the penalties are severe if they get caught. In simply going after precious metal, such people destroy or compromise important archaeology. The idea is for detectorists and archaeologists to work together.’
‘Fascinating,’ said Peter. ‘Thank you. Now, Rosemary, nice to have you with us. Anything to share?’
‘I’m in the process of plotting my novel set among the expatriate English community living in Florence,’ began a hesitant, refined-looking middle-aged woman wearing a tweed suit with a blouse buttoned up to the throat and held together by an antique brooch. ‘And I’ve signed up to attend a University of East Anglia sponsored Creative Writing workshop at a cottage in the Lake District in the summer.’
‘Splendid,’ said Peter. ‘Let us know how you get on. Bruce?’
A bearded, craggy older man ran his fingers under the collar of his turtleneck and shifted in his seat. Valerie, with her immaculately made-up porcelain features, bore a disconcerting resemblance to his first wife, Michelle, from whom he had had an acrimonious divorce. In an American accent unchanged from living in the UK for the past thirty years, he said,
‘I’m still writing about a hippie commune in California in the seventies. It’s semi-autobiographical, written in a stream of consciousness, “Beat” style.’
‘Ah, yes…you read us your first chapter last month,’ Peter said. There were nods and smiles among the group members, and one person discreetly rolled their eyes. ‘Did you find the feedback helpful?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Bruce, ‘thank you all. I decided not to write from the perspective of the Shaman in a peyote trance, after all.’
‘I thought that was the best bit,’ somebody muttered under their breath.
Next to share was Brenda. She looked around the room smiling at the familiar faces, and as her gaze settled on the unfamiliar one, her smile died.
There was something familiar about Valerie, the raincoat understated enough to be a real Burberry, the red-soled stilettos, the discreet Rolex. It all screamed privilege.
‘I’m in talks with a publisher, about my series of children’s books,’ Brenda said. She had written and illustrated stories for her son, Kyle, when he was younger. He was now 16, handsome as his father had been, before the fatal collision with a Chelsea Tractor which had left her a disabled widow and a single parent. The driver, a woman, had sped off and never faced justice.
The Writers’ Group had proved a surprising lifeline for her, following a serious bout of depression. Despite their differences, in age, culture and background, she had found amongst the other members (as her guru, Julia Cameron put it in her “Artist’s Way” series of books) a “believing mirror” for her own talent, which had grown and spread with their encouragement and was now poised to bear fruit. Years it had taken. Years.
Suddenly, with the arrival of this new woman and her vacuous ambition, Brenda saw herself through her eyes and felt small, insignificant, other. Where did people get off, making other people feel like that?
The shabby, book-lined meeting room suffered from proximity to an Alcoholics Anonymous Group meeting in an adjoining room. Their loud conversations in the shared kitchen impinged on the Writers’ Group, so Peter asked his second-in-command, Paul, to go and ask the AA members to keep the noise down. Valerie observed this occurrence with an appalled look on her face.
‘Well, really!’ she exclaimed. She scanned the other faces looking for corroboration. ‘Couldn’t we meet somewhere more…conducive...?’
Peter explained that the Writers’ Group had been meeting in the same place, a rabbit warren of meeting rooms administered by the United Reformed Church, for the past thirty years, or more. It was dingy and old-fashioned, all agreed, good-humouredly, but it was inexpensive.
Paul asked the members about their ongoing projects. His was not the only heart which sank, as Valerie began to read her notes from a large, leather-bound notebook with ox gall marbled flyleaves.
‘It’s going to be from the vantage point of a thirty-something who works in the Fashion Industry,’ she began. ‘It will take the form of a diary, describing her dysfunctional family, her lovable collection of misfit friends, her career struggles, her addictions to cigarettes and alcohol…Only instead of the Daniel Cleaver figure, the protagonist has a lesbian affair with her female boss.’
Sharon, a stout, thirty-something with cropped, dyed orange hair and a nose piercing, saw herself as the LGBQTI representative in the group. She sat up as if someone had touched her with a cattle prod. If there was one thing she couldn’t stand, it was a lipstick lesbian.
‘So it’s like Bridget Jones, only she’s queer?’ she snapped. That was her idea. She had been working on it, in secret, for months. “DIVA” magazine had shown an interest in her synopsis. Valerie gave her a withering look and said,
‘No, oh no. There’s a D’Arcy type, the boy next door if you will. I just thought it would be interesting to triangulate the love story with another woman.’
Steam escaped from Sharon’s ears at this. She deeply resented having her pitch queered in this way, to pardon the pun. Her entire oeuvre was informed by and about her feminism and her sexuality. It irked her that straight types might stray as tourists into the territory which she saw as rightfully her own.
Peter, alarmed that Valerie seemed intent on wrecking the delicate strands which constituted the web of the group, himself like a pot-bellied, downy white-haired spider, at its core, cut her short.
‘Perhaps you can read us a chapter at the next meeting, Valerie,’ he said.
‘Now, Javaid,’ said Peter, turning to the smartly dressed Asian man, handsome despite or maybe because of a nose which looked as if it had once been broken. (Which it had many years ago as a schoolboy, playing rugby at Eton.) ‘I hear congratulations are in order?’
Javaid Khan beamed expansively and pulled a cardboard box from beneath his chair, pulling a glossy paperback from it with a flourish.
‘My memoirs of G.P. life, “The doctor will see you now”,’ he said, ‘published by Picador- £5 only to group members.’
Members reach for wallets and rummage in handbags for purses and copies of the newly minted book fly around the room like a flock of starlings.
‘Patrick, good to see you.’
Patrick was the man who had spoken to Valerie at the door.
‘I’m writing a play,’ he said. ‘It’s like “Waiting for Godot”.’ He gave a wry smile. ‘Two men, basically, talking bollocks.’
‘Sounds promising,’ said Peter.
‘And the last one I wrote, the historical satire about the potato famine, is going to be broadcast on Radio 4. Dylan Moran is the narrator.’
‘Do let us know when,’ said Peter. ‘I wouldn’t want to miss it.’
Valerie looked incredulous. Radio 4 was the default setting on her radio, a duck egg blue Robert’s Retro. She doubted that anything this… workman had to say could possibly be worthy to sully the airwaves. Her airwaves, at least. Who was Dylan Moran, anyway?
Paul announced that it was coffee time. Some awkwardness ensued, as people shuffled into the communal kitchen, helped themselves or others to tea and coffee and brought it back to the meeting room. As a newcomer, Valerie wondered what all the commotion was about when a polystyrene cup of hot brown liquid materialised in front of her.
She only drank “proper” coffee as a rule: even at her C of E church, where she was a Lay Reader, she shunned instant as if it was poison. But she was thirsty in the stuffy room with its thrumming, overhead bar heater, now glowing red. Without noticing who handed it to her, she took a swig of the lukewarm liquid. And then another. She put the empty cup under her chair.
‘Right,’ Peter said. ‘Matters arising; Treasurer’s report, Gladys?’
Gladys fixed her mottled pink Perspex spectacles on her nose and began to hold forth on the parlous state of the group’s finances.
Valerie blinked. Instead of one Gladys, there were two. No, three. She looked at Peter. There were three of him, too. Sharon, a First Aider, was the first to see her fall from the chair.
‘Are you all right?’ she queried, attempting to move Valerie into the recovery position. The sight of three cubic zirconia twinkling in the three noses of the three Sharons was the last thing Valerie saw before everything went dark.
Dr Khan had been to the lavatory and returned to see the Writers’ Group members leaning in a wonky circle over a prostrate figure, like Sri Lankan dancers in a cultural dance. He elbowed his way through, knelt beside her and felt the artery in Valerie’s neck with a practised hand.
‘She’s dead!’ he exclaimed, and everyone jumped back. Patrick was first on his mobile phone.
‘Ambulance!’ he said.
‘And Police?’ queried Peter.