I arrived at the Different Skies writing group in Chinatown the same time as Bea and Merlin. “Are you Alistair?” I asked in a room upstairs, leaving the brought bottle on a table. “No, I’m Geoff,” who pointed, “He’s Alistair,” to someone (by his looks half-Chinese) whose hands were dirty from cooking other side the table and who improvised touching elbows in greeting, which caught on for a bit, to spare me taking my gloves off. “I knew you were young but not this young,” I said to Alistair, the editor who’d asked me to attend and to read somebody else’s work. “Some of us are not as young as you think,” Geoff said, meaning him whose eyes were recessed by older age. I went on about my hands going off because I was an old animal. That apart, “You look fine,” said Geoff and I did feel fine, even my hands did. He asked was I a professional writer. It hadn’t occurred to me to think I was or wasn’t. “I’ve made no money from it.” He dismissed that as not to be expected. “I’ve a big book coming out, supposedly, but don’t count on it; the publisher hasn’t a printer. Quentin Crisp published a short story of mine when he took to publishing as Chômu.” “You know Quentin Crisp!” “Not the Quentin Crisp. Quentin S Crisp. He’s a friend. He ran the writing group.” I overheard Alistair explain to somebody his was a basically online publishing magazine and I hoped that meant, as with Yarrow Paisley’s Gone Lawn, the rights reverted to me because Passage was too big to waste and wasn’t the fictional exercise in improving somebody else’s story I could afford to lose rights to, like Dark Side. Geoff was one of four editors but hadn’t been in at the start. The two others were John, who kept eying me and I couldn’t decide was completely Chinese but certainly more oriental in looks than Alistair, and a woman whose name I didn’t catch but began with C. She didn’t like me nor, reciprocally, did I her.
I gravitated to a long table other side of the room, divesting coat, hat, scarf and gloves onto the back of a chair, and meeting Svetlana, from Gomel in Belarus though more immediately from Ruskin, Oxford. Her English was very good and she was learning Mandarin. Beside her was Yani, whose story I’d be reading and who’d be reading mine, Alistair’s idea. Yani was Indonesian. Geoff pursued me. His interest in me interested me in him though not enough for me to take an interest, which in any case he wasn’t encouraging. When I asked did he write, that he did, if he did, was waved aside. He asked if I specialised in short stories. I didn’t think so, uncertain what I replied but skating on to Quentin’s not liking mine but publishing it in Dadaoism. “Dadaism?” “Dadaoism, both Dadaism and Daoism. The co-editor thought my story fitted both Dadaism and Daoism, not that I’d intended to. Quentin went along with it. I like that, that he wasn’t publishing me because I was his friend. He published two books by John Elliott and, when I asked why when the first wasn’t commercially successful, he said because he’d agreed to. Another member of the writing group thinks he writes like John Elliott, so that might explain why he likes his writing. It is who you know.” Even for me, I was talking a lot. “I might have read that story,” Geoff said. I assumed he meant the one to Alistair. “I thought that’d be easier for you,” (than the one extracted from being read that night.) “I didn’t read all on your webpage but you asked for magic in modern life or what you’d take to be magic though it’s natural to me.” I launched onto Passage in a mixture of first person and third person I can’t reproduce but would indicate the story was at least taken from life. “The two characters love each other but one wanted to go into the army and the other facilitated that, to give him what he wanted, but the one hadn’t wanted the other; he couldn’t have him too. Since I knew we would meet again, there was no point remembering I loved him. That would’ve made it too significant, so I forgot him.” As well as prescience, since there were two passages of it, I threw telepathising into this mix, “You mightn’t know you were because you’d be looking into the other’s eyes, as we are now, not seeing the mouth’s not moving.” “I want to visit your writing group,” Geoff said. If he wanted to see me again, all he need do was ask. If this was an excuse, I wasn’t sure how deep his interest went or mine that I should indulge him. If he really wanted to see another writing group, he’d be disappointed by mine, “It’s tiny. Yours is much better. This is London, on a Saturday night, and young people are coming to it.” He accepted that and excused himself.
We were asked by Alistair to move to the other side of the table, which was to be laid, the better to accommodate other people round it. I moved with Svetlana and Yani on my left and bushy bearded Merlin on my right. Geoff came back to ask if I wanted a drink and went off to bring back my bottle of wine he probably unscrewed without thinking twice about it. I was in the fortunate position of not needing to do much with hands. My paper cup leaked, as did its replacement. Only mine did. Svetlana said she’d’ve put one inside the other. I did that with the third. “What I like about the young is the chin,” I said, looking at Geoff’s across a crowded room in preference to Svetlana’s, “No wattle,” explaining what a wattle was and that it derived from turkeys.
Bea was on the other side of the table, her name proudly from Dante. I asked the name of Petrarch’s muse. She didn’t know. I couldn’t remember Laura. I was drinking. Bea speaks with what isn’t a lisp exactly. She wanted to know what my story was about. She’d hear it, I said. She insisted on a brief. “Alistair asked for an extract, as from a bolt of cloth,” Alistair heard, “but the story changes, so I streamlined it, cutting out the subplot of the murderer’s ex and his boyfriend. The first part is a character’s reading reports from a newspaper, actually several, until he realises it’s about somebody he knew. The second part is his imagining himself in the murderer’s place. And the third, after he remembers he warned the victim, is a dialogue between him and the victim, with the murderer joining in,” was approximately and briefly what I said.
From across the table Marta introduced herself. It took three leans over to secure the name against the hubbub. Lydia’s was easier. To Marta I expounded my dislike of appliqué writing as too conscious. “I know why they do it. People’s unconsciouses are sunk inside,” whereas I realised the unconscious and had written a whole book, wanting to conventionalise it but not doing so. I made art from life but there had to be something about an event to focus on. I wouldn’t blog an ordinarily enjoyable evening, like this I left to be inferred. Maybe one shouldn’t realise the unconscious, though I’d no choice, if by that it was used up and spontaneity lost, I declared to the room.
Pizza was put on the table, and salad. I could eat the salad but it was difficult to put on a paper plate with its fork as I observed of a man.
“Here we are, pretending to be interested in other people’s writing, when all we’re interested in is our own,” I said. Merlin disapproved. John, standing by the window to my left, read out an abstract essay by Fred, at the other side of the room. This was criticised by Joel, with long hair and glasses, a Quentin lookalike with something of his manner too, as insufficiently grounded. “Lacking specifics,” I concurred and Joel nodded, though other people thought it did go from the abstract to the real. “He mentioned the unconscious,” I said, “but didn’t go into it. It doesn’t matter what you decide if your unconscious decides otherwise. A convict, in prison most of his life knew not to disobey a direct order or abuse a guard, or he’d be put on a charge, yet did it anyway.” John gave a lumpy synopsis of his piece about going through a fantasy city I thought I might understand better on Fred’s reading. I liked the look of Fred, long mousy hair and wispy beard, who smiled to himself as he read. I wasn’t hearing enough to make sense and gave up trying. “Terrible,” I said afterwards in an aside, “I couldn’t hear him,” Fred heard. “You should’ve said earlier,” Merlin reprimanded. “Other people who did hear can make comments,” I replied. Merlin was one who did. Lydia too. Marta. Everybody but me had heard Fred. It was usually the same people, including Geoff, who made the intelligent comments I cannot be expected to remember.
Joel read Bea’s journey in the steps of another writer along the Essex coast who himself plagiarised from tourist information at all of the attractions. It had some nice touches, maybe precious. Joel’s letter read by Bea had the advantage of a form and motivation. It was to an orphaned writer by another such, Joel himself, so angry at being so he was insomniac. It was written at four in the morning to some purpose since, afterwards, Joel slept. That was its one result; the letter itself wasn’t sent.
There was a break during which tables were cleared away and I decided to go pee. As well I did because it took a long time coming out. I commended Marta, dark-skinned in a pillbox hat, for her intelligent comments and asked Geoff was his name spelt Je or Geo, for my diary.
I stood to deliver Yani’s monologue which had italicised bits first, middle and last that in time would precede the ordinarily typed sections and during which a man visited a princess who, at the end, said goodbye. In the ordinary sections the man talks of sliding in without consent, having come to bury her and was a tad necrophiliac over her still warm hand. I took it she’d killed herself before he did because she’d been raped by him and he no longer had any use for her, in short that he was a male heterosexual who hated women. After my reading, Yani asked if we wanted the back story. “Yes,” I said, “because it’s not in that.” The emperor was to marry the princess to incorporate her kingdom peaceably into his empire but his general deceived him, there was bloody incorporation and the princess killed herself because marriage hadn’t obviated the bloodshed. “I prefer my interpretation.”
Yani then read my Message, extracted, while I listened, head bowed. “I can’t do voices,” she said of the end dialogue. “You read well,” I commended. “The dialogue is sufficiently pointed for any reader to work out who’s speaking.” A reddish haired woman in glasses objected I should’ve realised sooner I knew the murderer. “I couldn’t be sure until I remembered his real name was George.” She also thought there should’ve been more between the soothsayer and the victim, and no third party. “The murderer had to have his say,” I said. Marta thought it was self-loving, narcissistic, because in the mind of one character. “But not at the end, with the dialogue.” She conceded not. Time was called on me by the female editor. I can’t recall its being called on anybody else. “I don’t mind,” I said. Bea left and Alistair said since we’d overrun, anybody could.
I grinned at Fred engaged in a battle with a bundle of coats in the corner by the door.
Svetlana was slumped on the floor in front of me. “Is she all right?” asked Merlin. She’d only come for the beer. I moved to her seat to give my two corrections of her English to Yani. I couldn’t find the second, myself befuddled with the red wine. (It was Merlin who’d demanded and by Alistair was given beer.) Anxious not to miss a last train I prepared to leave discreetly, asking Svetlana, who’d made it onto my vacated seat to hand me the scarf from under it. Meanwhile the female editor was reading out Merlin’s poems I couldn’t ascertain were poetry or what about even after read a second time by himself. Apparently they were taken from an encounter with a Sky TV seller. Merlin also disparaged paying for the BBC TV licence which the reddish haired woman smilingly said meant he supported Sky, to the which he made no answer. He read out the personae of the female editor’s radio play, the description of which amused the audience of almost thirty in the packed room. The reddish haired woman thought there were too many characters but apparently the prospective radio series would run to fifteen episodes. Merlin was enjoying acting out the play with the female editor and the audience was laughing as I left, patting Geoff, acknowledging others, telling Joel I liked his quirky individuality. He asked my name. “John.” My surname. “Cairns.”
I made it out, lost Leicester Square, found Piccadilly Circus – the indicator board at Waterloo wasn’t indicating but a railwayman said a train to Richmond would be leaving at 11:03 from an unknown platform other passengers said they were told was 17. It was the last slow train to Teddington but better slow than no.