WELCOME TO DIDSBROOK, A SLEEPY MARKET TOWN SOMEWHERE IN THE HOME COUNTIES, WHERE EIGHT CREATIVE MINDS, COLLECTIVELY KNOWN AS THE DIDSBROOK WRITER’S GROUP, MEET ONCE A WEEK TO SHARE THEIR WRITING TALENT.
AS THEY CONVENE FOR THEIR NEXT MEETING, THEIR YOUNGEST MEMBER ASSESSES HER FELLOW GROUP MEMBERS AS WELL AS HER OWN LIFE TO DATE.
Edna’s husband opens the front door.
‘Lucy, how lovely to see you,’ and I walk into their sumptuous home making sure I wipe my shoes well before walking on to the New Zealand wool carpet which covers the entire ground floor. The grandfather clock in the hall chimes, confirming I have arrived at exactly 7.00p.m. Edna likes us to arrive at 6.50p.m. and she is always there to open the door so we can start promptly at 7.00p.m.
‘I’m sorry Ernest.’ I say slipping off my coat. ‘All trains in and out of Waterloo were late today. Maintenance on the line, I think, I’ve come straight from the station.’
‘There’s no need to apologise, the others have only just arrived.’ He takes my coat with a broad smile on his face. I think he enjoys having a few hours to himself on Thursday evenings to enjoy a glass, or two, of Scotch. I can see a decanter and a cut glass tumbler containing light brown liquid, on a small table next to his chair in the snug. “Go on through.’ he says warmly, extending an arm towards the dining room.
I walk in and shut the door behind me. Edna is at the head of the table and leaning forward, lifting her ample bosom with her right forearm before resting the pendulous orbs on the edge of the rosewood dining room table as she pulls in her chair.
‘Ah, Lucy dear. There you are. I had heard there had been a few disruptions on the Waterloo line today.’ The others look up mouthing words of welcome. ‘Sit, sit!’ Edna says patting the upholstered dining chair next to hers and I sit down. She beams at us all warmly whilst using both hands to smooth out a few ripples in the Cleethorpes Check waterproof tablecloth, which she always uses for our meetings since Barbara spilt her vegan tea across the table’s shimmering surface. Luckily, Beryl had come straight from the sports centre and whipped her swimming towel out of her bag, throwing it across the table and saving it from any permanent damage. Edna had been calm but far from amused, but it could have been a great deal worse, had it not been for Beryl’s swift response, the organic Himalayan Monkey tea could have trickled down on to the kiwi carpet. Barbara had felt so bad about it that she bought Edna the tablecloth from the new Laura Ashley shop in The Chippings, which was a relief all round as Edna was still agreeable to host our weekly Didsbrook Writer’s Group meetings.
Edna is struggling to lift three lever arch files from the floor, so I give her a hand. Emblazoned down the spine of each bulging green binder are the words Dulcie Darling and the Wizard’s Caldron by E. D. Fowling and individually marked Volumes 1, 2 and 3.
Edna is convinced she is Didsbrook’s answer to J. K. Rowling, hence the rather suspect non-de-plume. She feels a pen name will be essential once her current work in progress is published, otherwise her privacy will be exposed. Just after she finished the fifth rewrite, she collared me in Hargreaves, Didsbrook’s old-fashioned purveyor of meat. An orderly queue of customers had formed spilling out of the door and into the street. Didsbrookians prefer to pay twice as much to watch Mr Hargreaves hack off their chosen Sunday joint with his cleaver and give the hermetically sealed equivalent from the supermarket down the road the cold shoulder. Edna has a very loud, booming voice and Hargreave’s is a very small shop with a sawdust-covered floor, which amplified her theatrical tones.
‘Of course, once my book is reviewed, and no doubt you will be reviewing it too won’t you Lucy dear?’ I managed a feeble smile and nodded resignedly. ‘It will be all over the press, the Internet and everywhere else. I’ll have fans turning up on the doorstep asking for autographs every five minutes and, although I appreciate that attracting thousands of fans to Didsbrook would do wonders for the local economy, as I am sure Mr. Hargreaves here would agree…’ She paused, looking at Mr Hargreaves who smiled vacantly, then bore his cleaver down onto an inert carcass as Edna continued. ‘I know they would mean well, but they would take up far too much of my time whilst I’m writing the sequel.’ Us aspiring writers need to keep the faith and I so wish mine was as strong as Edna’s.
‘Welcome everybody. I trust we’ve all been scribbling away feverously for the last seven days? I’ve never stopped, talk about a purple patch. My fingers are on fire and my memory sticks are about to explode, but the words just keep on coming!’ As she laughs, her voluptuous breasts wobble in synch.
Edna loves a smattering of her own wit and banter. I flash her one of my very best smiles. Despite everything, our age gap, her unwavering self-belief that she is about to join the ranks of world renown authors, I am very fond of Edna; every inch of her reminds me so much of Patricia Routledge’s Hyacinth Bucket. Edna’s work in progress and future bestseller is about a fourteen-year-old busybody. No… Dulcie Darling is a meddlesome teenager who was born with magical powers. Week by week we are subjected… no… we are treated to Edna’s theatrical readings of the jaunty tale of the fearless Dulcie’s endless heroism and enchantment, as she magically gets herself out of tricky situations she should never have allowed herself to become involved in.
‘Now everybody, let’s get started. What have you all brought along to read to us today? Basil, let’s start with you.’
I sense a degree of venom in Edna’s tone. The unassuming Basil Bowater sits on my left and has published many journals on the various species of Insecta. Last week he committed the deadliest crime that a writer’s group member could ever possibly commit. He dropped off whilst Edna was enthusiastically reading an extract from the eighth rewrite of Chapter 51 of Dulcie Darling and the Wizard’s Caldron. He could have been listening intently with his eyes closed, but when he started to snore, his crime was exposed.
The trouble is we are all too terrified to give Edna a candid critique. The last time she asked us all to provide feedback on Dulcie’s remarkable escape from Holloway prison, we all seemed to have been rendered speechless. I dared mention that Holloway had been demolished in 2016 and wondered how many young teens would have heard of the place. But, Edna has an answer for everything and she believes that mentioning all these places adds educational value. I have no idea why we are all so pathetic when it comes to providing feedback on Dulcie Darling because Edna doesn’t hold back when it comes to critiquing the rest of us. Perhaps we all sense it would be the end of the Didsbrook Writer’s Group if we were brutally honest. So many of us would-be writers have such brittle egos and don’t take criticism well.
Edna hasn’t asked us to critique anything of hers since, which is a relief but I think she is looking for feedback from someone better qualified. She has been trying to seduce various creative writing tutors to join us for a glass of her lethal homemade firewater, better known as Edna’s Elderflower Champagne, in the hope of some useful critique in return. If her publishing deal doesn’t happen, perhaps Edna should consider patenting her lethal tongue-loosener and selling it to MI5.
‘And you Cecil? Are we going to hear more from you about World War II?’ Edna continues her around the table interrogation.
Cecil Shuttlewood is the only other man in our group. He is writing a novel, loosely based on his father’s seat-of-his-pants missions in his Spitfire during World War II. I once asked if his father had ever considered writing it as a memoir, but I got shot down in flames. I think Cecil sees himself on the same shelf as Ken Follett.
I am, by far, the youngest member of the Disbrook Writer’s Group, so I try to mind my P’s and Q’s. My mother knew Edna through the Didsbrook Amateur Dramatics Society, affectionately known as DADS and told her that she had a daughter who wrote a bit, so I was asked to join the group about a year ago. I was very flattered to be asked and readily accepted. However, I found out soon afterward that the doyen of the Didsbrook Writer’s Group and someone I greatly admired, the multi-published Jocelyn Robertshaw, had dropped off her perch a week before. Jocelyn’s death was a real blow to the community and it was such a privilege for me to be asked to write her Obituary. Edna, without any hesitation, heaved herself into the role of official Group Coordinator and I was wheeled in to make up the numbers. Including Edna, there are 8 of us.
Daphne Mortimer sits opposite me. She has had ten novels published to date and I have read every one. Jocelyn originally invited her to join the group so she could share her experiences of the long and lonely road to getting published. Sadly, now Edna is in charge of the group and is so obsessed with getting Dulcie Darling into print, it means that Daphne doesn’t get much of a say about anything, apart from reading snippets from her excellent work-in-progress.
Then there is Barbara, spiller of tea and our local badger enthusiast, who is compiling her life’s work with British badgers. I have this fantasy about her being one of Didsbrook’s few hippies, or possibly the only hippy in the 1960’s as she wears multi-coloured hair extensions and says far out a lot. She spends most nights in a sleeping bag close to badger setts all over the country, so it’s not too surprising that her husband left her last year. It wasn’t remotely funny that he left her, especially as he abandoned her for a younger model, but even my mother thought it was funny that the other woman was Didsbrook’s hedgehog champion. I imagine Barbara slipping home after our meetings and smoking a joint. Something I find very appealing but, as I still live at home with my mother, the likelihood of getting spaced out ever, let alone once a week, is highly unlikely as she gets a whiff of most things within a 100-yard radius. I did have plans to move to London after I graduated but because my father decided to die, although I did appreciate that he waited until just after I finished my finals, I felt obliged to move back home, so my mother wouldn’t feel quite so bereft.
Charlotte looks a little like Edna in stature but is nearer my age. She has very red cheeks, especially after she has read us her piece for the week. I don’t know why she gets so nervous when she reads. She writes very well, although she has nothing specific on the go at the moment, apart from her unexpurgated tales of living with her Tibetan Mastiff, Bruno, I am sure she will.
I like Beryl too, she is always bubbly and, after all, we go way back. She has taught PE at Didsbrook’s secondary school for years, including me for seven years and I thought she was a bit long in the tooth for the job then, although she was probably only fifty-something. She would send us out for a five-mile run up the A59 and follow us in her topless MG shouting words of encouragement. Beryl is due to retire at the end of next term and has been working on a novel. From the rather steamy pieces she has been reading to us, she could well be Didsbrook’s answer to E. L. James. She certainly captures everybody’s attention when she reads. Basil and Cecil are as animated as we ever see them and I don’t think Edna has ever read anything remotely steamy, as her bottom jaw hangs open when Beryl reads her weekly piece. I am sure I am not alone in wondering if Beryl is drawing from her own experiences.
I love my job with the magazine Review UK. I review what’s on in London, as well as new books as me, but now I have a pen name as well. Jane Jones.
My self-rechristening came about after The Didsbrook Echo asked me to cover various events within the community and it was very important to me that my mother never knew who slated her production of Les Miserables at the Didsbrook Arts Centre. Fortunately, my mother dismissed Jane Jones’s savage review as part of the highs and lows of being creative. I did say to my mother when she first mentioned that their next production was going to be Les Mis that I thought it might be a tricky one for DADS given that the average age of their membership is fifty-five.
‘It’s a shame you didn’t have a chance to review it before that wretched Jane Jones woman got in on the act.’ My mother had said over breakfast one morning, believing that Jane Jones could learn from someone as discerning and as erudite as her daughter who spent three years at Roehampton studying Creative Writing and Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies. After that, hiding behind my pseudonym when reviewing the work of people I care about, that lacks a little substance, has become a godsend. Nobody, apart from my co-conspirator, the editor of the local rag, knows who the hard-nosed Jane Jones is, which includes my fellow writer’s group members. In a world of wizards, Edna may well conjure up a publishing deal, but I wouldn’t need read it to review it because it’s been read to us so many times during our group meetings, I am word perfect. I pride myself on writing honest reviews about what I see and hear. Which means that Jane Jones will be credited for bursting Edna’s bubble when she writes the review of Dulcie Darling and the Wizard’s Caldron and I won’t have to leave the country.
‘Um, yes Edna.’
‘It looked like you’d drifted off for a minute there dear. What have you bought to read to us tonight?’
‘Well, I thought I would read a piece from my novel.’ I respond with a degree of pride.
‘Novel?’ Edna is surprised. ‘That is exciting dear. I’m so glad to hear you’re being inspired by our weekly meetings.’ Everybody murmurs in agreement. ‘When did you start writing it?’
‘Three years ago actually, just after I finished Uni and after my dad died. I’m so close to finishing it and I’m really excited about it.’
‘Gosh, well done you Lucy! You’re a dark horse though, you never told us you were writing a novel.’ Daphne is always so enthusiastic and her comment is met by more mutual murmurings. ‘What’s it about?’
‘Um… it’s it’s a romantic drama about two people who have both known the pain of loss and the sting of betrayal who are thrown together under very difficult circumstances…’ My voice cracks a little, it’s been a rocky ride.
‘What a novel idea, dear.’ Edna interjects, chuckling at her own joke.
‘That is so exciting …’ Daphne chips in again. ‘I would love to read it and would be happy to give you all the help I can. Perhaps we can meet for a coffee sometime?’
‘That would be great Daphne, thank you. It would be really helpful.’ I enthuse.
‘How exciting! It will be interesting to see which of us Didsbrookians gets into print first.’ Daphne not only writes well but also has a very generous heart.
‘Well, we’ll be all ears Lucy dear, when it is your turn to read,’ Edna interrupts. ‘But do try to keep it down to about around 500 words or, by the time we get to Cecil, it will be time for you all to go home. Now… let’s not waste any more time, I thought I would kick things off tonight and read you the final chapter of Dulcie Darling and the Wizards Caldron. I too am very excited that I’m nearing the end.’ I think that we are all very excited that Dulcie’s devilment is finally coming to an end.
‘Call me!’ Mouths Daphne across the table and I nod enthusiastically, as a telepathic sigh passes between The Didsbrook Seven as Edna clears her throat and starts to read in her DADS voice.
I sit back in my chair with my eyes closed, ready to recite Dulcie’s exploits silently in my head, in tandem with Edna, as Basil whispers in my ear.
‘Lucy? I would be extremely grateful if you could give my foot a good hard kick if I show any signs of drifting off. I really don’t want to incur the wrath of Dulcie Darling’s creator for the second time.’