Geoffrey Hogg had been a stalwart of the Nether Gissing Writing Circle since its formation in 1979. It had always been a comfortable group of friends, who rotated their meetings between each other’s homes on a fortnightly basis. Gentle criticism followed on from quiet unassuming readings of works-in-progress. The group waxed and waned with the circumstances of its members; illness, divorce and very occasionally, death, had left an opening for a new member. Usually after an initial awkwardness this new member melded almost imperceptibly into the group and the old easy equilibrium was achieved.
Although ‘vaulting ambition’ was not a hallmark of the NGWC, they had nurtured the odd literary ember and blown them into flame. A case in point would have been the excitement engendered when Audrey Manners had some poems included in a small anthology on Norman churches. And when a publisher very nearly took up Valerie Scoresby’s potholing romance, you would hardly have guessed at her wild anticipation. She presented a very adequate offering of mixed sandwiches for the next meeting with hardly a nod to possible publication. Equally, Maurice Coombe had come within a heartbeat of fame when his crime story, ‘Mandrake by Moonlight’ was a runner-up in a competition. That’s the way it was with the Writing Circle, modesty, quiet dedication and a love of words were the only required virtues, until Saul Pinochet joined.
‘I can’t believe that is his real name,’ Audrey observed after the newcomer had left and she and Geoffrey were clearing away the coffee cups.
‘What do you think, Maurice?’ Geoffrey asked, tipping the remaining Hobnobs back into the biscuit barrel.
‘It certainly sounds like an alias,’ Maurice replied, picking up the bottle of Merlot that Saul had so mistakenly brought with him and scrutinizing the label, ‘and this appears to come from Chile’.
After that remark all three had exchanged glances, and although it was never given voice they shared the premonition that nothing in the Nether Gissing Writing Circle would ever be the same again.
As if in evidence of this, at the very next meeting Saul suggested that the Circle should have a group website. This was unanimously spurned. Then, at the following meeting, Charlotte Fothergill, whom Geoffrey had privately thought to be a little flighty, with an ill-disguised penchant for something called ‘Womens’ Fiction’, brought up the website suggestion and moved that the matter be brought to a vote. To Geoffrey’s surprise more than half the group voted in favour. Later Geoffrey shared his concern that Saul might have met up with Charlotte between meetings and persuaded her to win over the others. So the webpage was voted in and Saul offered to set it up.
Two weeks later, Geoffrey was due to read the next instalment of his verse drama set in the household of an exiled Anglo- Saxon King ‘Aethelwold’s Lament’. Soon after the reading began, there was a knock at the door and Maurice ushered in some new members. Geoffrey tried to re-compose himself. After only a few minutes of reading however, his face flushed red at the distinct sound of whispering and a prolonged snigger from one of the newcomers. He had closed his manuscript.
A month or so on and the Circle had acquired eight new members. Three packets of Hobnobs had been demolished and Valerie had thrown in the towel, melodramatically announcing that she couldn’t possibly make egg mayonnaise sandwiches for so large a group. Before Geoffrey could get a handle on the situation, one of the new people suggested meeting at the pub, and to Geoffrey’s disbelief this was almost unanimously agreed upon.
It was years since Geoffrey had walked inside The Rose & Crown in the centre of Nether Gissing, but he found it horribly transformed. He remembered it as a perfectly ordinary pub full of horse brasses, copper kettles and worn carpets, where wheezing old regulars exchanged desultory banter with an ugly barmaid. Now it was a Cuban-themed bar called confusingly, ‘The Goat & Curry’. When Geoffrey found the right table, to his shock he noted that there were now over twenty members. The new recruits barely glanced at him, so engrossed were they in chatting, their faces illuminated from the glow of their iPads. Audrey, Valerie and Charlotte meanwhile all appeared to be drinking garish cocktails and giggling. Sitting down with a double strawberry daiquiri Geoffrey lifted an eyebrow at Maurice and felt glad that he had left ‘Aethelwold’s Lament’ at home.
It was during that meeting that the Nether Gissing Writers’ Circle underwent a coup. Without a ‘by your leave’ Saul Pinochet had chaired the entire meeting and announced an exciting project. He’d found an online publishing platform where the whole group could post their work and get feedback from readers.
‘Platform?’ asked Audrey, ‘Are we going on some kind of journey?’
‘Oh yes Audrey, that’s exactly what we are doing’, replied Saul Pinochet.
A wave of excitement broke over the writing circle accompanied by renewed orders for mojitos. The new members were flicking at their iPads distractedly. Geoffrey gulped at his daiquiri and winced, then looked towards Maurice who was deep in conversation with Saul. He sighed.
In the next few weeks, Geoffrey was forced to use words that impelled him into the horrible mainstream of the present. Like an Anglo-Saxon confronting some effete Norman expression, he wrinkled his nose in displeasure as he was forced to say ‘upload’ and ‘online platform’. He could hardly acknowledge the fact that Saul had persuaded him to publish a small section of ‘Aethelwold’s Lament’ on the beastly site.
The telephone woke him from a deep doze ten days later. It was Charlotte. In his dazed state it was hard to make out what she was saying; something about the online publishing site and the ‘thrilling’ way that the number of reads appeared beneath her story . Charlotte had apparently had over 2000 ‘reads’ for a story called somewhat appallingly, “What’s a girl to do?”. Geoffrey wondered at Charlotte’s powers of recall, as it had been many a decade since she had laid claim to the title ‘girl’. More irritatingly however, was his inability to understand how people were reading her story. Charlotte obviously caught a hint of his confusion and explained, as though he were a particularly dense child, that these anonymous ‘readers’ were downloading it onto their phones. For a fraction of a second he regarded his seventies trim-phone before jolting himself back into the present.
‘But that isn’t why I rang,’ Charlotte continued, ‘guess how may reads Athelwold’s Lament has got.’
He didn’t really want to know. He felt terribly exposed by this bogus ‘publication’, as well as misunderstood. He hated the fact that he had given way to Saul over the matter of his comprehensive footnotes.
‘But Saul, without my foot-notes no one will know that an ‘acbearo’ is an oak-grove.’
‘Believe me Geoff, no one’s gonna notice,’ Saul had replied thumping Geoffrey on the back.
Geoffrey shuddered at the remembrance and then became aware of Charlotte’s excited voice saying something incomprehensible to him.
‘What did you say?’, he asked
‘Aethelwold’s Lament has been read 20,000 times, Geoffrey, Geoffrey…are you there?’
Geoffrey sat with the squawking telephone loose in his hand, as a horror too deep to express crept over him.
Geoffrey Hogg was absent for the first time ever for the following Writer’s Circle. His body had been found by Audrey lying on his kitchen floor, a half-eaten Hobnob in one hand and a letter in the other. Audrey had prized the letter from his cold hand and seen that it was from a publisher interested in offering Geoffrey a deal for the publication of ‘Athelstan’s Lament’.
A minute’s silence was observed at the Goat & Curry and then the mojitos arrived.
*Geoffrey Hogg would have wanted me to elucidate the fact that a ‘Hobnob’ is a type of plain or chocolate- coated crunchy British biscuit or ‘cookie’ as our North American friends insist.