The door to the oak panelled London chop house was flung open and thick oily fog roiled round the door way. Out of its midst a strange figure emerged, seemingly a vaguely human form with a pillar on its head. As the door swung closed and the stranger moved into the candlelight, it became clear that the figure was a very short pigeon-chested man with a top hat almost half as tall as its wearer. He was carrying a briefcase in an odd colour which, if this hadn’t been most unlikely, appeared to be deep pink with a pattern of roses tooled into the leather.
“Hello” said the man somewhat squeakily as he raised his hat and reduced his height by a third. He coughed and then in a lower tone, “good evening, my name is Tobias Cake. I presume I finally have the pleasure of meeting my fellow members of the Postal Writers’ Club.”
“Sit ye down, sit ye down,” offered Sebastian Whitcher.
“A pleasure to meet you after all these months, Sir Whitcher. I little thought when I answered the small advertisement that I would become a member of such an esteemed group of such gifted wielders of the pen as this. Such a group as would…”
“Welcome,” interrupted Sebastian Whitcher quickly, staring briefly at the pigeon chest which looked rather strange. “I am, as you realise, Sir Sebastian Whitcher of Hampshire, the instigator of this endeavour. Let me introduce everyone else.” He indicated the individuals ranged round the fire and summonsed the waiter to take Mr Cake’s order.
“Here we have Miss Arabella Beamish from the Black Country; Mr Theocrates Hummerston, like you, from the West Country; Mr Montgomery Sawden and Miss Camelia Braithwaite from the North Country; Mr Daniel Brannelly from Ulster; Henry Ap Henry from Wales and Monsignor Horatio Tortellignioni who hails from a mysteries Mediterranean isle but lives in Putney. Now…”
Before he could go on, Mr Sawden, shifting in his chair somewhat, interrupted.
“There’s North Country and North Country,” he said leaning forward, “I’m a proper Northerner. I’ve even brought my own cushion because I don’t hold with soft southern practices. It’s filled with gravel. Some of us don’t spend our time tripping through daffodils and looking at lakes but out on starving moor without our hats.”
He looked pointedly at Miss Braithwaite who tried to simper. Mr Cake watched the attempt at simpering and frowned. Miss Braithwaite, despite the fluttering eyelashes and tossing of curls, looked like she could use her jaw to crack rocks. However, he was aware of Sir Whitcher’s scrutiny of his chest and tried to make it concave while still maintaining what little height he had.
Sebastian Whitcher started again.
“Now as you know, we’ve been exchanging stories by post for some months now and daily I receive applications to join our happy band. I thought therefore we should meet and before we start reading aloud to each other…” (eight people hastily withdrew their hands from various manuscripts) “we should draw up some rules. Here are my proposals.”
Carefully donning some pince nez, the baronet drew out a single sheet of paper and turning it to the light, started to intone:
“Number One: let’s call a spade a spade, or, should I say call a spade a bloody shovel, (pardon me ladies)” Arabella, apparently about to swoon was reinforcing herself with absinth.
“What I mean to say is this, let’s stop all the dashed dashes. Here’s an example from one of your stories: ‘It was a glorious day in the beautiful county of D_____ as Lady W_______ cantered up the long drive towards B_____ Castle.’ For ___ Pity’s sake, you’re authors – make something up.”
“Number Two: fewer stories about supernatural beings or things that have come back from the grave. Your latest for example, Mr Sawden, all about the pixies’ love lorn tragedy against the backdrop of some __ forsaken wilderness. Really, can’t you use actual humans?”
Mr Sawden pouted, which looked rather odd. What looked odder was the fact that some of his five o’clock shadow was missing where he had been cupping his chin.
He protested with emotion: “but my tale is both timeless and original. No-one else has come up with anything like it. And I am desperately proud of the title: ‘Withering Sprites’!”
(In a far corner, a young lady unconnected with their party started rummaging in her reticule for some paper.)
“I would be loathe to forsake my resurrected creations” intoned Mr Brannelly, “I have been wondering what would happen if you applied the new science of electricity to body parts.”
(A different unconnected young lady not far away, stirred in her laudanum induced slumber as if the words were filtering into her subconscious.)
Miss Braithwaite gruffly disagreed, “Well I think we should be writing something, to coin a phrase, more cutting edge. Real life, that sort of thing.”
“No no!” exclaimed Signor Tortellignioni, in heavy but unplaceable accents, “who wants to read about workhouse children, pickpockets, lonely old rich women, convicts, moneylenders and so on?”
(In another corner, a strange young man put down his beer to frantically scribble with a stub of pencil on the back of an envelope.)
“I agree with Signor Torto..torto.. I agree” Mr Cake interposed. His agitation caused his shirt buttons to pop. His undershirt appeared to have lace. “Nothing happens in Dorset except the odd hanging and wife selling and milkmaids getting pregnant. And no-one understands the local dialect. Who’d read about them?”
(Meanwhile, in a fourth corner, another strange young man chewed his thumb and appeared to sink into deep thought.)
“I”ll try anything once” purred Miss Beamish in velvet tones, poking out her flat chest.
“Number Three: word limits. I think we need to agree a suitable length for our short stories.” Sir Whitcher picked up a six inch thick pile of paper and Mr Ap Henry blushed slightly. “I suggest no longer than three thousand words and for the purposes of this group, perhaps as short as one thousand. Maybe we could try and see if it’s possible to write the whole thing in five hundred, rather than using five hundred in the first paragraph just to describe the view.”
“I’ve done a dribble!” Mr Hummerston said proudly. His neighbour Miss Beamish moved her crinoline.
“You should shake it three times afterwards” said Miss Braithwaite.
“Shake what?” asked Mr Hummerston in puzzlement.
“Er, I don’t know” replied Miss Braithwaite looking suddenly disinterested.
“Well anyway a dribble is a story in six words. At least that’s what I call it.”
“Impossible!” the others chorused.
“It goes: ‘Saddle empty horses run, hooves blood-spattered.”
“We’ll stick to 1000,” interrupted Sir Whitcher.
“Number Four: I think that within this circle we should be open and honest with each other. Who writes under a pseudonym?”
After some hesitation, all hands save his own rose in the air.
“That’s not all, is it?” sighed Sir Whitcher, staring pointedly at Mr Cake’s chest and then at the chins of Miss Beamish and Mr Sawden, “which of you is dressed as the opposite sex?”
There was more hesitation and shifting of feet and some false movements before again, all hands were raised.
Sebastian Whitcher sighed, “why exactly?”
Mr Cake said hesitantly: “it’s just so hard to get published as a woman. Editors think it’s unladylike to write tales of searing passion.”
“You write about elves holding hands in the moonlight Mr, or should I say Miss Cake. If that’s what passes for searing passion in Dorset, no wonder people sell their wives.” He shook his head, “so presumably that’s the excuse of all of the ‘gentlemen’?”
“So what’s the excuse of the ‘ladies’?”
“Well mate, it’s like this.” explained ‘Miss’ Braithwaite leaning back in her chair and lighting a pipe. “Some of us are a bit more up to the minute than others. The thing is, the tide is changing and nowadays female writers are all the rage. It’s called a bandwagon and we’re on it. Besides, you ladies were right about corsets, but you kept quiet about the pleasures of a gentle breeze wafting about under your crinoline.” She waggled her eyebrows “come on Cake, stop blushing and get your round in. I’ve got a thousand word snippet to read and my throat’s drier than a salted tea-leaf in Arizona.”
Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission