Kate breaks from reading the messages on her PC from her woman’s shelter fundraiser page to read one from her editor on her mobile. She wants last minute changes made to Kate’s article on soothing face masks that can be made from items commonly found in kitchen cupboards. Next to a cooling cap of decaf coffee declaring her a 2018 Chester Triathlon Club runner up sits a pile of literature her obstetrician has dutifully posted, seemingly unaware of the omnipresence of the internet. Kate has read through half of it already though, tenderly patting her six month old bump, her conscientiousness with detail meaning she cannot simply skim through correspondence before recycling it.
The landline rings and Kate is grateful to hear her husband James moving downstairs in its direction. Her back is aching and although her mind, somehow, is still at pre-pregnancy activity levels, her body wants just an hour or so more of rest.
She listens to the low murmur of James that has replaced the shrill ring. She gazes at the clouds outside her study window, her attention drawn there by a sparrow fluttering its wings against the glass as it hops off its narrow perch. She consider how in three months she will not be noticing such noise, as the air will be filled with the cries of ‘Lil B’ – how they’ve come to refer to the bump until they decide on a name.
James has hung up and is ascending the stairs. “Kate!” he calls. “You’ll never guess!” It is uncharacteristic for him to shout up the stairs. He’s a man who likes his quiet. It’s why he switched from gig reviews to album reviews when Musiq offered.
James’ face appeared in the doorway, flushed from the climb and whatever news he’s carrying that Kate, of course, has not guessed.
“That was a woman called Muna on the phone. From NWFM. We won!”
Kate’s hands fly to her mouth and her eyes widen. Laughing at this caricature of surprise, James leaps to his glowing wife and awkwardly embraces her on the swivel chair, pinning her arms so she has no choice but to inhabit the expression of shock a few seconds longer.
We leave the couple to celebrate their win while we travel back a few months. Back to when the most timid participant of their writers circle forever altered its dynamics.
James and Kate, co-hosts of their tightknit gang of four, decided to try a new format James had read about in one of the many podcasts he listened to. Kate, naturally in charge of group admin, had sent the instructions that they’d be tackling that month’s theme (‘write a story about miscommunication’) not by writing and reviewing each other’s work, but by each writing a paragraph, then passing it on to whoever in the circle came next (alphabetically by surname, James decided) to pen the next one.
Rob had been resistant, as he was to most things. Kate suspected he had only replied to her advert recruiting members for their group under duress from his mother, who Rob still lived with at the age of 31. Rob had moved back in with his parents after not passing the probation period in a data entry role at the local Council, although told others it was so he could concentrate on writing a string of fantasy novels. In truth, he worked four hours per night in a convenience store and slept or played MMORPGs by day. Although both counted as research, he would enthuse to bewildered parents at the dinner table. Inspiration gleaned from dreams and learning from the actions and behaviours of a potential reader base in the online gaming world, as he elaborated over chicken pie.
Lilith, on the other hand, always radiated positivity and often brought the results of her home baking to group meetings. She was happy to get stuck into the new challenge. However, when it was her turn to hit ‘reply all’ she became distracted by the doorbell. In her rush to greet what was probably the delivery guy bringing her fresh ingredients, she attached and sent the wrong document.
Rob, James and Kate all took a while to unpack what landed in their inboxes. It appeared the ditzy, sunny Lilith with her clashing boho tassels and prints, who liked to sprinkle her stories with elven folk, castles and magical animals, also did a sideline in saucy slash fiction. Set in a writers circle. Starring Rob.
Okay, so she had given him a pseudonym (‘Bob’), had played down the greasiness of his hair in favour of writing about his ‘melting chocolate eyes’, his lack of familiarity with soap was never mentioned, and he was 6’ 2” instead of 5’ 1”, but the rest of it was Rob. His catchphrases, his mannerisms, even down to living with the parents…who were so blatantly based on James and Kate. Which James had been repelled by, but Kate thought rather sweet.
It had been down to Kate to rally the group, try to sooth Lilith’s embarrassment by encouraging everyone to see the funny side, while former copywriter and marketing man James saw the potential in the love story. He said if Lilith didn’t object, he thought with a few tweaks he could turn it into a radio play – a sort of romcom. Lilith, still numb from the horror of it all, agreed. She would’ve agreed to a tarring and feathering at that point if it meant being back in everyone’s good books. Especially Rob’s, who stopped attending meetings afterwards (even before COVID-19 made it the rule) and became a silent emailing partner.
James found a competition the local radio station were running, entered it, and now he and his wife are reliving that troublesome time when their circle became irrevocably bent out of shape. The two had had so much to deal with in their lives since then in preparing for the arrival of a third that they had almost forgotten even entering the competition.
“So, what was the prize again?” asked Kate. “Besides having poor Lilith’s desires broadcast?”
“Um, yeah, good point, there was more to it than that, wasn’t there?” James laughed and crouched beside Kate so he could borrow her PC to look it up.
“Oh, don’t mind us!” said Kate, holding her bump and pushing back from her desk theatrically. She was smiling, however. It was a pleasure to see her serious husband so animated. She hoped their child would be allowed to see this side of James often.
“Blah, blah,” said James as he scrolled. “Aha! Here it is…oh god, no.”
“What? What is it?” asked Kate, trying to peer around James’ head to read the small print on the screen.
“A writers retreat.”
“For all of us?” Kate had insisted Lilith’s name be included in James submission of course (after a lifetime of having men try to take credit for her writing) and once Rob had got wind of it he demanded his name be attached to it too. Pointing out, correctly, that he played a major role in the story’s creation and a lot of the things Bob had said were things Rob had said.
James nodded gravely. “It’s been pushed back to next year of course, given the lockdown circumstances."
Kate burst out laughing. James’ eyebrows rose. Usually any mention of lockdown caused Kate’s brow to furrow.
“Can you imagine…” said Kate, gasping for breath, “…a week in a cabin in north Wales or wherever, with Lilith’s tuneless humming and insistence on bringing her kitchen with her…”
“…and Rob’s questionable approach to personal hygiene…” James continued, laughing along now.
“…and you and me being a literal Mum and Dad by then as well as being Bob’s fictional parents!” Kate was off again, cackling while tears streamed down her face.
Once past her hysterics, she said, “We should really tell them.” She wheeled herself back over to her desk, hands cracked from frequent washing poised above her keyboard, where she stared at them for a few moments. “James?”
“Yes?” James paused at the doorway.
“I think you’re going to have to do this…I’ve got writer’s block.”