I signed up for this creative writing group last week. The next gathering was today, as it happens. I was a nervous wreck as I stepped off the train. I couldn't stop the usual negative thoughts from whirling around inside my head.

What if this happened, what if that happened? What if I got lost and couldn't find the place? What if I was late and joined everyone when they were busy laughing and chatting amongst one another, and I was standing there awkwardly in their midst, the bewildered outsider, as always?

I lived 40 minutes outside the CBD, and rarely ventured into the city, so after exiting the train, I walked over to a nearby taxi rank and asked a driver where the restaurant Hungry Hungry Hyenas was situated.

He paused, then pointed ahead. 'Two blocks."

I thanked him, and headed where he’d indicated. However, after two blocks, I saw no signs of the restaurant in question; feeling desperate, I stepped inside a nearby toy shop to ask for further directions.

The owner was a kind middle-aged lady with fair hair, and she was very helpful. She told me I was to head left once exiting the store, and the restaurant was four blocks away.

As she explained all this, I noticed the Hungry Hungry Hippos board game on a nearby shelf. I used to love that game when I was younger.

So I left the store and fortunately I had no more problems locating the meet-up spot.

Andrew was the group organizer, and he’d been good enough to book a table for us, sectioned away from the rest of the diners, so we’d be free to chat in peace.

I’d hurried there, fearing I'd be late, but this precaution was totally unnecessary; I was the first to arrive, so I felt rather foolish, sitting there alone to myself at that massive oak table.

About five minutes later, a blond woman in her mid-twenties seated herself across from me, taking out a silver laptop from her backpack.

I began to fidget; what should I say?

She rescued me. “Is this your first time here?” she asked.

“Ah, yes,” I replied, my voice hoarse.

“Sorry, didn’t quite catch that.” I was so dehydrated she couldn’t understand what I was saying. Inwardly I screamed.

I cleared my throat. “Yes, this is my first time here,” I said, trying my best to appear relaxed and at ease with myself.

Mercifully, some others decided to show up at this point, including the group organizer, Andrew.

He recognized me from the photo I'd submitted on the meet-up website.

“Great to have you, Tom,” he said, extending a hand.

He was standing, while I was sitting; feeling awkward, I decided to stand and shake his hand.

I observed everyone around me chatting; they seemed to know each other pretty well. Was I the only newbie here? The lady I’d spoken to briefly was in an animated discussion with a man about the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, regarding his novel, Solaris.

Eventually the chatter ceased, and our attention was drawn towards Andrew.

“OK, we’re going to continue our workshopping from last fortnight. Tom, I know this is your first meeting, but don’t worry mate, I’ll take a look at the story you brought along and you can workshop one of my pieces.”

Everyone was looking at me. “Ah, thank you, Andrew,” I mumbled.

“Sorry, didn’t quite catch that,” he replied cheerily.

The woman I'd spoken to, who I still didn’t know the name of, piped up. “The poor thing seems terribly dehydrated. Get him some water.”

I had drained a glass, but evidently that wasn’t enough to sate my thirst; the lady filled my glass, for which I thanked her.

“Yes, thank you, Eva,” Andrew said.

At last, we progressed with the meet-up. Andrew handed me his story, wild west inspired as it transpired, and that stuff doesn’t interest me. My editing job was lousy; I made a couple suggestions such as, “this sentence would flow better with a comma placed here,” but nothing more substantial than that.

For a while I had nothing more to add, so I just stared at his story, pretending to inspect it with interest and see if there was anything to fix. But mentally I'd checked out of this gathering at this point. My mind was elsewhere, on the train. And home. Comfortable home, my sanctuary.

My thoughts were interrupted by Andrew's voice.

“Tom”, he said. “This is very good.”

"Oh," is all that escaped my mouth.

He handed my story back to me. “Tom, your story is great. I want you to read it to the others. The read along is kind of a tradition with this group. And I think it’d be a great way to introduce yourself to the others, if you’d read it for us.”

I hated Andrew then. He’d placed me in an impossible position. Of course I couldn’t refuse. And I didn’t.

I read my story. I read it very badly – hurriedly, with zero composure. And my voice sounded dry again. When I finished, everyone applauded, but I knew it was out of pity. The dreaded pity applause.

Afterwards the other members invited me to a yoghurt bar. It sounded really nice, but I just wanted to go home.

On the train, I thought of Eva, wishing I was better at holding a conversation. Lem was an interesting writer, I'd only read one of his books, but at least we had something in common.

Lem wrote about how difficult – or impossible – it would be to communicate with alien life, should such an event take place. Heck, I found it difficult enough to talk to people.

When I got back home, I checked out the editing job Andrew had performed on my story. He'd done a great job, far better than my insipid attempt. I decided to thank him on the meet-up webpage.

He quickly got back to me. "No problem, Tom! It's a shame you didn't join us for yoghurt! Maybe next time, eh?"


April 22, 2022 18:48

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