Short story by Brian Moyo
I reached Bob’s School of Creative Writing in Kent just before sunset. After paying the taxi driver who had picked me up from the train station I walked towards the gate where a neon lit sign was permanently advertising Bob’s creative writing classes.
I mused over the message flashing on top of the gate even though I had read it countless times during my frequent visits to the school. It read: ‘Does your muse need to be amused? At Bob’s School of Creative Writing, we have the right tools to tickle its fancy!’
Behind the gate rose a cluster of well spaced out two storey buildings which were the nucleus of the school. They dominated the landscape and were constructed in a fashion faintly reminiscent of a Tudor village. The fields around the school are rich in fauna, and are a treat to the naked eye, especially during the summer when the blossoming wild flowers attract migratory birds, butterflies and bees.
Bob himself was at the reception desk when I walked in. He was the same old Bob, tall, broad shouldered, unkempt and with a beard Father Christmas would have been proud of. He remarked that I looked tired. I nodded then walked over to a refrigerated water container and helped myself to a glass of water.
“What brings you here David?” Bob asked as he walked towards me with a wide grin lighting his spacious face.
“You should know,” I said placing my holdall kit on the desk. “I am a perpetual student of creative writing. I have come to learn from the master.”
Bob chuckled and drew me into his customary bear hug. As ever, his unlit pipe was in his right hand. Typically, he was dressed in a pair of faded jeans and a checked shirt, which I remembered from the last time I had seen him. If that pair of jeans could talk, I reckoned it would long have reported Bob to the United Nations for violating its rights to be laundered and ironed on a regular basis.
“Trust you to turn up without notice, David!” Bob chided as I signed my name on a register at the counter.
“Don’t tell me you have no place for your perpetual student?” I said feigning disappointment.
“The classes are full to the brim,” Bob said with a smile. “But I can always find room for my favourite student.” He glanced at his watch, reached into his pocket and produced a door key. “You can have your usual room on the first floor on block A. You might want to freshen up and be ready for the initiation session at 7pm.”
As Bob was handing me the key, I found myself thinking of the old man I had met on the train on my way to Kent. I wondered why he hadn’t got off the train since he had said his home was nearby.
Indeed, the old man had seemed relieved that I had got off the train. And what had he been doing with a stethoscope and a drip bag? He was evidently not a doctor; of that I was certain. An idea occurred to me, I could turn my encounter with the old man, into a short story for my creative writing exercise!
By the time I came down from my room after a shower and change of clothes, the initiation party was already in full swing. Initiation parties at Bob’s Creative writing school are always a joyous occasion. He is a consummate guest, a great entertainer who is as generous with quality wines and freshly made sandwiches as he is a good writer and excellent lecturer.
Thirty or so creative writing students were mingling around Bob’s fish pond as he, like a Sage, held sway; working his way through the crowd with consummate ease. With a wine glass in his left hand, and his pipe in his right hand, he stopped here and there to talk about the joys of writing.
“So you want to write?” he asked of no one in particular, his eyes scanning the eager faces of people gathered around the pond. I could tell from the way the freshers regarded Bob that they were in awe of his reputation. And so they should have been; a writer with twenty best selling titles to his name is not to be sniffed at.
“Writing,” Bob said after sucking his pipe with the relish of a wine connoisseur sipping vintage wine. “Writing is a curse. Yes, I mean that! When it afflicts you, you become a prisoner of the art. A writer is many characters, all at once. He is many voices, all at once. He is a multiplicity of situations and places, all at once. A writer is a pain in the arse to himself! But I would rather be a pain in the arse than an arse hole!”
There was a chorus of laughter around the pond.
A shy bespectacled woman, aged around twenty five, lifted her hand. “How can one tell if one is writing a good novel?” she asked Bob.
“The moment you feel like a conductor of a freak show,” Bob answered without hesitation. “That is how you know. If your characters are developing well, they begin to behave in a manner you couldn’t have envisaged from the beginning. Let them do what they want! Let the freak show take a life of its own! Let your imagination run away with you at full tilt my dear lady!”
The pipe re-engaged with Bob’s lips. Blue smoke drifted lazily in the evening air as the writing Sage connected with his transfixed students.
A round-faced woman, whose matronly figure cruelly added years to what I supposed to be her real age – around thirty, perhaps, lifted her hand to ask a question.
“Yes,” Bob said nodding towards her.
“I get so many story ideas competing for attention in my mind,” the woman said. “I simply don’t know which one to start off with.”
Bob nodded and smiled. “What is your name?”
“Claire,” the woman answered.
“Okay, Claire,” Bob said. “Think of yourself as a bride walking up the aisle with the man you are about to marry. Hey? But deep down you wish you were marrying someone else; perhaps the guy who broke your virginity. But since you know that rogue couldn’t be dragged to the altar by wild horses, you have decided to settle down with your number two choice. Hmm? Use the same criteria in your writing. Go with the idea which presents the least obstacles, even though it might not be the most exciting to begin with. Down the road as your muse becomes hungrier and more discerning, extraordinary twists and turns will come into your story. ”
Claire nodded eagerly, her face beaming with gratitude.
As ever, Bob’s initiation sessions continued late into the night. I left the party just before midnight, leaving Bob with a few students, a couple of whom were quiet tipsy. They were all intent on detaining Bob for as long as possible and he wasn’t the type to disappoint.
I intended to go straight to bed. But when I got into my room, I suddenly felt the urge to write the outlines of my story about the old man on the train. Bob’s mantra of the evening: “Write about what you know and about what you see,” was still ringing in my head as I sat down.
My room was just as I liked my writing environment to be; not too cosy and not too big. A door opened out to a little terrace overlooking the car park. I had noticed before going to the party that the car park was full of cars; several sleek models which I assumed belonged to the younger members of our class and battered Range rovers and jeeps, whose owners I could easily have picked in a photo fit, with minimum error.
I sat my writing pad and notebook on the desk, next to my laptop. Apart from the bed, the desk and an ancient wooden cupboard, the room contained no other furniture. The curtain less door leading to the terrace, allowed moonshine to stream unhindered into my room.
Nothing engages my muse like moonshine; it draws it out like a bait, especially on warm nights when strange noises out in the countryside add a bit of enchanting mystery to the tantalising night atmosphere.
But on this particular night, I couldn’t get started. The pen, much to my frustration, remained poised over my writing pad until I dozed off at my desk without writing so much as a single word.
I was rudely awoken in the early hours of the morning by excited voices in the car park. I slid off my chair, drunk with sleep, instantly resolved to give whoever was out there, a piece of my mind. Rubbing my eyes, I walked to the terrace door and threw it wide open.
The scene that met my eyes froze my blood.
There was not a single vehicle in the car park, nor for that matter did the place look anything like I remembered it before I had dropped off.
A stonewall, six feet high, arch shaped and built in the medieval tradition, stared back at me under the gaze of a full moon. Dozens of people were milling about, talking in low voices.
I stepped forward to get a good look.
It seemed that a theatrical group was preparing for a performance on a raised stage within the walls. Two hundred people or so, men, women and children were leisurely taking their seats around the auditorium. Several children were chasing one another and shouting at the top of their voices. I stared down at them with puzzled eyes. Since when were children allowed to accompany their parents at Bob’s Creative writing school?
I turned my attention to the stage where a dozen or so people were standing, all dressed in theatrical costumes. A young couple in the foreground appeared to be the lead actors. Evidently lovers, they struck a romantic pose; with the woman resting her head on the broad shoulder of the young man. The contrast in clothes was very striking, the woman well turned up in a refined costume while her muscular companion was dressed in rough peasant smock.
Three stagehands were busy moving props about, a routine which they seemed well practised in. As I shifted my gaze to the right, I encountered a tall gangling man dressed like a King, complete with a crown on his head. He stood erect outside the arena, his head held haughtily, his arms clasped behind his back.
“What on earth is going on down there?” I shouted from my terrace.
Although everyone down there must have heard me, indeed the children who were running around stopped to stare curiously at me, not a single adult turned a head towards me. Only the figure in the King’s costume turned his head around in a haughty fashion and looked up at me as though I was a bothersome insect. He held his gaze, staring directly at me, his calm expression captured splendidly by the moonshine.
“Hey you fake King, what on earth is going on down there?” I screamed down at him.
The King eyed me coldly. He looked as though he was contemplating a strong rebuke, but with a sudden shrug of his shoulders, he turned away from me.
“Can someone tell me what is going on down there, for God sake!” I shouted.
No one replied.
The auditorium was filling up, mainly with undernourished peasants. Their clothes were no more than pieces of sacks knitted together, almost in pantomime fashion, to give them scant protection from the elements. There was a sprinkle of well dressed gentlemen accompanied by their well coiffured ladies in long resplendent dresses. They kept well away from the peasants. Yet even though most of those people down there raised their heads when they heard me shout, their placid countenances told me they were not about to answer my call.
“Are you all deaf?” I shouted angrily.
There was no answer. Then the penny dropped!
Bob must have organised this drama for the benefit of his students! Yes, that was it! There was no mystery to the sudden appearance of the theatre group. They had to have been hired by Bob! He was full of surprises like that when he wanted his students to think outside the box. Hadn’t he repeatedly urged us during the reception to keep our eyes open and observe even the smallest detail of things happening around us?
That had been a hint! But like a fool, I had completely missed the clue and blundered onto the terrace demanding to know what was going on!
“Ooops,” I said to myself as I stepped back into the shadows so that I was no longer visible to the actors and actresses preparing for their show.
Hardly had I stepped back than the drama began.
From the left hand side of the wall, a man pulling a live calf with a rope tied around its neck appeared through an arched doorway. I deduced from the manner of his dressing that he was playing the part of a medieval gentleman. Marching with the confidence of a man of influence and status he walked up to the King and bowed respectfully before him.
“King Madras, I have come to seek permission to fight a duel with a man who has dishonoured my family by running away with my wife,” the man exclaimed. “I have brought this calf as a token of my respect for your wisdom to grant me the right to defend my family’s honour.”
The King gestured to a man standing nearby, apparently a royal servant, to come over. The servant obviously understood what was expected of him, for he promptly took the calf by the rope and led it away.
“And who is the man who has dishonoured your family, Sommerville?” the King inquired. His booming voice, infused with authority and haughty nobility, sounded as clear as a new whistle on a windless day.
“He is a peasant, my Lord,” Sommerville cried. Although his voice wasn’t as high class as that of King Madras, there was no doubt that he was of upper crust stock. “I know not his name, my Lord. All I know is that this peasant has used witchcraft to lure my dear wife, Catherine, from me.”
“Can you see that man, in the vicinity, Sommerville?” the King asked.
“Yes my Lord, he is over there,” Sommerville said pointing at the broad shouldered young man dressed in peasant smock. “He has become so impudent that he carries on with my wife in daylight, as if I don’t exist.”
I shifted my eyes back to the pair on stage, thinking as I did so, that Bob would undoubtedly expect the whole creative writing class tomorrow, to at least capture the essence of the play and perhaps even write the scene descriptively.
With growing excitement I noted that the peasant man stood on the raised stage besides Catherine, who was clad in a velvet costume. Her outfit set her apart from the other three women on stage who were cast as peasant stock. I noted too just how totally engrossed in each other Catherine and the peasant man seemed to be; seemingly oblivious of the gap between their classes and the consequence of their illicit affair.
“And is the woman holding hands with the peasant man, your wife, Sommerville?” the King asked. I detected a sneer in his voice.
“Yes, she is my Lord,” Sommerville replied. “What woman, in her right frame of mind would forsake a rich and resourceful husband like me for a stupid peasant like him, unless she has been bewitched?”
“I have not been bewitched by Kassam,” Catherine cried out in a shrill defiant voice. “I love him!”
Sommerville looked around the arena as if trying to identify a compatriot who understood the degree to which he had been shamed by his wife’s unfaithfulness.
“Kassam has bewitched you, Catherine,” Sommerville cried. “You can’t see it because you are under his spell. Come home with me! You have twisted your dagger in my heart long enough my darling!”
Catherine hung her head down and started sobbing.
“What is it, that you see in Kassam, Catherine?” Sommerville asked in a pained voice. “Look at his clothes, all tattered and torn. What possible use can such a man be to a refined lady like you? Come back to me my sweet love. Leave the destitute peasant to his poor ways and come back home. I promise to forgive you.”
Catherine defied him. “I will never come back to you, Sommerville,” she cried, her agitated voice echoing around the arena.
I wanted to dash to my desk, grab my notebook and pen and start taking notes as the play progressed.
But at that point, the King raised his hand and signalled to Catherine to come forward. Not wanting to miss anything, I stayed put. Catherine descended the stage, slowly, elegantly, her body moving like liquid mercury, her ant-like waist band accentuated by her corset.
All eyes were now on Catherine.
Even without taking into account the gold embroidered dress she was wearing, she was as beautiful as a picture. She bowed before the King.
“Catherine,” the King started. “You are not only a woman of high birth, you are also married to Sommerville, a scion of a great family with close ties to the Kings and Queens of England stretching back to the Norman Conquest. What has possessed you to leave such a man for a poor peasant who traps rabbits for a living?”
“My Lord, I have only one reason and one answer. I fell in love with Kassam,” Catherine said plainly.
“Do you understand the consequences of your adultery, Catherine?” the King asked.
“Yes my Lord,” Catherine replied. “You could have me put to the sword, if you so wish. Or you could order that I receive lashings in public. But I beg you to take sympathy with the feelings of a poor woman who found true love at the crossroads of despair and a loveless marriage.”
“What blasphemy is that?” Sommerville yelled. “How dare you ask the King to pardon your treacherous adultery?”
“Be quiet, Sommerville,” the King snarled. “Let Catherine have her say.”
“Thank you my Lord,” Catherine said bowing again. “I know I have sinned by leaving my husband for another man. But my marriage has been a sham from the day I married Sommerville. My respect for you King Madras prevents me from revealing the details enclosed within my chest. Suffice to say that I would rather die than go back to my husband. My heart now belongs to Kassam. Peasant he may be and poverty is certain to dog him until his last breath on this earth. But his soul is not poor, neither are his carefully chosen words when he whispers them tenderly in my ear. His words are like honey dripping into the pith of my heart.”
“And you would choose death rather than go back to your husband?” the King bellowed.
“Yes, my Lord,” Catherine exclaimed heartily. “Life without Kassam would be meaningless to me.” She turned briefly and fixed her eyes on Kassam who was still standing where she had left him. “That is the man I love,” she said pointing at him. “That is the man I will always love. And if need be, that is the man for whom I shall give up my life.”
“Please Catherine!” Somerville screamed. “You don’t know what you are saying! You have been bewitched! You can’t possibly love such a man!”
“But I do love him!” Catherine shouted back.
Sommerville sunk to the ground on his knees before King Madras. With his palms pressed firmly together in prayer fashion he said: “My Lord! Please permit me to save the honour of my family by putting that peasant to the sword!”
King Madras shook his head. Speaking slowly he said: “Sommerville, this is a very difficult case. Having heard your request to fight a duel with Kassam, in order to win your wife’s affections back, and having heard your wife declare her love for the peasant, even under the threat of being sentenced to death, I can only conclude that she has of her own free will chosen to leave you.”
“My Lord, she has been bewitched!” Sommerville cried. “That wastrel for whom my wife declares undying love has neither the wit nor the means to provide for her. Does anyone here really think the love my wife declares for that peasant, has been won by fair means? Isn’t it clear that Catherine has been bewitched? These wretched peasants excel in witchcraft, my Lord!”
“You may think what you like, Sommerville,” the King declared. “It is self evident to me that Kassam won Catherine’s affections by loving and caring for her in a manner understood only by women. Despite all the comforts of your home and the expensive presents you undoubtedly give your wife, she has chosen to give all that up and live in a hovel with Kassam. No judgement on my part can correct that, Sommerville.”
“The only thing I plead for my Lord is for you to grant me a sword fight with the peasant,” Sommerville begged. “I want to teach him a lesson he will never forget.”
“I will not permit such a duel, Sommerville,” King Madras declared. “Neither will I force your wife to return to you. She has spoken candidly about the feelings in her heart. Nothing can change that. For that reason I declare the case closed.”
There was a deafening uproar from the auditorium as the peasants stood up and started singing and dancing. The King’s verdict must have been the last thing they had expected. I retired to bed with Catherine’s declaration of her love for Kassam still ringing in my ears and my opinion of Bob’s writing school raised a couple of notches up.
To say I was feeling a bit sluggish in the morning, would be an understatement. I had managed no more than a couple of hours of sleep. Even after showering, I felt lethargic and so short of energy I was tempted to slump back on the bed.
I wasn’t surprised when I walked into the dining room to find that most people had already finished their breakfast and were lounging around, reading newspapers, or checking messages on their mobile phones religiously. Others were leaning back on their chairs, smoking and chatting away.
Bob beckoned when he saw me hovering around the doorway. He was sharing a table with three students. The rest were scattered around the dining hall in small groups. Everyone seemed to be holding a steaming mug of coffee or tea.
“Help yourself to some coffee over there, David,” Bob implored. I walked over to the peculator, poured some coffee in a mug and added some milk. I picked up a croissant and took a bite as I walked over to Bob’s table.
I remembered the names of the two girls with Bob, they were Cynthia and Kate. But I couldn’t remember the name of the swarthy middle aged man with them, although Bob had introduced everyone by name.
“Did you have a good sleep David?” Bob asked as I pulled the only unoccupied chair at the table and sat down.
Feigning grumpiness, I said: “I guess I would have had a good sleep if you hadn’t set up that medieval theatre show right under my window!”
Bob and the two women exchanged funny looks.
“Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining,” I added quickly. “That was quiet a show you put on, Bob.”
A look of genuine surprise came into Bob’s eyes. Squinting against the smoke from Cynthia’s cigarette, he cocked his head to one side and said: “What show are you talking about, David?”
“I mean the play or whatever you call it – in the car park, late last night,” I said.
Bob leaned closer to me. Looking me straight in the eye while he caressed his unlit pipe with both hands, he said: “A play?”
“Well I don’t know what else to call it,” I said. “I mean that drama about King Madras, Sommerville and his estranged wife Catherine and her peasant lover, Kassa. There were at least two hundred people in the auditorium, including children. Where did they all come from?”
Bob slumped back in his chair. He looked genuinely taken aback. Cynthia and Kate were staring at me as if I had just broken free from a straight jacket. Even the swarthy man raised his eyes from his bowl of cereal and stared incredulously at me. His eyes spelt out: ‘What have we got here?’
“I have no idea what you are talking about, David,” Bob said earnestly.
I nodded. “Okay, I get it,” I said. “We are not supposed to talk about the play? Is that it? We are meant to use the drama for creative writing exercises? Yeah?”
Kate and Cynthia’s eyes were playing ping ball. They jumped from me to Bob, back to me, then at each other and back to Bob who was looking increasingly perplexed. The swarthy man was not part of the game, although I wouldn’t have ruled out the possibility that he saw himself as a keen but non-participant observer of some sort.
Bob placed his pipe on the table as if forced by circumstance to do so. He eyeballed me. “Are you seriously telling me that you saw a play on the school grounds, last night, David?”
I sipped my coffee and stared hard at Cynthia who was occupying the room next to mine. “Well you must have seen it, too!” I challenged her. “Everything was so clear under the moonlight.”
Cynthia shook her head. “I didn’t see or hear anything at all, and I am a very light sleeper.”
“Well, the play was right out there!” I said pointing through the window at the car park.
“You mean it was in the car park?” Bob asked trying to maintain eye contact with me.
“Yes, in that exact spot,” I said with as much conviction as I could muster.
“The car park is full of cars, as you can see David,” Bob said wearily. “Where do you imagine all those cars were moved to, to make room for a cast of two hundred people?”
“I tell you, I saw them!” I said, raising my voice. “Why would I lie about a thing like that, Bob?”
“No one is accusing you of lying,” Bob said calmly. “Neither am I saying that you didn’t see what you say you saw. But I can honestly tell you that I have no idea what you are talking about, David.”
When you have known someone for as long as I had known Bob, you get to know pretty well when they are fooling around or being serious about something. Bob evidently had nothing to do with the dramatic show I had witnessed, that much was clear.
And even assuming that someone else was responsible for the late night gambit, how could they have organised it without Bob’s knowledge?
And where would they have moved all those cars? There was no other parking space around the writing school. In any case, it would have taken a whole day to set up the auditorium.
Everything I had seen so vividly in the middle of the night, now seemed like an improbable vision, a mirage totally out of sync with reality.
Yet, I knew as I know that the sun rises from the east and sets in the west, that I had watched the play for a good fifteen or twenty minutes! Why, I could practically re-write the whole script. The dialogue was still fresh in my mind.
The vexing question now looming large in my mind was: what exactly had transpired in that car park?
Cynthia stubbed her cigarette in an ashtray. “Why don’t you tell us more about what you saw last night, David?”
I stood up abruptly and said: “I don’t think so!”
I walked out of the dining hall, feeling moronic, tense and confused. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to get away, and be completely alone. I hurried towards the gate, all the while wracking my brains for a rational explanation to the late night fantasy that had engrossed me so much. END