This needs an introduction. At the Creative Writing Course in Oxford (16 – 22 March 2013) Group B, under tutor Jem Poster, had a workshop session; The theme was ‘A Sense of Place’ and we were given a sheet of paper bearing four pictures of places, one of which could, if we were so inclined, provide a starting point for a piece of writing.  One was of an arch in a church. This called to mind an incident, that took place in a church,  which became the central point of a short story I wrote that evening. In the story the writer, looking for a birthday present for his friend’s wife, finds a gift in charity bookstall in a church. It turns out to be not entirely suited to the situation. The finding of this particular gift is the one thing where the reader is likely to think that credibility has been stretched too far. Yet, as the old saw has it, truth is sometime stranger than fiction – I once found myself in a church, not many months ago, and I did find the specific book referred to and I did buy it. Every other part of the story was made up that evening after the workshop session. Unfortunately the vagaries of the system for printing out written work let me down and it was neither seen in print by my fellow students nor was it heard as I had no text with me when it was time to reveal what had been written. So, I present it to you all now and hope you enjoy it.

 

ANY PORCH IN A STORM

Keith Diggle

                                                                       

This day was turning out to be a bloody disaster for me. First, my weekend with Helena at her home when husband Gregory was supposed to be away was scotched by the fact that he turned out not to be away: meeting cancelled or something like that. I really wasn’t listening after I heard the first bit. Knowing that I was already on my way in the car she had called me, briefed me on the situation, waited while I threw a tantrum and then, when calm returned, we agreed our story. My wife was away; I had texted Helena saying that I was at a loose end, and she had suggested that I come over on Saturday morning and stay overnight. That’s the story for good old Greg.

 

And today was her birthday. Tonight we were all, that is, all three of us, going out to a restaurant to celebrate. An intimate supper à deux in their house was not now going to be on the cards.  I had with me in the car a rather special present and had been looking forward to seeing her wear it tonight. In the bedroom. And then removing it. Obviously, that wouldn’t do now either. Would it?

 

As soon as I arrived and had wished Helena a Happy Birthday and asked her if she had received my card (I had forgotten to send one) and she had said ‘No’ and I had said, ‘Damn. It’s in the post’, Gregory allowed me time to drink a cup of coffee and then whisked me off for a walk. He was a very serious walker. He wrote and published little books of interesting walks around East Sussex. Every day not spent working at whatever he worked at, he walked. He was a bloody walking maniac.

 

We drove for miles and then he stopped. Time for walkies. I hadn’t brought walking shoes but he didn’t give a damn about that. We walked and walked and as the storm clouds gathered I thought about the future of my rather nice Gucci slip-ons and mentally cursed this man. I also thought about the future of my right heel that the new shoe was rather rapidly destroying.

 

‘There’s a marvellous church just over there’, he said. ‘Kill two birds with one stone. Marvellous architecture and we stay dry. Neat eh?’

 

And it was a marvellous church. Even I could see that – through the mists of pain that my abraded heel was generating. The rain broke thunderously as we entered. ‘Any porch in a storm’, I said, rather wittily I thought. Gregory didn’t hear. One for the angels, I thought. On our right there was the most perfect example of a Romanesque arch. ‘That is some Romanesque arch’, I observed. ‘Wow’ I added unnecessarily.

 

Gregory strode into the chancel, enthusing about everything. Making notes in his little pad and taking photos. Gregory doesn’t do things by halves.

 

I was struck by the realisation that now, under the revised arrangements, I hadn’t apparently brought a present for Helena. I stood gazing at the Romanesque arch while trying to work out how I was going to solve the little problem that would emerge as soon as we got back home. I could cover the absence of present on my arrival by the fact that Gregory had dragged me out so quickly. When we got back the need for a present would be imperative not only to Helena, who is, after all, only a woman and women need presents, yes? But also for Gregory who would expect a family friend to have brought a present for his wife. So it would be a case of, ‘sorry, completely forgot, silly fool that I am. Bit of a rushed departure. Here’s your birthday present, it’s a …?’

 

But what could it be? Not too expensive; that would arouse suspicion. Not too big; it would have to sit unobtrusively in my pocket. And where the hell would I find a shop where I could buy something?

 

Over on my left there was what appeared to be a book stall. I wandered over. I could see no-one in attendance. There was an honesty box. With nothing better to do I inspected the stock of donated books. And there I found it! The present! Ideal! A beautiful little book with gold edges to the pages. In a beautiful little box with gold edges. On the front of the box it said it was a classic. The perfect gift! Under the circumstances.

 

The price was £3. A bonus! Such good value! Thankfully I pushed a tenner into the box. As I did so a little old lady emerged from behind a pillar. ‘Would you like me to wrap that for you, Sir?’ she asked. That would be just perfect. ‘I think the generosity of your payment would cover the cost of gift wrapping’, she said, ‘And I’ll rub out the price for good measure’.  She made a lovely job of it and in it went into my pocket.

 

When we eventually got home – a bit of a dash to the car through the rain, heel still throbbing – I presented my gift. I remembered my lines, ‘Sorry, completely forgot, had it in my pocket all the time, Happy Birthday… et cetera’.

 

Helena tore the wrapping  away and there revealed was my gift. The beautiful little box and the beautiful little book within. The classic. She took out the book. Opened it. Flicked through the pages with the gold edged pages. Looked once more at the book’s cover.

 

Fanny Hill – Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

 

She was obviously lost for words. Gregory was watching her. She was, what’s the word? Discomfited; yes, that’s the word.

 

There is a look that Helena and I share when we are on dangerous ground. It is a wide-eyed look that signifies an imminent problem when we are in the company of others. She gave me that look. Yes, she was trying to convey to me that presenting her with this book would suggest that our relationship was on a rather more intimate level than Gregory might imagine. Bad choice!

 

‘It’s a dirty book’, said Gregory, ‘That’s what it is. You old dog you.  

 

Time for the bumbling idiot gambit. ‘I thought it was bloody Jane Austen. Even if I’d read the title I still might have thought that it was bloody Jane Austen. I’m not a reading man you know’.

 

Helena recovered her composure. ‘Well, it is a very pretty book. Thank you very much. I shall treasure it.’ Then she gave me a peck on the cheek. 

 

‘You mustn’t read it, you’ll only spoil it’, I said, ‘It’s an investment. A collector’s item. Put it away and let it accumulate value’.

 

Gregory looked over her shoulder and leered. ‘Rubbish’, he said, ‘It‘ll give us a few ideas tonight after dinner, won’t it, darling? He chuckled like the man of the world he wasn’t. ‘Thank you, you old rogue!’

 

Oh, Gregory, I thought. We are going to have to do something about you.

 

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