So here's my short story that I submitted to The Writing Salon. I shall write about the experience of having my writing critiqued last night in a subsequent post when I get the chance...
It was too cold in the room. And the symbols on the thermostat were just ambiguous enough to make it impossible to fathom which way to turn the knob to slow down the relentless flow of Arctic air from the dusty vents on the ceiling. No one in the room wanted to make a fool of themselves by turning the knob the wrong way, so instead we all sat there and gritted our teeth. I sat on my hands, hoping that everyone else thought I was doing so to keep them warm, not because they were shaking. I was nervous, and this time I was not going to back down.
It was hard to believe that outside it was a glorious August summer’s day, and each and every one of us wanted to be out there, rather than cut off from the world in here, taking in every tiny detail of each other's fluorescent light-bleached faces; faces which were currently so familiar, yet would soon be forgotten. But we didn’t have any choice. We had to work this out now.
As stale water was poured and chairs scraped by their occupants into their final positions around the coffee-stained melamine table, I remembered the last time. The circumstances had been similar, but different in so many ways. The last room had been bearable - for one thing there had been a window to gaze out of as a minor distraction from the harsh realities of the room. But, no matter how you looked at it, our actions that day had resulted in a life being ruined. It was almost as if we deserved to endure this horrible space as a punishment for our previous behaviour. I tried to shake the memory from my thoughts. Focus.
How did I get here? Well, I really had no choice in the matter. You can put it off for so long, but these things are unavoidable. It was the same for everyone around the table. No choice. Of course, some people took a thrill from it, and I could understand that up to a point. Having the power to destroy someone certainly does bring with it a certain rush, but surely the subsequent shame meant that no one could truly perceive this as 'enjoyable'? Then I remembered the first time just ten days beforehand, and how it had lulled me into a false sense of security. It had been so easy! Fun, even. But now that day felt like so long ago, because here we were again for the third and final round. Now was the time we had to get down to business; no more small talk to fill the uncomfortable silences, no more polite chit-chat and no more ice-breaking quips from those who were blatantly enjoying every second of this torturous procedure.
"So, who wants to do it?"
I can't remember who asked the question, but the only sound that greeted it was the sporadic clunking of the over-efficient air conditioning system. There was absolutely no way I was going to do it, not after what happened before. "I would rather not," I eventually volunteered, diplomatic as ever. An avalanche of "me neithers" quickly followed. The matter was finally settled with the toss of a penny. My penny, obviously. A lot of responsibility for such a small denomination. I missed the catch so it clattered down on to the table and I clumsily dragged it across the surface under my clammy palm until it slipped onto the upper side of my other palm at the edge. Heads. The Queen's head, no less. How very apt. Decision made. I put the penny back in my purse and snapped it shut. The sharp noise seemed to jolt everyone from their thoughts, as if someone had clapped their hands, signalling that it was time to begin.
"No matter what anyone says, there is absolutely no way I am changing my mind," said Sylvia, to my right. I knew exactly how she felt, as my mind had also been made up from the very beginning. The trouble was, we were definitely not on the same page with our unwavering views. In fact, if I was the preface she would have been the glossary. But her definitions would have been very muddled up indeed. This was not good. I really liked Sylvia. We had gone through a lot together since this ordeal had begun and I respected her. But after the last time she had obviously gotten it in her head that her mind was not to be swayed on this occasion, just like I had. I silently groaned, but on the outside maintained my fixed, tight-lipped polite smile. God I needed a drink, even just to stop my hands from shaking, but I now knew what had to be done to stop this nonsense from going any further. I took a deep breath, and - having gained unspoken permission from the unfortunate individual who'd earlier been struck down by that little penny now tucked away in my purse - began to speak.
I'd always be able to hold a conversation, but public speaking was definitely not my thing. Put me in a social situation with a few people and I'd be in my element, shamelessly drawing attention to my flaws and social gaffes for the sole purpose of making people smile and feel at ease. Too honest for my own good, people often said, but I actually enjoyed it. Put me speaking in front of people on a serious topic without being able to get people onside with a humorous remark, and then the confident facade would quickly give way to my inner bumbling soul who can't look anyone in the eye for fear of glimpsing their dawn of realisation that I have no in-depth knowledge of absolutely anything. Apart from an in-depth knowledge of that very fact. And now here I was; not a single self-mocking joke up my sleeve with which to win over the people who were now hanging on my every word.
The majority of my captive audience slowly nodded in agreement with my torrent of sentences, glancing at their watches and stealing looks at their fellow numbers to gauge their reactions. I could also see that the few others making up our imprisoned contingent desperately wanted me to slip up. It was this thought that gave me the surge of adrenaline my mind had been crying out for since I'd opened my mouth. The adrenaline came from the sudden understanding that I simply couldn't slip up, because what I was saying was the truth; it was fact. And I possessed an in-depth knowledge of the facts about which I spoke because they had been forced into my head over the last few days. I didn't have to 'stick to my story' or tell more lies to get myself out of the lies I'd told before. That's precisely where the subject of our discussion had gone wrong the last time. As the words continued to pour forth, I realised that it hadn't been our fault that his story had unravelled as he'd told it. We hadn't destroyed him; he'd brought on that destruction himself, and we'd done the right thing that time, no matter hard it had been. Now I felt the responsibility to do the right thing once more rested on my shoulders, and my shoulders alone. So I kept talking, until - slowly - one, by one, everyone agreed with me. Except Sylvia.
Deep down I knew that there was no chance of her changing her mind. We all knew that. It was time to communicate with the outside world.
Less than an hour later and it was all over and done with. As I gulped down the sunshine-drenched air outside the grand building, grateful to feel the warmth beat down on my body, I watched with a strange combination of sadness and relief as the other occupants of the room scattered across the city, never to cross paths again. I looked at my watch; it felt odd to be able to look at it so brazenly, when only minutes before looking at it would have been seen as a 'tactic'. It was actually earlier than I expected so I hopped up onto one of the walls which surrounded the building as it was the nearest thing that resembled a seat, feeling a little rebellious having left all of the rules and customs of the last fortnight behind. I switched on my phone. Text from Mum: 'How did it go ? x'. I touched the green handset icon and put the phone to my ear. I rubbed by eyes as the phone rang, unaccustomed to the bright natural daylight.
"Hi Mum, it's me. Yeah all over now. It took us a good few hours but we got there in the end. Yeah we definitely did, I'm sure of it. It was another drugs one..."
Tom stepped out of the building and into the sunlight. He couldn't believe after all this time it was finally over. He nonchalantly strode away from the building, unfastening his top button on the white shirt which had been purchased especially for this week. He was tempted to take it off completely and chuck it in the nearest bin, but he figured he might need it again some day. As he turned left onto the main road, he recognised a young woman sat on a wall. She was one of them, he realised. He smirked as he walked past her. She was so engrossed with her telephone call she didn't even notice him. Walking along the busy street Tom felt his own phone vibrate in his pocket. It was Pete. Good news obviously travelled fast. "Yep?" he spoke into the small silver handset. Pete was a man of few words, and his congratulations were brief and to the point. "Cheers mate, yeah, not guilty. Great, eh? Not a unanimous verdict though - the cops somehow managed to convince one of them, but the others sucked up my story. Yeah, we should meet soon, pick up where we left off. Laters."
Tom slid the phone shut and took one final glance over his shoulder at the fading image of the woman on the wall. She was only in her twenties, he reckoned. Could she have been the one who had figured him out? The thought wasn't in his head for long before his phone buzzed again. This time it was the phone in his other pocket. "Yeah?" he answered. "Sure, just need to sort out a few things first. Call me back in half an hour and I'll tell you where and when." It was good to be back.