The woman in my writing group she’s buzzing, animated like she’s about to open a birthday present. She’s grinning, all teeth and eyes and flushed cheeks, grasping onto the chapter of my book printed onto three white sheets. This writing group is formal, work emailed for critique a full four days before meetings. Try sending it in later, three days or even two, and you’re out, no messing about. The sheets in the woman’s hand creak and whine she grips so hard, her knuckles turning white, bone joints pushing out stretching the skin. Her smile is fixed and brittle, eyes darker than normal. It hits me. She’s not excited but angry, and her anger is directed at me.
The chapter in the book I’m writing peruses on the grimness of winter. Winter smells of nothing, it observes; not like the summer I love, with its flowers and foliage, the hum of malty pollen and cut grass delighting the senses. If I am honest with myself I suspect I might go on a bit in this chapter and the work needs editing and refining, but this is my first draft of many so there’s time to let it prove, like a good loaf. I got the winter weather idea coming from a pub lunch with friends, a pub with gardens and grounds around it. In the warmer months it’s fresh and green and smells amazing but in January the garden is just damp and dull. I scribbled “no smell” in Olive, my notebook, on the train home. That’s what notebooks like Olive are for, to scribble down your observations and the odd cheeky word for later use.
Back in the writing group the woman is staring. I’m wondering, maybe she doesn’t like my chapter, thinks it’s crap. I hope not because I’m pleased with it.
‘Who wants to go first?’ I say.
Not bothered, shrugs everyone. No one ever wants their work to be examined and critiqued first although we are all friendly enough. Not friends exactly, but cordial companions.
‘We’ll do mine first, then,’ I say.
The woman’s brittle smile flinches, but she grins.
‘Well, what did you think?’ I throw it out to the room and brace myself to hear views on my chapter.
‘I like the thing about the weather,’ says one member. ‘It might need some editing though. To give it more punch.’
Fair enough. I saw that coming. We go around the circle and I’m getting good feedback, some a bit snipey but nothing I can’t take. Then it’s the woman’s turn.
‘Well, what do you reckon?’ I repeat.
She glares and smirks simultaneously. A nervous giggle scratches my throat, and escapes; I can’t help it.
Her features harden. ‘I know where you got this from!’ She stabs the sheets with her finger.
‘Where I got what from?’
‘The thing about winter not smelling of anything!’
I consider whether to tell her about the pub garden. How I came out of the pub with a belly full of veggie lasagne and red wine, dug out Olive and wrote down what I thought. I actually remember writing it down, which is rare because usually Olive just shows me rows of words and random phrases but this I recall noting, it has a thin string of memory attached.
‘Do you?’ I say instead.
‘I said that!’
‘When we came out of that pub, it’s what I said, coming out!’
Oh. The woman had been with us on the pub lunch. I remember that now.
‘I said that!’ She’s hitting the page again.
Had she said it? I don’t remember. But there’s no reason to believe she’s making it up, normally she’s very nice. Not today though.
‘We went to the pub in January. You, me and her!’ She points at another woman who looks terrified.
I recall the lunch with them in January. Olive was with me, skulking in my bag. A writer’s lunch in a pub, the pub with a garden that smelled of nothing.
‘You stole it!’
That’s a bit strong. Still, I start to blush. ‘I can’t remember.’ I’m lying now. The memory is creeping back, readjusting itself in my mind, pushing its way to the front. I’m in the pub garden again and it smells of damp, the bare trees like barcodes against a white-grey sky and I hear the woman’s voice saying “The thing is about winter, it smells of nothing.”
I look down on the printed page of my chapter.
“The thing is about winter, it smells of nothing”.
Oh. My. God.
I brazen it out, but she’s smarting. I feel like a plagiarist, a thief. But I can’t be. Can I? You an’t copyright an idea, a handful of throwaway words. Can you?
‘I’m not going to say anything in front of you anymore.’
I’ve really pissed her off, but can I do? Olive would be bare and blank if I ignore everything round me. What do I write about if I can’t squirrel way words? This has never happened to me before, ever. I think if there was some sort of writer’s disciplinary tribunal she’d have Olive and I in the dock.
The writing group fizzles out soon afterwards and I’m sad in a way, but glad for it. Thief, thief, rings in my ears when I think of this woman now. Word thief, ideas thief. The frisson of fear and shame.
Still, here I am, writing an article about it.
Olive, my notebook. I will blame her.