The pub was warm and glowing with orange lamps. Big men in suits told stories at the bar, arms gesticulating in front of them. Booming voices erupted from their flushed faces, eyes excited and glazed. They tipped back on their heels and laughed enormously to the ceiling.
The rest of the room was filled with people standing in clusters. Women in smart, tight skirts and short suit jackets passed compliments over glasses of white wine. The deep rumble rising within the room was absorbed by a dark wood bar and shiny carved pillars which sternly supported it.
I shuffled my way through the roaring crowd, brushing against duffel jackets and weaving my head from side to side to avoid hitting shoulders and pints of beer. I leaned close to raw, pink ears and uttered ‘Excuse me’, into them. Burly, Chinese eyed men turned to me grinning and said, ‘Sorry, sorry’, whilst shifting out of the way and briefly inspecting me, retaining jolly expressions as they did.
At the back of the pub were the toilets and to the left of them a thin, battered wooden staircase. Stepping on, it felt hollow and weak. The angled ceiling was low and close above my head. The middle of each step was dented and splintered. The once varnished wood, pale and scuffed where many feet had clomped up and down. Arriving at the top of the dark, tunnel staircase, I turned left and followed the sound of muffled voices.
The rectangular room was brighter than downstairs. Two sturdier steps led down onto a dark red, carpeted floor. Lamps protruded from paneled walls. The lamp shades were crisp and papery, semi opaque like dried animal skin. The rumble was clearer in here and I could hear little sections of drifting sentences.
Immediately to my right was a small table with a man and woman opposite each other. They ate pub food off thick white plates, glancing at one another every so often. Directly behind them was a larger table of two shiny eyed young men sitting in front of three giggling girls. They shouted over each other eagerly and slid their elbows around on the table, freshly washed cheeks rouged from drink.
Further round the room, lined up against the back wall was a long table. Fifteen or so people sat round it listening to each other talk, smiling, nodding, widening eyes and comforting each other with sounds of agreement. I walked over and hovered for a bit, then made eye contact with a buck toothed, middle aged Indian man.
‘Baskervilles meet up?’ he asked, eyes brimming with excitement.
‘The book club?’ I replied shaking his thrust out hand.
‘Yes! Grab a chair and find a space.’
‘I’ll find a chair, you find a space’, I said as a few lame waves and curious smiles were sent my direction.
I scanned the room quickly and could see no chairs. At this point I knew how this would turn out. I trotted downstairs and looked hopelessly through the crowd for a stray chair which can occasionally be found in a crowded room. On the far side of the room was a window with a sill sticking out below it. Tucked under the mantelpiece, I could see a tall stool with a jacket slumped over it. I thought about sitting perched on a stool at the corner of a table with fifteen people sunk below, deep in the warm flow of conversation. Knowing already that pubs don’t have spare chairs, I asked at the bar if any more were around for the event upstairs. The black haired, greasy and pleasant looking bartender nudged his colleague and asked her something. She shook her head.
‘There’s no chairs,’ he said turning back to me, ‘I’ll see if I can get a bar barstool.’
He walked from behind the bar and began searching before I could tell him I already knew where one was. I watched the crowd envelope the bartender and thought about my options. Standing at the side of the table, the newcomer standing stiffly, looking down onto the group which he intended to insert himself into, perching on the corner of one of the stranger’s chairs, or taking the barstool. The bartender waddled out of the crowd beaming shyly with a barstool hanging off one elevated hand. I thanked him and stomped upstairs.
No space had been made. I assessed which people to squeeze between. A few glanced at me then returned their attention to the current speaker, a fat, curly haired man with perfectly trimmed beard, glazed eyes and a constant smile plastered on his triangular face.
The nearest corner of the table seemed the easiest option for me. Between a gangly, innocent looking man and a fat blonde lady who looked onto me kindly, I put down my stool. And here I sat, perched above my new acquaintances. A few of them had books laid in front of them, the woman next to me had an internet print out on her lap which I could read from my all seeing position. “The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle,” was printed at the top, below this “Questions for discussion.” She smiled briefly up at me and I squeezed one back. I took off my jacket and folded it under the stool.
‘Right, said the bearded man, shall we do another circuit?’ He looked up and lifted his hands from the table. Everyone agreed and he announced to the group, chunky forearms waving in front of him, ‘We’ve covered some of the writing style which we mostly agreed we’ve enjoyed, but did not think spectacular. Now let’s do a bit on the storyline. Did this story capture us, did it frighten us, stir us, shock us? Conan Doyle was such a popular writer, do we think he is worthy of this popularity?’
He leaned forward on his chair and rested his elbows on the table. As he spoke he clasped and unclasped his big sausagey hands. ‘I was speaking to my mother the other night and mentioned I was reading “Hound of the Baskervilles” and the first thing she said was, “Oooooh, I remember that one being scary.” Now I don’t know if it’s an era thing or something to do with us being of another generation but I just didn’t find it scary. So starting on that point, Adam, did you find it scary and how did the story line bode with you?’
He moved both open hands to his side as if passing a tray to his neighbour who was a Pakistani man with thin rimmed glasses and an uneasy presence. He stared at the table, fidgeting hands between his thighs. His bottom lip was red, wet and droopy. His balding head was large. Not lifting his gaze from the table he spluttered his views, hands madly crawling on each other under the table.
‘I thought the story line was excellent b-b-b-but not scary in any sense. A heavy atmosphere was carried throughout the novel b-b-b-but it did not scare me at any point.’
The words jolted from him quickly with no pause between sentences. They burst from him in painful flurries as if he was squeezing them out with effort and intense concentration, ‘The-the-the-the scene on the moor when Watson sees the dark figure silhouetted against the moon is the closest I got to being scared b-b-b-but at no point through the novel did I feel this emotion strongly.
‘Yes’, said the man who had challenged Adam with the question, ‘This is similar to what I thought. The novel carries with it a heavy atmosphere, but it’s not what you’d call scary. Sarah, what did you think?’
He stretched out his butcher’s arms towards Sarah with palms open as if releasing a dove.
Sarah was a small woman with horn rimmed, perfectly circular glasses. She gave her opinion on the book elegantly, suggesting it was perhaps a little outdated to find scary in a day and age when horror films and terrorism have de-sensitised us to ghost stories and mythical hounds. The listeners nodded in agreement. I moved my head a few times with the wave of nods.
I smiled tightly when soft jokes were made about Conan Doyle and his fire-breathing hound. I felt my shoulders slouching, gravity dragging me down on the stool that balanced me above the table. My hands were hot and bulbous and feeling good to be indoors after the day’s work. I had been heaving logs into the back of a truck and ramming branches into a wood chipper. I looked around and wondered what these guys had spent the day doing. They looked tired and their fingers were long and pale.
My upper back ached and I changed positions. Leg over knee, knee over leg, both hands on knees, arms crossed. Each gave me a few moments of comfort before another ache heated up. The discussion below me rumbled on. I looked on with a mask of interest. Occasionally, unable to maintain my tight smile and agreeing nods I picked at my hands and peered at the stinging scratches I bore.
The arrowhead directed by the cheery bearded man clocked round and in a minute or two it would be my turn to speak. I knew what I wanted to say and was looking forward to no longer being the mute on the stool. He directed his palms to me saying, ‘sorry, I never caught your name?’
‘Tom’, I said with a weak little wave at the many faces now peering up at me.
‘Hello Tom, and what did you think? Did you enjoy the book?’
‘I did enjoy the book’, I replied, ‘This was my first Conan Doyle and I thought it was really excellent. I enjoyed the whole thing from start to finish. I thought his tension was great and loved the heavy atmosphere he sets. I loved the descriptions of the moors and the dark, melancholy scenes he creates. I thought it was very atmospheric.’
‘Great’, replied the man, It’s my first Conan Doyle too and I’m looking forward to reading more as I’m sure you are too. And did you find it scary?’
‘I actually did find it scary. I found lots of the scenes unsettling and was actually scared by a lot of it.’ I gave an example of a scene that unsettled me and the people nodded and smiled and looked at me vacantly. I spoke directly to the bearded man not wanting to talk to the group like a preacher.
To finish off and partially due to panic I said, ‘I also thought the characters were very strong and the dialogue really good too. I thought the book was pretty unflawless.’ I think I said the ‘un’ at the beginning of ‘flawless’ quietly enough for them to question whether they heard it. Anyway, they got my drift.
‘Great’, he said, looking at me through slit eyes. ‘And Matt, tell us what you thought.’
The conversation drifted round the circle. After each speaker the rest of the table expanded on how they agreed with the statements made. The speakers swept their eyes slowly from one section of the table to another so as not to miss any one out. Twenty minutes passed and I sat on my stool looking at the huge clock which informed me one more hour was to come.
Once a full circuit was done, the conversation drifted into a less orderly fashion. The floor was now open and people dived onto it, referring to previous points made and elaborating on them apologetically.
At one point a ginger haired woman with gleaming skin said, ’I just want to add to what we agreed upon at the start about the dialogue being old fashioned and unconvincing.’ She then spent a few minutes describing the turgid dialogue and dismissing it as outdated and unrealistic. The rest of the table nodded and mumbled in agreement.
Sentences began to scramble over each other but never did the conversation multiply into two. I watched, shifting on my stool. The fresh air from outside had flushed my skin. The stuffy warmth was begging to close in. I had a few things I wanted to say, but didn’t know how to phrase them without sounding aggressive.
The reason for this was that I aggressively disagreed with most of what was being said. The book was pecked at by these hungry crows. With immense pleasure it was beaten and clawed on the ground like an old deflated balloon. Of course there was positive feedback, always followed abruptly by a “but” and then a long rampage on the weakness of the characters, the ludicrous idea of a fire breathing dog and the book’s general failure to scare.
I looked around the room. The back of a bald man’s head moved slightly as he talked. He was stocky and short and his head tilted up towards a blonde woman with curly, wet looking hair. As she replied hungrily her hands played with each other in front of her mouth. She dipped her head down and smiled with sparkling, slightly intimidated eyes. Every so often she would laugh daintily and expose her throat. I watched the bald head moving softly and the girl fluttering in front of it. I admired his ability to entice and charm the woman. He had dissolved the social tension that floats between people not well acquainted. From here it would be easy.
It had been a long time since I had said anything and I wondered if I should. I couldn’t get my head round the idea of speaking to a group. Last time I had singled out the bearded man and spoken directly to him. I didn’t want to cast my eyes smoothly from one person to another voicing my opinions. Staying silent, I began thinking of an exit strategy.
I thought about getting up under the pretense of buying a drink, however I would have to pick up my jacket and this would give the game away. So I waited. My body ached and my face was red. My eyelids drooped and I began to sink. I straightened my back a few times to get rid of the slouching gorilla position. It had reached the time of day when tiredness drags me down.
The meet up was due to end at nine o’clock and the time was twenty minutes to nine. The bearded man announced that if anyone wanted another drink, now was the time to get one. A few people got up and squeezed round the backs of chairs saying sorry and laughing. They trailed down to the bar. I questioned the three people in close proximity to me and they questioned me. They were friendly and warm.
The gangly man had come all the way from Kent for the meet up. He was pale and floppy looking. He took big gulps from his pint with knees wide apart and elbows sticking out either side of him. I wondered why he couldn’t have gone to a meet up closer by. Perhaps this one was particularly good.
Gaps around the table were filled again and pints of beer were sturdy on the wood. No topic was set but the group naturally returned to the preacher- disciples routine. I waited for the brief moment when the conversation had mutated into a gabble. I quietly excused myself from the people either side of me and with a smile stretched onto my face, made a few noises about next month’s meet up. Slipping off my stool, I whipped out and trotted down the stairs. Swinging open the light pub doors, outdoor air filled my skin and flowed into me, cooling my hot, inflated body.