The houses on Book Lane had been built in the 1920s to accommodate a smart breed of businessman who commuted into town on the railway. For nearly a century the lane had maintained its aura of exclusivity. After all, some of the houses had electronic gates and the unmade-up road led to a golf course on the common. Last year, however, planning battles had been lost and a housing estate built on the site of the enchanting copse that used to divide Book Lane from the town.
The inhabitants of Book Lane, having fought the development tooth and nail, decided that they should at least try to be friendly with their new neighbours, and hit on the idea of resurrecting a failing book group. A meeting was duly advertised in the library.
‘After all,’ said Jan Coleridge, who lived in the grandest house – called ‘The Heights’ as she was a Brontë fan – ‘given our address, it’s probably our duty to encourage the locals to read.’
‘Not that anyone will turn up,’ said Miriam Potter, ‘these people never do.’
Actually, fourteen people attended: six stalwarts from Book Lane, and a mix of people from the new estate, including a young mum who’d inappropriately brought a toddler in a buggy, and even a furtive looking man who chose a seat near the door.
‘Of course there are far too many of us to form a book group,’ said Jan, ‘but we could hold a few initial meetings to see how many drop out.’ She tried not to look too pointedly at Roz, whose toddler, Zach, was straining to get out.
‘What shall we read first?’ asked Miriam, self-appointed minute taker.
‘Ah now,’ said Jan. ‘There’s a question. I thought we’d begin with a book that we could all borrow easily from the library . . .’
‘How about Emma – I never get tired of reading that,’ put in Miriam.
‘What’s Emma?’ asked Roz distractedly, pressing a crisp into Zach’s hand.
A woman who’d introduced herself as Alisha, born in Jamaica, now chipped in: ‘Do you know what I think? Because we don’t know each other at all, and because some of us don’t have enough spare time to read a book every month—’ Then why on earth are you here? thought Jan. ‘— I wondered if we might try something more exciting.’
‘More exciting,’ cried Miriam. ‘What could be more exciting than reading great books by immortal novelists and discussing them with one’s er . . . peers.’
‘It’s true,’ said Roz. ‘I’d never read a book a month. Zach here,’ nodding to the boy in the buggy, ‘is up half the night.’
I can well believe it, thought Miriam, thinking fondly of her own son, now studying computer science at Warwick. Dear Nicholas had never needed to be pacified with junk food. The odd oatcake, maybe.
‘A book is a book,’ said Miss Hoarder, the oldest inhabitant of Book Lane. ‘There’s not much else you can do with a book except read it.’
‘But,’ said Alisha, ‘what if we don’t read whole books? What if we read short pieces of writing together, out loud, and discuss them afterwards – you know, in depth.’
‘Out loud. Oh I don’t think so. Are you talking about us reading out our own creative writing? Heaven help us. I couldn’t stand it,’ cried Miriam, who’d once had a bruising experience at a poetry workshop.
‘I don’t mean our own writing,’ said Alisha patiently. ‘I mean wonderful, published writing. If we read poems and short stories aloud, we would be actually sharing them, you know, on the spot, and it would be a level playing field. Who knows what we’d discover from each other’s reactions. And if we only read something short, we could really dig deep into the writing.’
‘Goodness, it all sounds terribly serious,’ said Jan. ‘I think you’d find our taste would just be so diverse. You see some of us have been English teachers.’
‘But then we’d all benefit from your insights.’ Alisha’s joyous smile was hard to resist.
To everyone’s surprise, Miss Hoarder said it sounded like a marvellous idea because she had trouble with her sight and would love to hear something read aloud. ‘And you could all come to my house,’ she said, ‘for the first meeting. I’d like to see the drawing room full for once.’
‘I’m not sure I’ll come,’ confided Miriam on the way home. ‘Goodness knows what kind of reading that woman will bring. Something trashy, I expect.’
Jan nodded but smiled secretly to herself, given that she had once caught Miriam reading 'Fifty Shades of Grey' on her Kindle.
Miss Hoarder’s house was so stuffed with ancient books that the drawing room smelt of dusty paper. For the inaugural meeting she spread a hand-embroidered cloth over her coffee table, served tea in fragile cups, and baked a seed cake. Nobody likes seed cake these days, thought Miriam, who’d offered to bring blueberry muffins.
‘Delicious,’ said Roz, feeding Zach a slice.
If there’s one peep out of him thought Jan, I’ll insist she doesn’t bring him next time.
‘Well, this is it,’ said Alisha clutching a pile of printed sheets to her chest. ‘Here goes. There’s a copy each.’
‘Gracious,’ said Jan. ‘“Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell. Whatever next?’
‘I thought,’ said Alisha, ‘that because I’ve had a chance to read it already, I’d start by reading it out to you, and you can listen or follow it on the page. Is that all right?’
How tedious, thought Miriam, I can’t imagine a worse way of spending an afternoon than stumbling through some horrible essay about killing an animal.
‘Right,’ said Alisha, ‘Here goes. “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me . . .”’
Twenty minutes later, after she’d finished reading, there was a collective sigh followed by a prolonged silence. Jan was thinking: Well it certainly wasn’t Emma. Miss Hoarder was thinking: So it was written in 1936, when I was at school in Chester . . . Alisha was thinking: Perhaps I should have chosen something less sad and controversial. Miriam, flustered, thought: It’s difficult to say anything without giving offence – I mean it’s such a colonial piece of writing. Roz was thinking, as she stood at the window rocking Zach in her arms: Poor elephant . . . ‘that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have’ . . . How true. The Man was thinking: I never expected to be discussing Indian politics with a group of strange women.
Finally, into the silence, Jan said, ‘Do you know what? That first line sounded so clever – you know, about only important people being hated. But is it true?’
And suddenly everyone was leaning forward and offering an opinion. The Book Lane reading and discussion group had officially begun.
The ancient books on Miss Hoarder’s shelves exhaled a cobwebby sigh of relief. Another vindication, they might have said, of the power of words.