The creative writing group from hell, as imagined by Bruce Costello.
Inside, the carpet is threadbare, the wallpaper dangles in sad strips and the curtains are stained with mould. Hanging askew on one wall is a print in faded blue shades of a young Princess Elizabeth.
Against a lopsided bookcase leans a dust-covered brass plaque with a list of illegible names, and the inscription, barely discernible under green patina: "They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn."
The Disciplinary Court of the Eastland Writers' Group is in session. The Jury, made up of writing students and lecturers wearing berets and body piercings, sits on pews around the walls. Seated at the end of a long table, the Presiding Judge, Catriona von Loeven, opens proceedings. She is a bulky woman who looks like she's wearing opportunity shop clothes, aged somewhere between thirty and fifty-five, with a mane of red hair and narrow green eyes.
She peers at an elderly gentleman in a pin-striped suit at the other end of the table. He is small, and looks cold, sitting with his shoulders screwed up.
"Victor John Watson," Catriona says, frowning. "In accordance with the disciplinary procedures laid down in Section Two of the Constitution of the Eastland Writers' Group, of which I am the duly elected President, you have been summoned to answer a serious allegation."
She taps the table with the blunt end of a ballpoint pen. "Secretary Gary Carson will now read the charge."
She turns to a white-faced young man wearing a decrepit mauve beret, seated at her right. He has a lengthy nose with a ring through it and insipid eyes.
Secretary Gary stands, clears his throat, casts a withering look towards the defendant, and begins to read in a high-pitched monotone, like a priest chanting some incantation.
"Victor John Watson! You are hereby charged with apostasy in that, in defiance of Group Teaching, you deny that Clever Style is the Supreme Element in writing and blasphemously ascribe primacy to meaning."
Victor mutters something, not quite inaudibly, and Gary's face turns bright red.
Catriona flings back her head, like a lioness, and roars at the defendant: "How dare you! These are serious matters involving heresy! As Presiding Judge, I remind you they are punishable by disfellowshipping or excommunication. Do you understand the charge?"
"No, Your Worship."
"Do you plead guilty or not guilty?" Catriona continues, her voice growling with menace.
"How can I, if I don't understand, Your Highness?" Victor raises a hand to his clean-cut face, as if to hide his expression.
Catriona slams her fist on the table, narrows her eyes and addresses the Jury.
"I ask members of the Jury to note that the mendacious defendant's so called inability to understand was deemed passive-obstructivistical by the committee members appointed to counsel him towards literary contrition."
The Jury nods.
"Objection, Your Honour!" cries the Counsel for the Defence, a whiskery individual looking somewhat like a leprechaun in a green corduroy jacket and bicycle-clipped trousers, perched on a stool beside the accused. "It stands to reason that the defendant must be either stupid, or mentally ill, or both, and his 'inability to understand' should be acknowledged by the court as a genuine handicap."
"Objection overruled! That's bullshit." Catriona turns to the Prosecuting Counsel, a woman with close-cropped hair wearing a stained denim jacket and boots that make her look like she's about to go fox hunting. "Present the evidence, please, Lana."
Lana rises from her seat at the President's side, takes a magazine from the top of a large pile on the table before her and waves it at the Jury.
"This magazine bought in a supermarket," she says, spitting out the words, "and numerous others of its ilk, collected as evidence, contains short stories written by a certain... a certain Sarah Gibbs!"
She clasps a hand to her mouth.
"Take your time," soothes President Catriona. Lana slumps into her seat and dry retches into a paper bag while the courtroom waits. After a few minutes, she stands up, eyes lowered as if she can't bear to look at the defendant, then runs from the room.
President Catriona rises. Hands clasped behind her back, she approaches the accused, lowers her face to his and rasps: "Is it not true that you have been writing furtively under the name of Sarah Gibbs?"
Victor looks away.
"And is not true that the stories of Sarah Gibbs, or should I say Victor Watson, are devoid of stylistic innovation, that they lack beauty and lyricism, that they are, in fact, completely devoid of those linguistic elements showing the Love of Words which is the hallmark of Clever Style, the pursuit and honouring of which constitutes the sole purpose of the Eastland Writers' Group?"
"I don't understand, Your Worship."
"Don't understand? How very, very convenient!" Catriona shakes her head, glancing towards the Jury. "What do you understand?"
"Well, it's like this, Your Honour. I just write about ordinary folks with ordinary life problems. I write simply, so people can know what I mean." He pauses and looks down, shyly. "I like to think my stories help people to think meaningfully about their lives."
"Oh, you do, do you! Who do think you are? Anton Chekhov?"
The Jury members chuckle loudly.
"That old seagull!" someone calls out from the back of the room and the floorboards resound with the stomping of feet.
"What've you got to say for yourself?" Catriona shouts at Victor, as the din dies down.
"Nothing. I just think writing's about people, not about words."
"Excuse me, may it please the court," butts in the Counsel for the Defence, stroking his whiskers down both sides towards a pointed chin. "In defence of the accused, I'd like to point out that he has, unfortunately, never been to a Clever Writing School and isn't up with Latest Thinking."
"Irrelevant!" cries Catriona. "And another thing! Do you get paid for these pathetic so called stories you've had published?"
"Yes, Your Honour. Eight hundred dollars each. That's forty thousand dollars for the fifty I've had published so far."
A hush falls upon the courtroom. A blowfly is heard, trapped in a spider's web against a window pane. It extricates itself and careers around the hall, then crash lands, spinning upside down on the table in front of Catriona, who appears not to notice. Her mouth has dropped open and she is staring at Victor, wide-eyed.
A few minutes pass. Secretary Gary clears his throat twice, jolting Catriona back into the room. She looks around, a burgeoning smile on her face, then rises and bows towards Victor. "Thank you, Mr Watson, for giving freely of your time to assist the group to work through these misunderstandings. Now that they've all been nicely cleared up..."
Gary tugs at her sleeve and whispers: "You must address the Jury, Madam!"
"Do I have to?" she hisses back at him.
She turns to the Jury. "Members of the, um, Eastland Writers. In view of the fact that our esteemed colleague, Mr Watson, has raised the profile of the group through his recent successes, which he achieved despite never having been to a Clever Writing School, and in recognition of his devotion and compassion towards ordinary people, for whom he writes in a clear and helpful manner which, as he so modestly noted, assists them to think meaningfully about their lives, I propose that we award Mr Watson the great honour of Life Membership of the Eastland Writers' Group in the sure confidence that he will continue to associate and share freely with us from his, ah, wealth of experience and knowledge."
Victor buttons up his suit jacket with deliberation, and quietly puts on his hat. Saluting the courtroom with one finger, he leaves, slamming the door so hard behind him, it parts from its rusty hinges and crashes through the floorboards.
Outside, the sun beams down from the spring blue sky and a warm breeze rustles in the trees. Victor takes off his hat and jacket and walks home, whistling.
The following week, he buys the Sunday School Hall from the Church. With help from community agencies, local businesses and volunteers, he restores the building to its former glory and establishes New Zealand's first free Neighbourhood Therapeutic Writing Drop-in Centre.
The Eastland Writers' Group disintegrates and Catriona von Loeven absconds with the funds.