Hyacinth had just twenty minutes before the intro to Creative writing class began. As she stood among the many passengers on the tube, she remembered that she needed some food items and a magazine. She struggled off the tube onto the crowded platform and climbed up the escalator steering her way through the weary crowd at Seven Sisters underground. Within minutes she’d reached the nearby supermarket, Tesco’s. It was teeming with shoppers enclosed in their coats and scarves, hauling their trolleys and baskets full of groceries.
She picked up a basket feeling a little apprehensive and a touch excited at the same time. It had been 17 years since she last did any kind of ‘educational’ activity and many years since she’d attended an evening class. Writing remained a strong interest of hers; it wasn’t something she had been consistent with, but she knew with the right course and teacher plus her determination, she could be another Andrea Levy. These days, though, she felt more and more like an automaton doing her admin job and also found herself increasingly keeping company with her invalid mother whom she lived with. In one swoop, she picked up the magazine, placed the eggs and baked beans into the basket and then looked for a till where there wasn’t too much of a queue. She trekked through what little was left of the snow and noticed the flakes fall and land with a softness on the concrete ground. She hoped the snow would not settle.
As Hyacinth shot through the automatic doors of the Marcus Garvey Library, the security guard pointed out where the class was held without her asking. She sat at a table in the improvised class room that was part of the reference section. She wrapped at least three of her braids around her two fingers as she tilted her head back to face the ceiling. She was annoyed. She had forgotten to bring one of her short stories which she’d left in her bedroom. With her head cradled between her hands, she looked at the pieces placed in front of her on the table; they were good. They showed she had talent but it was the one at home she considered the best. She glanced at her watch. It was almost 7.30. The teacher ought to be here, she thought with some irritation. She jerked her head to look at the poster ads dotted on the walls as if each one was different. They were in fact of Betty Ross, the celebrated journalist, activist and an occasional novelist who was to teach the introductory creative writing lesson.
Hyacinth looked around the room and noted a small number of people clustered round a set of tables. They chatted knowingly about aspects of their lives and laughed with a comfort making her feel they didn’t take life too seriously. She let rip a small smile, imagining she was a part of them, hoping they would look her way, maybe even say something to her. But they didn’t. Conversely, there were familiar faces in the room known to Hyacinth, and they had recognized her but neither felt the need to greet the other. They sat at the far side of the room, alone, trapped by their detachment. There was a certain type of expectancy they exuded, as if this time, depending on the genius of the tutor, they would be discovered.
Do they really think they have talent? She asked herself. Looking at the makeup of the class, she rashly deducted that only a handful had a real reason to be there. She was confident that her stories had enough potential to be of interest to this particular teacher. As if attacked by a plague of fleas, Hyacinth shook her head making the others at her table to glance. What’s happening to me? She wondered how such thoughts could enter her mind. Hyacinth was only 38 years old but noticed with alarm she was losing herself more and more to a jaded and cynical view of life. She looked across again to the loners, as she labelled them and firmly told herself she was not like them and could never be like them. The class would give her focus, a goal she thought; it would give her something to do, make friends with like minded people and stop her from succumbing to all these negative thoughts. She had dabbled here and there in writing; attended the retreats, did the correspondence and online courses but didn’t receive much joy. She found an online writers’ website where she submitted pieces and to her surprise, received positive feedback. She was greatly inspired by this but still felt she needed something more. When she saw the ad in the local advertiser that Betty Ross was starting a writing course at the nearby library, it was an answer to her prayers.
The tutor, Betty Ross, came into the room along with others who quickly took their places. Everybody gawked at Betty like she was a minor celebrity. The atmosphere was charged with their enthusiasm to know her and what she could do for them. But as Hyacinth scanned the full room, she wondered how many of Betty’s books they had read, or listened to her on Woman’s Hour or read her articles in the various quality newspapers. Hyacinth reckoned that most were there because of that stint on Question Time where Betty had hinted at the lack of progress black people had made in the UK. She went on to boast that the success of President Obama was due to the legacy left behind by such legends as Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Hyacinth smirked to herself thinking it was an unnecessary storm in a teacup: as usual, the community always liked to take things out of context. Didn’t they realise this woman was different and had something to offer? Hyacinth, with her head rested squarely on her clasped fists, felt empowered by the fact that she knew and understood this woman; and it was certain that once Betty had read her pieces, she would be interested.
Hyacinth’s attention went to the front of the class where Betty stood, smiling. Her thick unlined flesh which made up her face belied her 60 years; her legs covered in woollen leggings emphasising and defining their shape were crossed at the ankles; and the books she had written peeked out from the top of her expensive handbag. Unconsciously, Hyacinth looked down at her misshapen sweater and pulled her jacket just enough to cover it. Her fingers, with knuckles toughened by the cold winter, twisted braids of a hairstyle that needed a makeover.
‘OK everyone, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m Betty Ross. I’m so happy that you’ve taken time to come and learn something about writing. Remember, y’all here because you are meant to be here. Now, I want to lay down a few ground rules before we start…..’ One of the loners put his hand in the air.
‘Hi erm, just wanted to ask, that time, when you made that comment on Question Time – do you really think there are experiences…..I mean differences between the black community here and African-Americans?’
‘What’s your name?’ Betty asked,
‘Thanks Matthew for asking that but in fact, I will be giving a talk about the African-American experience at some point. Keep a check in your local papers to know when the date is but as time is limited right now, I really wanna focus on why we‘re here today. OK? Good!’
Matthew, wearing a thin smile, tapped his pen on the table. He tilted his head sideways and raised an eyebrow at the person sitting opposite. Unfortunately Matthew’s question made way for others to ask questions about Ross’s controversy but with a firm softness she refused to discuss it. Some people, who quickly became impatient, got up and helped themselves to refreshments on the table. Hyacinth watched them go back and forth, behaving as if they had not come across different brands of refreshments before. A man even took the opportunity to distribute leaflets to everyone and in a brief sentence, gave the time and venue. Hyacinth picked up the leaflet and read. The man, Linton Joseph, was looking to promote himself as a potential candidate to run as MP for Tottenham. As this was an election year, he wanted people to attend a local meeting where he would advocate the changes he’d make once elected. He devoted a few lines to accusing the current MP for expenses scandal and choosing to live in another borough! Vote for Change the leaflet said.
‘Hmm!’ Hyacinth smirked as she dropped the leaflet on the table. Hadn’t she heard all that before?
‘OK sorry about that…y’all can come back and sit down. Excuse me Sir….Sir? Maybe you can give those out when the class is finished. Thank you so much!’ Betty quietly demanded. Linton unperturbed by the fact maybe Betty had a point, handed her a leaflet. She thanked him and placed the leaflet on the table. ‘…..as I was saying…. y’all know I write myself but I don’t know the tricks other than the obvious – you just have to get on with it! Knowing publishers and having contacts – I don’t know of any and as y’all know things are pretty rough out there, publishers are selective with what they choose to publish. I don’t particularly critique people’s work and I don’t want to judge anybody’s work. And not only that, I find it pretty disorientating to be reading other peoples’ work when I’m writing. It’s distracting! Have any of you guys tried doing that…’ She surveyed the class and waited for a response. ‘OK, no-one. It really is difficult, you should try it! And finally for those of you who’ve just come to have a look or who are not serious, then maybe this isn’t the place for you. OK guys! Right!’
Hyacinth glared at Betty then looked around to take in people’s responses. It was as if the energy of the class had grounded to a halt: everyone trapped by their anticipation still waiting for Betty to begin. Hyacinth took a deep breath trying hard to suppress the growing negativity that could be likened to bile rising in her stomach. Why didn’t somebody say something! With a flash of annoyance, she removed her long braids dangling in her face and when she looked up at Betty, she was already staring at Hyacinth.
‘I don’t understand’ Hyacinth blurted, ‘I thought we’d get some help with our writing….some of us have brought work…’ Hyacinth looked over to the loners in hope to evoke some sort of unity but they sat motionless, purposely ignoring her plight. The cheerful clique restrained their positive mood and looked on with pity.
Hyacinth kept her head down as the feeling of embarrassment descended. It was as if the emotion had decided to grant her a visit. The class was silent for a moment before Betty decided to give a response.
‘Look Honey, you’re already writers. Like I said, you have to just keep on writing. That’s how I’m doing it. There’s no other way but just to keep on….’ With Betty’s enlarged eyes and relaxed smile, Hyacinth was confused and felt stifled by an accent which possessed a delivery style that made sure it never offended.
Both Hyacinth and Betty’s thoughts were jolted by the sudden cold draught brought in by a late comer. He sat at the table next to Hyacinth’s, glanced at the election leaflet and pushed it as far as possible across the table, then pulled out a flash looking exercise book and dropped his flash pen on top of it. He removed what looked like manuscripts from his duffel bag and placed all three on top of his book with precision and importance. An elderly woman sitting two seats away experienced a sudden feeling of panic. She stretched over to him.
‘Please, do you have any spare paper? I forget to bring some paper,’ she asked. The man, with great care, removed the manuscripts placing them neatly on one side, tore out blank sheets from the book and handed them over, without looking her.
‘T’ank you m’dear, t’ank you!’ she said smiling. He then whispered in a loud tone to the man next to him wanting to know if he could explain what was going on. The man responded by shrugging his shoulders.
‘OK everyone I want you take a sheet from your exercise book, write just a sentence on any topic or subject but keep it hidden from your neighbour. When I say ‘stop’ pass the paper with your sentence to the person sitting next to you on your right and the person on your left, passes their paper with their sentence onto you. And you continue this until I say ‘stop’. OK, everybody got that? Begin.’
The exercise was for fifteen minutes allowing people to write a number of sentences on different sheets of paper. There were some people who still got up to get themselves a drink and there were others who stared at the blank paper and missed their turn when the sheet arrived in front of them. Hyacinth came up with an idea which she was able to write about it each time a different sheet was in her hands. She was pleased with this. When Betty had ended the task, she asked the class how they felt about the exercise. Some people made constructive comments whereas others made comments that were off course.
Listening to all the comments, Betty’s eyes twinkled as she smiled, showing a concern that Hyacinth wondered if it was real. Hyacinth decided that Betty had an assurance she didn’t like. An assurance that said she couldn’t be pigeon- holed by class and an assurance that racism was no longer an issue for her. She was old enough to have been part of the civil rights movement; and Hyacinth could see how Betty’s experiences would be intriguing to those who could only have an understanding of such experiences through history books or Hollywood movies. She could also see how Betty’s uniqueness would easily sell a certain type of viewpoint, not because she was an American, but an African one. She was at a disadvantage Hyacinth concluded. People would mistake her confidence for arrogance.
‘OK folks! Settle down! I’m glad y’all enjoyed that. Now there is something that I want you all to do for me. I want you to write something about your life in London. What’s it like? It can include you or someone else, and you can do it first pov or third pov – whichever! On A4 size paper. I just want four pages if word processed or six pages if it is handwritten. I’m going to be quite busy so let’s say I’ll be back here in 3 months time. Did y’all get that? Any questions?’ She asked.
An array of questions flooded the floor. The man who came in late placed his manuscripts and books with care into his bag, then got up and left. The ‘loners’ who remained inactive throughout other than doing the task, all followed each other out of the room in silence as if they’d finished watching a movie and couldn’t be bothered to read the credits; and the cheerful clique resumed their conversation about their lives and discussed little else, trying hard to pretend their satisfaction.
‘How do we get in touch? I need to publish my material quick, can’t you help? Seeing you in three months, isn’t that a bit long?!’ Betty’s responses were intermingled with thanking every one for turning up to reminding people what she wanted them to do while struggling to put her arm through the coat. Hyacinth stood up and buttoned the front of her jacket while she watched with interest the remaining members of the class surround Betty. Matthew, who eyed Betty as if he was no longer impressed, stood behind Linton. Linton collected one of the many leaflets left on the tables and looked on with admiration at Betty hoping she would talk to him.
‘Y’nah give the woman a leaflet already? Chah Man! Let’s go!’ said Matthew rapping on Linton’s arm with annoyance. Linton shook Matthew’s hand off and remained spellbound. The others were disgruntled but polite as Betty struggled with the coat and told them she was in a hurry. Amid the desperate questions and the beckoning faces she saw Hyacinth turn to leave and called out to her.
‘I hope I will see you in three months.’ Again Betty gave a big smile. Hyacinth turned and narrowed her eyes as she looked at Betty, but this time there was no confusion.
‘Of course I’ll be back. Goodbye’ answered Hyacinth, assembling a smile, hoping that what she gave was as generous and made her way down the stair case. She folded her stories and pushed them down into her bag as far as they could go. Of course, she had no intention of going back to attend the course.
After Hyacinth had walked through the automatic doors, she stood and tightened her scarf around her neck then inhaled the cold air. As she exhaled, she watched a tunnel of warm breath mingle and disappear into the mist. It served her right, she thought walking on the layer of untouched snow, to think she had something in common with Betty. With suddenness, Hyacinth took two steps back towards a wall when a car skidded and almost climbed up on the kerb. She stood frozen while the driver manoeuvred the vehicle and after some seconds managed to position the car and drive along the road. She watched the lone car fade away into the distance thinking she would have to find another writing course where they would appreciate her talents. It was just a matter of time. Her mind drifted to Betty. She imagined Betty leaving to dine with her liberal friends who made up the Great and the Good. But Hyacinth wondered how many people, like herself and others in the class would be there.