I sat in the room and cast a glance around me. The other people seemed friendly enough. Some seemed to be old hands at this game. They evidently knew each other from previous lives - or was it just they had participated in this group before. Others stared at each other, trying not to show it, just as I was doing. Several had pens and paper at the ready and needed only the crack of the starter's gun let the words flow. Interestingly, apart from the group leader I was the only other male in the room; and with one exception I was the youngest despite it being only a few more years before I reached that magic milestone of fifty.

We began with a round of introductions, then the moment of truth came. Jean-Michel distributed a host of large, wonderfully smooth pebbles, he had found on the beach that summer. Mine still has pride of place on my desk, reminding me of what might have never been. We were each to write one word on our pebble. Well, that seemed easy enough; even I could manage one word in French. The pebbles were then placed in a large basket which did the rounds once more for everyone to take a different pebble. Our task was then to write a text using that word as a springboard.

I stared at my pebble horrified. The word CADUQUES, written in colour in a beautiful hand, stared back at me accusingly. How on earth was I to write about it. I had absolutely no idea what it meant. And what on earth was I doing here. It was all very well for me to say I was looking for some new friends, having just arrived in this town some three weeks previously. And it's true that when I saw the prospectus of activities being offered in the cultural centre, this one tempted me more than others; joining a creative writing class in a language other than my own was an act of pure folly. I'd suspected this might happen, but had been tempted by the prospect held out in the prospectus of attending twice before actually having to sign up. Well, I for one would not be signing up. This was the last time these people would be seeing me.

I looked around the room again. Everyone was busy putting pen to paper while I just sat there hoping the earth might swallow me up, thus providing me with a dignified exit. In the end, I scribbled down the letters of the word horizontally on my paper and managed a small acrostic poem trying to explain how I felt. I put a bit of humour into it and even made a few French mistakes for good measure. If I was going to quit, then I may as well do it with style.

When it was my turn to read, I announced my word and sheepishly admitted I didn't know what it meant, before reading out my effort. Less than one minute later the whole group was in tears... of laughter echoing around the room and people were praising me for my courage, if not for my brilliant French prose. A pretty blonde, the one participant younger than me, admitted to being the cause of my troubles. Indeed, the word wasn't even a French word. She had just returned from a wonderful holiday with her husband and children, and the pebble had immediately brought back memories of the beautiful little Italian resort of CADUQUES.

Three Meetings

This week's Sunday Scribblings theme is: How I Met My...
The following is part of a larger piece of fiction I'm working on where the hero, on the eve of his marriage, reflects on what brought him and his wife to be together.

We actually met twice. The first time was when she turned up in my class with at the beginning of a new year. It was my second year of running an English conversation class in the local cultural centre. The first year had started with a bang, but slowly but surely numbers started dwindling. We ended the year with just three participants, two of which were leaving town and would not be back the next year.
Despite all the director's encouragements I was not looking forward to the new year. My question was not would we see through the year, but would we have enough participants to get the group off the ground. A conversation class of one is not exactly ideal. But as I stepped through the door of the centre a large number of people were milling around, either wanting to register for new classes or waiting for their class tutor to arrive. How many of these would end up in my class?

To be perfectly honest, I can't even remember if she was actually present on that day. Some students didn't actually begin until two or three weeks into the year. And there were so many new students I was overwhelmed. But she became part of the group.

Then, there was the second time we met was some three or four years later. We were in the pub together. It had become a habit for four or five of us to prolong the class with a drink together in the club. She belonged to that group. Over the years we had all become great friends and as we sat there clinking our glasses our eyes crossed and we suddenly understood what we both wanted to say to each other.

I still can't understand how I hadn't realised sooner. But a far more pressing problem was what to do about it. My friends had been pressing me for a while to come out of my shell. "You can't stay a widower all your life. It's been nearly five years now. You've got to get out and meet other women." But I had been hesitant. I still was. Could I overcome this hesitancy? And then, there was the question of age. I knew exactly how old she was, just as I knew when her birthday was. I got the lists of all the students year after year. Names, addresses, date of birth, telephone, email. I knew hers off by heart. How could she want to get involved with someone almost ten years her senior.

Yet, after this one brief short moment, this second meeting, things just weren't the same. And I knew that we somehow had to find a way. We did. And in the morning there'll be a third meeting - one which will link our destinies forever on this earth.

This week's Fiction Friday theme: Have your character steal something. Now have the character rationalize it.

I stared at the screen in disbelief. Only four titles. And yet, I knew I currently had five books out. They were all sitting on my desk in front of me. Something had gone wrong. I glanced again at the screen and picked up "Portrait in Sepia" to examine the cover. There was the bar code; it was clean and had no scratch marks; nothing to indicate why it had not registered on my account. Nothing for it but to return to the library and get them to check it out.

I grabbed the book and headed to the library when the thought suddenly crossed my mind that it might be better to go without the book. After all, if it had not registered at all, I might just be accused of stealing it. Hesitating, I finally put the book back on the pile on my desk and headed into town. It should be easy enough to explain what had happened and as luck would have it Laurielee was on the front desk today. Laurielee was one of the stalwarts of the library's writing class which I also attended. We had dated a few times and she and her family had been a great help to me following my illness. Knowing me as well as she did, I was convinced she wouldn't believe me capable of trying to steal a book, certainly as I was returning at once to explain the error.

She flashed me a smile as she finished issuing a card for the reader in front of me and we spent a few minutes chatting - even arranged to get together for a drink that evening. But there was no way out of it, I had to tell her what had happened, not failing to make it quite clear I had absolutely no intention of stealing the book.

She smiled at my ridiculous fears. "If you only knew how often that happens. The computer is always messing up. It's probably attributed it to another reader. That's no real problem. You read the book and when you've finished you bring it back and it gets checked back in. Most often, the mistake isn't even noticed."

"So there's nothing you can do to rectify the problem." My voice still sounded nervous.

"Well, if you really want to, I could find out who has the book... according to the computer, that is... and then put it back into your name. But it's not really necessary."

My hesitation and anxious smile provided her with the answer. She asked for its title and it soon came up on her screen.

"Look, it belongs to..." She went silent. A ponderous, reflective silence. I stretched across the desk and managed to get a peek at the screen. We both went silent together. She stared into my eyes and I began to read perfectly what was going through my mind. The same thoughts were going through my mind, too. Here was a way of ending months of slanderous rivalry. All I had to do was keep the book, steal it; no, not steal it for surely there would be a way to get it back into the library sometime later. And I wasn't doing it for myself. This woman had wreaked havoc amongst the library staff, and on Laurielee in particular. Now there was a way of getting back at her and it lay in my hands to do so.

A man came up to the desk and stood behind me. Laurielee found her voice again.

"Thank you Mr. Winston. I think we've got that sorted out. Is there anything else you need?"

I thanked her warmly and mouthed the words see you this evening as I edged my way past the waiting man and strode out the door of the library not a trace of hesitation in my step. I, who had been afraid of being branded as a thief through no fault of my own, had now become one, convinced it was the right thing to do.

I'd been looking forward to the trip ever since Simon first suggested it. But as the train actually pulled into the station, my stomach was starting to flutter.

"I think it's about time you met my family back in Ireland. We could easily go for a week in February and still finish all the preparations for the wedding in time."

He came out with this as we were on our way to the west coast to visit my parents. The thought of going to Ireland had never occurred to me. But why not? It seemed so logical. Not so, now that the meeting was just two minutes away. If I could, I would have turned that train around there and then and headed straight back for Dublin and for France.

"There's Sissy!" cried Simon with delight and before we knew it, we were flying along the coastal road in Sissy's red mini.

"Where'd you learn to drive like that?"

Sissy blushed and it it took quite a bit of coaxing for her to admit that she too had found her beau - a Welsh racing driver who had seduced her with his singing and taught her how to handle a car.

"But don't tell anything to mother, yet. She's enough on her hands getting used to you two getting married."

I do my best to I settle back into my not very comfortable back seat, taking in the wonderful green of the countryside. Despite it being early February the sky was a cloudless blue; Ireland was certainly putting forward its best foot to greet her Celtic sister. And all the time I'm vaguely aware of Sissy's bubbling voice as she chats away to her brother next to her.

Simon's mother was a wonderful woman; plump and round with a pleasant face and and an apron that made you feel it was part of her life's calling. I did not, however, find it easy to understand all she was saying and sometimes had to ask Simon to explain, which he did with a smile, drawing me close to him and whispering in my ear.

"Oh look at the little beauty! Simon can't keep his hands off her. You're making him so happy love. I just hope he makes you just as happy."

I smiled a reply, a reply that sent Mrs. Brightwell into raptures as well as into the kitchen from which she emerged with one of her infamous 'upside down cakes' which of course I, being the guest of honour was expected to devour all on my own... with a little help from Simon.

Over the next few days there was the usual round of family visits, punctuated by some sightseeing, and a very occasional occasional few minutes together to stop us getting bored. One evening we went to a singsong at the pub and Simon surprised me with a beautiful rendition of "Annie's Song" just for me.

"You could make a habit of that." I suggested.

"But we don't have singsongs like this in France. It's one of the things I miss most about Ireland." It was only then I saw the faintest inkling of a tear in his eye. It disappeared the moment I saw it. But it told me what Ireland really meant to my soon-to-be, mystifying husband.

And so it was not only his family I was getting to know this week but also the man I was going to marry. I even got the chance to examine the competition I had been up against. Never once had I even stopped to contemplate this in Gensdouce. But here it became only too painfully obvious that Simon was a much loved and a much-wished-to-be-loved-by figure. Indeed, one young lady, Daisy I think her name was, seemed pretty cut up when she met me. She'd obviously been good friends with Simon before he left Ireland, and was quite star-struck... until she met me. But she did her best to put a brave face on it.

And so our trip drew to a close with the most enduring memory of that one week in Ireland as we walked in the moonlight along the shore of the Shannon. Simon sat me down on a the bench overlooking the bay and seranaded me with "Dany Boy", an old Irish favourite and one of the most beautiful tunes I had ever heard in my life. I made a mental note that I'd have to get him a karaoke machine for a wedding present.

"You heard him say that?"
The surprise in his voice echoed around the forest.

"Yes, no doubt about it. I heard it with my own two trusty ears."
And in this case my trusty ears did indeed report exactly what had been said. No need for any inventiveness on their part.

"And you're sure that he really means to... to do that?"
Now I've always hated questions like this, more so since I knew full well that he didn't intend to... Interpretations are always fallible. And mine might be as good as the next one's. I much prefer to stick to facts. They're far easier to manipulate.

"Well, I can't read inside his head. But when I heard him say those words and saw him go off towards the inn, well what else could I think?"
Still room for doubt there. Better change the subject quickly. But before I do, Richard beats me to it.

"You know, if it's true, he'll lose his place. And you're probably the favourite to take it."
Oh, the simple beauty of my plan; more than enough to put to sleep the definite suspicion in his voice.

"Ah, that's where my bad luck comes in. I went to see the Duke yesterday to ask for three weeks leave. There've been a lot of problems at home that require my urgent attention. Of course, the Duke wasn't pleased. He had hoped to have all his counsellors present at the next meeting. But he gave his consent gracefully. He'll be even less happy now."
In truth, a few weeks away could but help my claim. No one in the Duke's council proved a serious threat to him. Once the Duke realised that, he would send for him at once. And subservient as he was, he would come running with little thought of ambition, his one desire being to be of service to the Duke.

"So, are you going to tell the Duke."
The trap springs shut.

"What me! I'm not going to any such thing. After all he's been my best friend ever since arriving here. And my friend, make sure you don't tell anyone. I don't want the whole town finding out and bringing the matter to the Duke all because you can't keep your mouth shut."
There, the seeds of the act are sewn. deed. Why get my hands dirty when I have someone on standby to do the job for me.

Sitting some three metres above them and listening to every word that was being said, William found it hard to contain his excitement. At last he had what he was looking for. He'd come to the here in search of inspiration. He'd climbed into up into the tree when he saw the two young men making their way up the path. And his reward had been great. The perfect storyline. Surely it would take but a few weeks to rework it into a play. Iago and Othello: a play about love and friendship... and how they turn sour.

Matthew took his place at the dinner table that day in an uncharacteristically cheerful mood. Yet, the explanation was simple. Company. It was rare for visitors to stay for more than half an hour or so, and never had visitors occupied themselves with residents other than the person they had come to visit. But for Stuart's 70th birthday the whole family had invaded the home and thrown a party for all the residents. And now they were all invited to dinner with a few guests spread around each table. Matthew watched a young mother struggling to die her daughter's bib. The struggle was not due to any failing on the part of the bib; its source lay elsewhere testified by a persistent whine and the forceful question: "Do I have to?"

Matthew reflected on these strangely familiar words. It wasn't so much recognition at first sight; more a slow lapse into some other world, a world which had belonged to him, still belonged to him and which was now slowly becoming visible again in his mind's eye.

That very first struggle with his mother. She had been trying to get him to wash his fingernails, which were more than usually dirty. Three times he had tried and three times been sent back. The third time his mother had come with him. She had been ruthless in her scrubbing despite the plaintive "Why do I have to do this every day."

Then, there was his first day in school. He had apparently cried his eyes out when his mother told him she was going. But he couldn't remember that. All he could remember was seeing his mother appearing at the end of the day - she had obviously been crying herself - and letting out a surprised "What do I have to go already?"

"Yes dear," had been the warm reply as a smile broke out over her face. But you can come back again tomorrow. He had always considered that as his first victory.

As he grew older the complaints became different. School was no longer the fun it used to be and cries of "Do I have to go today?" or "Do I have to do this physics homework? became commonplace. Fortunately there were more interesting subjects than maths and physics and Matthew suddenly remembered drilling the now familiar phrases "Est-ce que je dois?" and "Muss ich wirklich?" That other languages used this self-same expression never ceased to amaze him.

But the do I have to's in his life were not always negative. There were the agonising choices that had to be made. "Why do I have to choose between a trip to France and one to Germany? Why can't I have both?" In the end he had chosen France and met that pretty little Louise. Despite all his coaxing she would always ask him "Do I have to?" And Matthew didn't have the heart to force her. And of course, the day came when he had to leave. They never saw each other again.

But later came more success in that area and when he did finally get around to asking Mahdi if she would marry him, she, at least, did not answer "Do I have to?"

And so he entered one of the most rewarding periods of his life. With hard work came success. But success only brought on more hard work and a constant string of Do you have to's from his somewhat frustrated family. Until the day came when Matthew himself asked "Do I have to?" and resigned from the company, ending his career in the most rewarding job he'd ever had, encouraging young people to push beyond their own "Do I have to's" to a realisation of their full potential.

And then came the worst "Do I have to" of all, as his beloved Mahdi told him from her deathbed that it was time to say good-bye. Even now the tears started to fall as he remembered that moment. So much so that the little girl at his table forgot her struggle with her mama and asked "Mammy, do grown-ups have to cry?"

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