Something a bit different this time; I wrote this for bibliophilefiles’ Five Lines challenge – to use just 5 lines of predetermined spoken dialogue. Enjoy!

* * * * *

Sonia brandishes her book like an Olympic medal, cradling it with a mixture of pride and protectiveness. Around her, dozens of eyes simultaneously scan its bright pastel blue cover. It’s dominated by two roughly drawn feminine silhouettes, stick-thin of course, their fingers pointed at each other accusingly. Between them, in the background, lurks the shadowy figure of a man. I assume he’s love interest rather than a serial killer, but I live in hope.

Such is the lottery of Book Night.

Normally, everyone in our reading circle reads the same book, but every couple of months we like to do something a bit different. Originally, it was known as Bring Your Own Book Night, but time and laziness have weathered its name like a once-lofty mountain, and now the occasion is just Book Night. The idea is simple: everyone can bring a book of their own choice, and read a maximum of two pages to the rest of us, preferably from the book’s first fifty pages, to avoid spoilers for those who might be inspired to read it for themselves.

Can you judge a book by its cover? In that pause before each reader speaks, we can’t help but try. Scrying the unknown, searching for clues, it’s almost instinctive. The same inquisitiveness that once kept our ancestors alive in dangerous jungles, now used to guess what lies within a book. Such are the fruits of civilization.

The title of Sonia’s chosen book is embossed in tall scrawly handwriting, each letter decorated with a flurry of elaborate curls, of the kind you only ever see on the cover of romantic paperbacks. It announces itself as: FRIENDS LIKE THESE.

It’s not the kind of book I’d give a second glance, but I try to be magnanimous and repress my natural scowl. Our little group is gathered in a semicircle of chairs and floor cushions in a quiet corner of now deserted cafe. Mugs of tea and coffee steam deliciously all around us, creating a welcoming aromatic fug. In the middle, Sonia is taking her seat on the tall stool reserved for the reader. As she opens her book, our hubbub dissipates into an expectant silence…

Without providing any prologue, Sonia begins to read aloud, speaking quietly but clearly. Within a few paragraphs we’ve established the existence of two friends, and that they’re having an argument. Over a man. Sigh. Does that shit ever happen in real-life? I’m convinced chick-lit is set in some parallel reality, like a more permissive Middle Earth, but gone modern and shorn of dwarves.

Whilst reading Sonia helpfully adopts two different voices so we can distinguish who’s talking: there’s one who speaks with something close to her normal speaking voice (and I bet that character ultimately lands Mr Right), and one that’s a whiny high-pitched caricature of herself.

Now I must admit I find public squabbles hugely entertaining. I know that makes me sound like a dreadful misanthropist – but come on – who’s ears don’t prick up on hearing raised voices a few rows away in a near-empty train carriage. Sometimes there’s two, sometimes it’s just one and a phone. They always think they’re alone. It starts with snide comments, and quickly escalates into criticisms, admonishments and recriminations. It’s a kind of angry improv. Brilliant.

Sadly the exchange Sonia is reading has none of the extemporised genius of a simmering row. Rather it sounds like two precociously well-spoken schoolgirls quarrelling in a playground over the ownership of a newly discovered bauble, a dispute over who saw it first.

Then Sonia pauses for dramatic effect, and then exclaims in her whiny nasal voice:

“The last twenty-four hours are making me seriously reconsider our friendship!”

Get out of there, girlfriend. That’s what I’d tell her. She’s changed.

Talk about an over-reaction. I mean, is exchanging flirty emails with the man your friend has her eye on really that bad? Then again, biologically speaking we’re essentially still cavemen and women, albeit fur has gone out of fashion and now we hunt with smartphones rather than spears. I suppose jealously is hardwired into us, as much a part of us as our swallow reflex, or our urge to eat.

Maybe I’m being too unfair to this book. Perhaps the friends do indeed break up, only for the winner to discover her new beau is indeed a sociopathic murderer, and only by mending their friendship and working together can they bring the brute to justice. But I seriously doubt it.

After that I’m not really listening to what Sonia is reading, instead I’m imagining how my own dark interpretation might play out, with all its intrigues, conundrums and jeopardies. This is gold, I must write all this down when I get home.

A few minutes later a polite round of applause interrupts my day-dreaming. Sonia has finished reading. I suspect the polite ovation she receives is born more of relief than enthusiasm.

* * * * *

We tend to go clockwise around our semicircle, which means next up is Annette. She’s a blonde-haired lady, a bit older than Sonia, thirty-something I’d guess, dressed casually in jeans and a salmon T-shirt with a three letter abbreviation I don’t recognise. I’ve chatted with her several times, she’s a well-travelled, plain-speaking lady, always stimulating conversation, never afraid to share her opinions. I’m eager to see what she’s chosen.

The cover of her book is much more subtly designed, discreet, as if it doesn’t want to draw attention to itself. From a distance I think I see the shadow of something long and thin hovering amongst its monochrome hues. I can just about read the title, written in small capital letters at the bottom of the cover: THE ACCIDENTAL DOMINATRIX.

Now on second glance the shadow on the cover looks a whip. Oh. This could be interesting.

The passage she begins reading features a couple at home on their living room sofa. Annette speaks with a slight European accent, perhaps French, Dutch or Belgian. It lends her words an alluring exoticism, as if she’s painting this domestic scene with slightly more vivid pigments.

It transpires that the characters are channel-hopping when they stumble across a programme about how couples spice up their love lives. That’s enough to capture her attention, to stay her finger above the channel changing button.

We’re told that on screen a woman is showing off her considerable collection of sex toys, all proudly arranged on her bed. A lady’s voice behind the camera asks how she chooses what to play with, with all that choice. The owner just laughs that the fun is in improvisation, using them as props when acting out scenes. When the voice asks her to explain, the interviewee does not disappoint, the explicitness of her candid revelations prompting gasps and giggles from those around me.

Annette describes the lady picking up a finger-length silicone protrusion, which she helpfully identifies as a butt plug. More Gasps. She admits how she likes push it inside herself before dressing up as a strict headmistress, whilst her husband dresses as a naughty schoolboy. Nervous laughter.

What follows is her account of a typical role-play session. It seems it is not uncommon for her errant pupil to earn himself a spanking with his shorts and underpants around his ankles. Her eyes sparkle as she describes the delight of sitting down on a straight-backed chair and pulling him over her knee, his weight on her lap helping to push her plug even deeper into her bottom. Gasps and a stifled cough.

Slyly, Annette raises her eyes from her book, and takes a moment to let her outrageous words sink in. She’ll be quite aware of the effect her words are having, knowing everyone in the room will now be imagining them, each in their own personal way. Some might picture the protagonist as a middle-aged lady, a scowling schoolmarm in a coal-black gown, others a lithe sexy seductress, already partially undressed. The picture in my own mind looks more like Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, a demure governess with hints of latent eroticism.

I survey the room as subtly as I can. Around me, the reading group is rapt, eyes wide, cheeks flushed, sweaty palms being discreetly dried. It’s impossible to tell who’s aroused and who’s embarrassed by what we’re hearing, but no-one has objected or voted with their feet. There’s something deeply fascinating about intimate secrets, even fictional ones, who wouldn’t peep through a keyhole if they heard muffled sighs of pleasure from beyond?

With a smirk, Annette continues reading, with the lady explaining that after giving her husband a good spanking she likes to don a strap-on dildo. She helpfully holds it up for the camera. Around me, mouths gape wider as Annette relates her exposition on the finer points of pegging, a word I suspect many here are encountering for the first time tonight.

Hearing this, I subconsciously refine my imagining of my Mary Poppins into a commanding but reassuringly tender lover.

At that point the story switches from events on the television screen, back to the viewers on the couch. It seems our fascination is shared by the lady. She begins to gently tease her boyfriend, telling him he’s been a naughty boy, half-threatening to put him over her own knee. Her partner though, does not seem to share her enthusiasm, folded arms and a deep frown indicating his distaste.

The story indulges us with a glimpse into the narrator’s head. It appears that she’d always been secretly aroused by the idea of taking control, and now she’s heard her convictions from another’s lips, she’s emboldened. Here was a programme demonstrating that there was more to sex than just changing the positions you lay in.

But recognising his unwillingness for sexual adventure, she changes tack, appealing instead to his urge for pleasure. She repeated what the programme had said about the glorious sensations of prostate stimulation, and the exceptional stiffness it could inspire.

Her boyfriend was adamant however, he was a man, not a cissy. This whole carry-on was just perverted, he had no intention of allowing himself to be screwed in the ass by some freaky rubber cock. But he couldn’t bring himself to articulate that, so simply wafted his hands dismissively in front of her.

“Whatever, whatever… it’s not happening.”

Annette tells us those five words marked the point when their lives changed – when she first began to think they might want different things.

But we won’t find out what happens tonight, because with that, Annette stops, smiles and closes her book.

Another ripple of nervous laughter washes through the room. Our social self-defence system, collectively reframing what we’ve all just experienced, allowing us to shrug off what we’ve all just heard as a ribald joke, so we can look each other in the eye again. But I know many of will go home thinking about what Annette has read, and some will go to sleep imagining it too.

* * * * *

The buzz generated by Annette’s racy book is still humming by the time Jennifer takes her seat on the narrator’s stool. Eager eyes inspect the cover of the book she’s carrying, hoping for further titillation, this one reads: A HUNDRED DAYS OF SOLITUDE.

My heart lifts for a moment, recognising the title of Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece. Yet the cover seems immediately incongruous, no forbidding mountain vistas or decrepit colonial haciendas. Instead, it features a cartoon of several couples, drawn holding hands, hugging or having fun, and one additional figure in the bottom right alone at a table, an apologetic wisp of steam rising from their coffee cup. And then I realise we’re not about to be treated to an earnest passage of Columbian magic realism. I recognise my mistake, no doubt the dreadful pun was deliberately chosen to make this potboiler appear more sophisticated – only for the front cover to undermine that intent with several agonising chick-lit cliches. I’m sure I never used to be this cynical.

Jennifer opens her book at the page marked by a blue sticky note, and the last few whispers give way to respectful silence. She begins reading.

Ah. That timeless story!

Boy meets girl.

Boy likes girl.

Girl likes boy.

Boy goes weird.

Girl goes quiet.

Boy buys a dozen red roses and turns up outside her door professing how he’s never met anyone like her, and can’t imagine life without her.

Their exchange is being conducted by mobile phone – a thoroughly modern romance – as he paces up and down the doorstep of her apartment block, waving his hands imploringly.

Inwardly, I can feel myself cringe. Around me, nervous chuckles leak from audience. I suppose we’ve all been there. I blame the movies. Everything I know about relationships I learned from the movies. Most of it, I now realise: complete rubbish. The great romance fallacy. Women as vending machines. Keep putting in the niceness coins and the product will drop.

I’ve lost count of how often I’ve seen the “leading man” (and it is always a man) braving the romantic journey. Along the way there are challenges, of course, like a latter-day test of the virtuous, and he must overcome these obstacles through the strength of his feelings. Poverty! Ridicule! Conspiracy! Men in the movies behave like martyrs, their love is an act of faith, their passion is their superpower, transforming themselves into the hero who’ll ultimately win the object of their affections. Personally though, if I was being pursued by someone with that kind of intensity, I’d get a restraining order.

They should pass a law that requires all red roses to be sold with little printed warning, like they do with cigarettes. Something like, WARNING: the strength of a relationship is the sum of two people’s feelings, not just yours.

I find myself pondering the practicalities of such a scheme until my attention is recaptured by Jennifer taking a deep breath, hamming up the moment, as if ready for her close up.

“I can’t fall in love today”, she announces haughtily, as if the discussion was setting a time for having a new washing machine installed, “I didn’t do a thing with my hair. Come back tomorrow.”

She delivers the line melodramatically, as if she’s a 1940s movie diva. Personally if I’d been reading that passage, I’d have uttered it as an exasperated sigh. What her statement was really saying was: your neediness makes me nauseous, go home and man up.

Besides, I thought her suitor’s pitch was all wrong from the start. He should have been telling her he wanted to taste her on her fingers. And if that level of intimacy wasn’t realistic, he definitely shouldn’t have been professing his undying love. What a wuss.

Mercifully, Jennifer soon puts us out of our misery, closing her book to another round of polite applause. I think I’ll give that one a miss.

* * * * *

Which means next up is Sacha, a young man with immaculately unkempt hair, strategically ripped jeans and an unsettling intense gaze. Despite his exotic foreign-sounding name, he speaks with a refined English accent, of the kind dispensed in expensive public schools. I’d say of all the people gathered here tonight, he’s got the best chance by far of being cast as a future Doctor Who.

The book he has brought is immediately eye-catching. The front cover shows an expanse of idyllic blue waters, of the kind you’d expect to see in travel brochures, the sun is glinting off the ripples, and there’s a prow of a rowing boat in the foreground. In the background something is jutting out of the water. At first glance I thought it was one of those hazard markers you often see at the coast on partially submerged rocks. Looking closer, it’s actually the top of a church steeple.

The title is written in no nonsense slab type, like one of those old public service announcement posters. It simply reads: WATERSHIRE

The section Sacha has chosen starts with the BBC evening news. Sacha’s clipped accent fits the role perfectly.

“It’s raining … again”, announces the newsreader portentously.

It sounds like the opening to a weather forecast rather than a news bulletin. But it seems that rain is news: bad news, very bad news. Torrential rain has fallen across Britain during 208 days of the last 300.

What follows is a bit of exposition. The climate has changed. We tried to kid ourselves, that it wasn’t going to happen, that the increasingly weird and violent weather was just a quirk of nature, and then later, that some technological marvel would be invented by our grandchildren to absolve us of our profligacy.

Never mind, we thought. In Britain we dreamt of a new Mediterranean climate, vineyards in Surrey, olive groves in Kent. Our green and pleasant land becoming an island of perpetual spring. But what we got instead was The Storm Factory. Gigantic gyres blending the frigid polar waters off Newfoundland with the steaming waters around the Caribbean, like the immense mixing wheels of a planetary-scale machine.

The book tells of how The Storm Factory spawns a new tempest every couple of days, the savagely fast jet stream blasting them towards western Europe. The amount of water each storm drops is staggering, far more than our rivers can carry away. We tried to muddle through, as we British often do, but our poorly conceived flood defences were soon rendered useless by the inexorable rise of the water table.

Sacha dictates the pen pictures like a reporter reading from his notebook. Britain is grinding to a halt, slowly drowning. Refugees in their own land shamble through the countryside, pitifully dragging muddy carts with all they have left. Most railways and motorways are now impassable, submerged or wrecked by landslides, dividing the nation into isolated urban islands, an archipelago of city states. Martial law seems imminent. A new social divide is emerging, no longer North-South, but High ground and Low. First it flooded the river-siders, but I did not act, as I did not live by the river…

Wow. This book I like. A Wyndham-esque depiction of the breakdown of civil society, an apocalypse of the shires.

Sacha closes the book with an earnest nod that seems to say: you know it, man. The flooding of a nation and breakdown of civilization was never going to earn him a rapturous round of applause, but the murmurs of approval are obvious. I can see several members of our group leaning forward, scribbling down its title. This one looks like a hit.

* * * * *

Sacha returns to sit down beside me. Now it’s my turn. I walk a few paces into the middle of the semicircle, standing confidently in front of twenty-one eager faces. How strange to think I used to be so shy.

The book in my hand is a hardback, I’ve turned the cover inside out, so no-one will see what’s it’s called until I’ve finished reading. They might be surprised to learn the author.

Tonight, four new worlds have already been generated inside the minds of everyone present. Brought into being by nothing more than vibrations of air resonating in our ears, and the mysterious prodigious powers of our imaginations.

I open my book reverentially where I left my bookmark. My audience see me smirk, some grin back encouragingly, misinterpreting my little smile as a show of nervousness. But actually, I’m not anxious at all, inside my head I’m buzzing at the realisation of my God-like powers. I’m a magician with a magic trick. I am about to conjure forth a whole new world.

I moisten my lips and clear my throat.

“We create ourselves…”

@spankingtheatre 2014

Originally published at You’re welcome to share.