I selected the course at random − literally.  I picked up the prospectus from my local library and, before opening it, consulted a table of random numbers. It gave me 238: page 23, line 8.

I delayed looking this up for a few hours, savouring the thrill of the unknown. Like Pooh relishing the moment before he began to eat honey, I love the anticipation.  Some of my best decisions have been arrived at randomly.  I tossed a coin to decide what university to go to, what job offer to accept, which of two women I should ask to marry me, where to live and so on.  Even leaving my wife for another woman was decided on the role of a dice.  Many years ago, I went on an enjoyable caravan holiday where our route was decided by the toss of a coin: heads turn right, tails turn left.  By a circuitous route, taking us through places I’d never have otherwise visited, and twice along lanes marked ‘unsuitable for motor vehicles’, we finished up on the outskirts of Leicester.

When eventually I turned to page 23 and counted down to line 8, I found myself midway through a second paragraph extolling the virtues of an autobiographical writing course.  So, giving it no further thought (trust the numbers!), I enrolled and committed myself to twelve Wednesday mornings, 10 to 12.30.

The FE college was only a short walk from where I lived.  A bored receptionist highlighted my name on her list and sent me up to room five on the third floor.  I was the first to arrive. The room was anaemic: laminated tables in a U-shape, plastic chairs with splayed legs, a notice board by the door with a health and safety notice curling at the edges and another saying ‘No food or drinks allowed in the classroom’, a clock on the wall, lopsided venetian blinds on the widows, some spare chairs stacked in a corner, a white board with ghostly marks from previous classes that hadn’t quite rubbed out.

Uninspiring.  Short of terrorists bursting in with machine guns, it was hard to imagine how anything interesting could happen in such an innocuous room.

I sat down in what I judged to be the middle of the U-shape, placed my notebook in front of me like a dutiful schoolboy, and waited.

People arrived in dribs and drabs, mostly women, and a couple of other men, twelve of us in total, all of a kind, all white and sixty-plus.  We  sat there self-consciously waiting for something to happen.  I toyed with the idea of tossing a coin to see whether to stay or go but I sat tight, curious, as ever, to see where my random numbers had led me.

At exactly ten o’clock a slight woman, also in her sixties, with long grey hair that would have looked better gathered up in a bun, wearing a faded blue dress that reached down to her ankles, made her way to the front desk.  Conversations petered out.  She carried a ring binder, which she placed on the desk in front of her, and a handbag from which she produced a pair of spectacles.

This was Carolyn Gelling, our teacher.

She introduced herself in a quiet voice telling us, modestly, that she was a published poet and author of some short stories that had been broadcast on Radio 4. She had been running the class, twice yearly for the past five years.

‘Of course,’ she continued, ‘we have strict rules about confidentiality.’  For the first time she looked up, then hurriedly back down again as if surprised to find we were still there. ‘For obvious reasons you must all agree never to divulge anything that is shared in this room. Confidentiality is essential.’

I wondered what the ‘obvious reasons’ could possibly be, but most people nodded compliantly.

Our teacher continued.  ‘I have your details from the enrolment forms you completed.’ She paused and opened the ring-binder.  ‘But if you’d prefer anonymity please feel free to adopt a pseudonym and I’ll make a note of it.’  She took a biro out of her handbag. ‘All I ask is that you remember it.  In my last group some people forgot what they’d called themselves and blurted out their real names.’  No trace of a smile.

She invited us to introduce ourselves and say, briefly, what we hoped to gain from the course.

Everyone obliged, the introductions proceeding, like a slow Mexican wave, around the room in a clockwise direction.  Most said they were happy to use their real names but four of us opted for anonymity, including me.  I had surreptitiously tossed a coin and it told me to invent a name so I chose John Boot after the character in Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel Scoop.

People had unremarkable expectations for the course, most just wanting to write about their lives to ‘get it’out of their system’. Two women, both enormously overweight, described themselves as ‘damaged goods’ and expressed the hope that putting pen to paper would be therapeutic.  One of the men said he’d been a senior officer in the Met and had ‘lots of stories to tell’.  Another was a retired airline pilot who’d claimed to have been ‘in a few scrapes’.  A couple of people spoke vaguely about the possibility of getting their stuff published.

Apart from giving a false name, I told the truth: that I had chosen the course at random, but was open-minded and, never having done any writing previously, other than formal reports, had no idea what to expect. Carolyn Gelling made no comment, but she momentarily looked at me over the top of her spectacles and I sensed that she thought my reasons for being there were inappropriately flippant.

We were briefed on the format for future sessions: each week four of us would be allocated a 30-minute slot, 10 minutes maximum to read aloud to the group, followed by a 20-minute critique.  Carolyn assured us she’d keep a record and ensure that everyone had an equal number of turns.

She then asked if anyone had brought something they’d written, otherwise she’d give us 20- minutes to write about anything we wished.  Mercifully, two women came to the rescue and volunteered to read things they had written.  The first read a piece about the intricacies of making patchwork quilts and the second − I found it hard to concentrate once I’d noticed red lipstick on her front teeth − about her summer holiday the year before in Malta.

And that was that.  Our first session ended early and we all went our separate ways.

In preparation for the next class, I made a list of six possible topics I could write about and rolled a die.  The one I hoped would win, about the joys of random decision-making, was ‘chosen’.

I wasn’t allocated a slot at the next two meetings but I didn’t care because, rather to my surprise, I found I was totally content listening to other peoples stories.  One woman, the youngest in the group, wearing a headscarf, read an account of an operation she’d undergone to remove a brain tumour.  She’d been awake throughout so that she could give the surgeon a running commentary of what she could see and hear.  Another woman wrote about her schooldays at a convent where she had been sexually abused by a nun, but she hadn’t dared to tell anybody and, perhaps not surprisingly, had become a lapsed Catholic.  The man from the Met told of a particularly tricky murder case he’d helped to investigate that remained unsolved. The airline pilot recounted how, having left his wife for an air hostess 20 years younger than him, she, without warning, upped and left him leaving a curt farewell note propped up on a Toby Jug on his mantelpiece.

Another woman told an amusing story about how she had been a Freemans agent back in the 1980s and found a couple of pages of hard porn bound into the lingerie section of the catalogue. She telephoned head office to report her find and they immediately sent a courier to deliver flowers and collect the offending catalogue.  Apparently, in those days Freemans printed a million copies of their catalogue, but no other rogue copies ever turned up and no one could explain how porn pages got into her catalogue.

I was perfectly content to listen to these stories. I loved the variety and marvelled at the quality of the writing.  After each reading Carolyn Gelling invited comments from the group and some, invariably guarded and complimentary, would be forthcoming. Then Carolyn would trot out few suggestions for improvement. She had some pet themes: an opening paragraph that captured the attention of the reader, not being afraid to describe feelings, using short sentences, having ambiguous endings that left the reader wanting more.

All rather repetitious and humdrum.

By the fourth meeting of the group we had all settled into the familiar routine. Carolyn consulted her list and called out the names of the four of us who hadn’t yet given a reading:  three of the women and me.

One of the women, she said her name was Ruth, volunteered to go first.  She wore dark glasses and had never previously spoken.  She was obviously nervous and started reading hesitantly.

‘I left school when I was 18 and went to university.  In the 1950s less than 4% of people went on to further education and very few of them were women.  We were expected to become secretaries or nurses before getting married and having children.  So I was one of the fortunate few.’

She read quietly and I strained to hear all the words. She looked frumpy and rather downtrodden and I wondered whether a story with such an unpromising opening could turn into something interesting.

‘During my second year, I started to go out with a man.  I know it will seem strange, but I was still very naïve.  I hadn’t had a serious boy friend before and I was still a virgin.  He, I’ll call him George, was an amusing companion and I was flattered that he was attracted to me.  He’d done National Service before coming to university so he was three years older than me. He was one of the few students with a car and he’d often turn up unexpectedly and whisk me off on a trip somewhere.

By now I was paying rapt attention. It was uncanny. She might have been describing me.  I did National Service before going to university and I had an old banger……..

‘His spontaneity was unnerving at first but I slowly got used to it.  He’d suddenly turn up, hold out two fists and say, ‘which one, left or right?’  and off we’d go to a steam rally, or to a country pub, or for an impromptu picnic.  It was fun.’

My spine started to tingle.  Was there something vaguely familiar with her voice, with the way she tilted her head?

‘But he was unreliable, sometimes disappearing for a few weeks without any explanation.  I began to worry that he might have another girlfriend but I was always glad when he turned up again and he got tetchy if I questioned him.  Then one day, without any warning, he told me that he couldn’t go out with me anymore.  He wouldn’t say why, just something mysterious about not being in control of his own destiny.’

I gazed at the woman utter disbelief.  Could this old woman possibly be the Sheila I knew over fifty years ago at university?

I got a coin out of my pocket: heads I scarper, tails I stay.  Heads.  I got up, nodded apologetically to Carolyn, and left.  As I closed the door quietly behind me I heard Sheila continuing, ‘I was devastated.  I didn’t realise it at the time, but he ruined my life.’

I never got to read my piece about the joys of random decision-making.



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