The Clerkenwell Writers’ Asylum is a group of local authors inspired by EC1’s literary luminaries – from Daniel Defoe and Charles Dickens to Anthony Horowitz.
As well as meeting up and discussing their work, they publish anthologies of their short stories. Here The Post presents a brand new tale from the Asylum Hyena at the Watering Hole By Alby Stone
He leans on hard wood, stained and pitted, slick with decades of elbows and spilled beer. The walls are the same ambiguous ruddy brown and as lined as his face. He wears an old brown suit. When he moves – and he is constantly in motion – it is as if he flickers in and out of sight, camouflaged and waiting.
For no apparent reason he may emit a short laugh, like a bark; sometimes a longer one that becomes a growl. At his feet the carpet is mulched with droppings: spilled beer, stray crisps and fallen peanuts. His territory is marked.
Every night for four weeks he’s patrolled that corner of the bar. The staff take his shouted orders, stretch to place the replenished glass, take the banknote and deliver change, careful to keep this particular customer at arm’s length. They don’t know who he is or why he started coming here. Most other men like him would have been thrown out and permanently barred long ago. He hasn’t actually harmed or insulted anyone, although there is a shared, unspoken belief that he is always poised to attack. At times he seems barely human, though none can say with certainty what kind of animal he might be; though any fool can see he is a restless, hungry beast. No one wants to go near him.
This is awkward, because his position is carefully chosen, between the main bar space and the passageway leading to the lavatories. Women are allowed through but he always moves to narrow the space as they pass, slyly shepherding them against the wall. He leers, glowers, looms. He is old, somewhere in his late sixties or early seventies, but they say nothing. They do not dare. Nor do the men whose way he simply blocks, staring them down without a word, challenging them – any one or perhaps all together – to protest. Even brash young men who fancy themselves in a fight bite their tongues and hover uncertainly until he sneers and steps aside, usually adding to their humiliation with a twitch like a boxer’s feint, threatening a kick at their shins or bony elbow to the ribs, a blow that never materialises. Return journeys unfold in exactly the same way. The more enterprising among them simply walk fifty yards to the next pub and piss there.
Sometimes they decide it isn’t worth returning to the drinks and conversations they left behind. Sometimes they don’t go back at all, permanently taking their custom elsewhere. And these days ‘sometimes’ happens more and more frequently. The bar isn’t as crowded as it used to be, or as lively. Punters have haemorrhaged freely since he made the place his own. Passing trade never passes a second time. It’s a dilemma. Nobody wants to be there because of his presence but most do not want him to know that. Pride and territoriality don’t come into it. What matters is not showing weakness or fear. Those are things predators notice, the little signals that enable them to decide the target. No one wants to be the lame wildebeest that stands apart from the herd.
This is now his chosen watering hole. He is a lion here.
A young woman enters, hair damp with drizzle, cheeks pink from the cold night air. This isn’t her kind of place. She looks more the cocktail lounge and brasserie type. She pauses to survey the drinkers, searching for a face. Her eyes lock on the man in the shabby brown suit as he sways and shimmies at the corner of the bar. With a determined stride, she marches toward him. They hold their breath, everyone else in the pub. The woman confronts the man. He scowls aggressively, but it doesn’t hold. Hungry lion becomes starved hyena, grinning nervously. The beast is afraid.
‘Come home, Dad,’ the woman pleads. ‘You can’t keep avoiding it. Mum hasn’t got long now. They say she won’t last the night.’ The hyena dissolves. A lamb weeps.
CHAPTER AND VERSE
The Clerkenwell Writers’ Asylum meets a couple of times a month, from 7pm to 9pm, at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon Road. Members range in age from early thirties to early seventies and are from a variety of backgrounds – and most still have a day job. Some members have had their fiction published in magazines or received recognition in competitions; others are working on novels.
Members share work in advance – short stories in progress or extracts from longer work – for discussion on the evening. Sometimes the conversation turns to established authors. Those who attend a meeting contribute equally to paying for the room; newcomers get their first meeting free. New members are always welcome – the only qualifications are being interested in writing and wanting to write.
“The primary purpose is to encourage each other to write more and better pieces of fiction,” says Alby Stone. “As we have no restrictions in terms of genre, style or story length, there is usually a good, interesting selection of material to talk about.”
Since “The Clerkenwell Writers’ Asylum: First Short Story Collection” in 2013, the group has published two further anthologies. The
third book is titled “Morbid and Disgusting Tales” (the title was taken from a review of the second collection). The books are available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle format. Any money made from them is donated to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.