McGee wondered whether all local halls were designed and built at the exactly the same instant by the precisely the same builder. A by product of his round of talks to writer's groups was a tour of such identical establishments, each with worn wooden floors and a raised wooden stage adorned with musty, heavy burgundy drapes. The smells of the two media intertwined to trigger that part of the memory exclusively reversed for the word 'old'.
The walls were a testimony to the hall's standing in the community: plaques for ballroom dancing, school awards, posters for amateur theatre plays, and flyers advertising sporting clubs or baby playgroups. The chairs were universal: coloured plastic seats with metal frames and feet designed to screech along the floor at exactly the right frequency to resonant some nerve residing in the rear of his jaw.
Then there were the people. He felt it his duty to give back to other writers, paying his dues for when they had supported him before his work became know. Besides, his agent thought it was a good idea. He no longer wore the turtle neck sweater or the jacket with elbow patches or even carried the pipe, but it was not unheard of to meet such people on these little visits.
His eyes scanned the current group of about fifteen women. The name they had devised for themselves: 'The young ladies writer's group', was a bit of a misnomer. He judged the youngest to be in her seventies. The oldest, bordering on three hundred, made Mrs Mallard look like an 'America's Next Top model' contestant. The name tags reflected the era of their births: Dot, Vera, Irene and Lucy (whose thick Polish accent rendered her almost incomprehensible), all names of his grandmother's time. In fact, it looked like someone had been cloning his grandmother and got it all terribly wrong. But they had all read his book and readers, even readers who would not live to buy the sequel, were important to him now. 'He' for the purpose of this exercise, was 'Thom'; as proclaimed by his name badge.
"We all just loved the bit where the young man captured himself a young lady and trained her to be a good wife," Dot enthused.
McGee blinked, "excuse me?"
"Where he chained them in a room to teach them about the proper way to act," another added. "So few of today's young women know how to treat a man properly."
McGee smothered the smile that crept across his lips as he envisaged what Ziva, Abby or even Kate for that matter, would say to these women.
"Ah, ma'am," he started, carefully so as not to offend, "he was a little, ah, insane."
"But his heart was in the right place," smiled Dot, patting his hand.
McGee's polite smile froze. He decided to let it go. Chances were they wouldn't remember any of this in the morning anyway.
He stole a look at his watch and was shocked to find it was after 11 pm. He thought old people went to bed early.
"Well, ah, it's been nice talking to all of you….ah… 'young ladies' ," he began tactfully, "but it's getting very late and I have work in the morning."
"My heavens, yes!" the one labelled Irene agreed suddenly. "My goodness, Vera we have to get going."
A group of four rose and approached. He steeled himself.
"It's been lovely to meet you dear," said the first, bending slightly and giving him a peck on the cheek. Even though he was sitting, they seemed almost the same height.
This was the part he hated; when everyone had to say their farewell personally. The first four each took their piece of him and huddled out the door. He could hear strains of "what a lovely young man," echoing through the hall.
He smiled nervously at the others, hoping against hope they would take the hint and set him free.
"Tea dear?" Vera asked him directly.
The old ladies around him were rising and stacking chairs. He leapt to his feet to help relieve them of their burdens.
"Ah, no thanks," he muttered apologetically.
"Oh we always have tea at the end of a meeting," she scolded.
His eyes flitted around the cloudy sea of expectant cataracts. "Ahhh, OK, sure."
Two rounds of tea later and he was finally in his car and on his way. He reflected that he really should have looked for a bathroom before his escape but for now he would hang on. He flicked the 'home' icon on the Sat Nav with the back of his fingernail and the comforting array of GPS satellite signals lit up the tiny screen.
"Let's go home," he said, thankfully settling back into his seat.
The clear, peaceful late night roads made the trip a pleasant one. The hall was a long way out of town and he was certain the streets were fairly deserted by day, let alone during the absolute solitude found late on a work night. He noted just one car parked up ahead. As he drew nearer he saw her standing by the car waving her hand uncertainly, her rear tire characteristically deflated. The trunk was already open in anticipation of help. He was never one to shirk a damsel in distress.
As he pulled up alongside and wound down the window, she smiled apologetically: "Could you ring the auto club? I don't have a cell phone."
McGee cut the engine and smiled. "It's just a flat, ma'am, I can have you on your way in ten minutes."
"That's very gentlemanly of you," she beamed, "The spare's in the trunk."
He peered into the dimly lit interior of the trunk, straining his eyes to figure out where the carpet lifted to reveal the spare. Pain exploded inside his head and he pitched forward into the cavity.
"Pump up the tire, Dot," the crackly voice reverberated in the darkness, "I'll phone Vera to tell her we got him."