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U3A Writing: The Conference

Beware who you engage in casual conversation at a conference, particularly so if they are not delegates. Derek McQueen tells a menacing tale.

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The ‘crush bar’ of the Duke of Cumberland Hotel, in Hastings, is heaving with people. Blue-badged delegates are packed into every corner, relieved to have thirty minutes’ respite from the boredom of the conference next door. A grand piano stands at the head of a split, gold carpeted, staircase, its elegant art deco balustrade in exact accord with the richly decorated ballroom above. Gilt mirrors sparkle, sprayed with light from a magnificent green and gold chandelier, high in the ceiling.

Karen Jacobsen has found a small sofa behind one of the many pillars. She is looking at a magazine but glances up, searching the crowd every few minutes, as if expecting someone. The piano player, in full evening dress, battles the noise from the bar with a selection from Mack and Mabel.

“I wont send roses or hold the door. I wont remember which dress you wore…”

The words flood Karen’s memory.

A man suddenly appears from behind a pillar, in the manner of Alice’s ginger cat.

“ Oh, hello, sorry to startle you, is this anyone’s seat? It seems to be the only one left in the place.”

Tall, with a goatee beard cupping his florid face, the man has a large, blue badge resting on his paunchy midriff.

“I’ll just pop my wine down here if that’s alright. Thanks so much. Always the last to get a drink. Conference Organiser and all that.”

The man points to his badge.

“Graham, my name. Graham Brighton. Actually I’m from Ipswich. Silly isn’t it? You don’t have a badge. Are you with us?”

Karen could do without this unexpected intrusion. With an effort, she manages a civilised response.

“I’m Karen. I don’t have anything to do with the Conference actually, I’m here to give something very important to one of the speakers.”

“What’s his name? Maybe I can help you find him.”

“That’s really kind of you Graham. If you have the speakers’ list for this afternoon, that would be really helpful.”

She can hardly tell a total stranger that she is looking for her husband and his young secretary and that he walked out on her without a word after ten years of marriage.

“No trouble Karen, no trouble at all. I have it here somewhere.”

Brighton gulps down the rest of his wine and shuffles through a sheaf of papers from a brown, leather document case. The bar is emptying as delegates slowly make their way down the stairs to the dining room.

“There are only three speakers this afternoon Karen. Jim Terringer at 2-15, John Spode at 3-30 and the last one, that’s Peter Jacobsen, he’s due to speak at 4-45. Look I’m going to have to dash. Why don’t you pop into the public area after lunch. I’ll look out for you.”

He heads to the top of the stairs and disappears in the crowd.

Karen Jacobsen lingers thoughtfully over her avocado and prawn salad in the hotel coffee shop. From time to time she fondles the Italian Beretta handgun in her Gucci handbag.

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