A new Avatar Dining Club mystery for you to read. If you’re a fan of this series, look at for a special announcement at the end of the story!
“The greatest abuse that goes on in the virtual world is that of our own language!”
Although the voice came from the small speakers of the laptop placed at the end of our monthly table at L’Albero Verde, it still somehow carried a booming resonance that spread out across the restaurant and made a few of the diners on other tables look around in surprise. On the screen, Roger Fowler, a large man in all directions except the vertical, brought his balled fist down upon the table with such a force that the plate of cobb salad in front of him fairly rose a full centimetre in the air in reaction. To my right, fashion blogger Mary-Ann Middlemarch, flinched involuntarily.
“Now now, Roger,” said Edward, our white haired host and founder of the Avatar Dining Club, and this month’s inviter for the virtual guest, “you’re not in role now. No need for the dramatics.”
“This is not acting, Edward! These are real tears welling. Look at my eyes! Look at them! The typos they’ve had to suffer seeing. Endless misspellings. Proper nouns decapitalised. Two, sometimes three, sometimes four words run into one long jumble of letters, like a queue of dishevelled vagrants lining up at a soup counter. And I swear if I see another misplaced apostrophe I’m going to commit murder!”
“You don’t think misogyny, age play, rape fantasy, homophobia, racism and cyber bullying are more pressing issues than a few spelling errors?” Jennifer Bit asked our guest from her seat opposite me, her face unmoved by his display of emotion.
“My dear fellow,” said Roger, and then he realised his mistake. “Please excuse me. My dear lady: these are all most abhorrent things, I quite agree. Please don’t consider my view in any way demeaning of their significance. But errors in spelling and typing and sentence construction are more than mere misarrangements of letters and spaces: writing is one of our core tools for communication and mistakes in our writing are therefore mistakes in our communication – and what is there that is more fundamental to our relationships, our happiness and our future than communication?”
“But essentially,” said Indigo Williams, the purple-haired skin designer and club owner in the virtual world, “you’re a Grammar Nazi.”
On the screen, Fowler sat up straight and scowled. “You insult me, madam. I abhor that term. Why take a passion for exactitude and harmony and associate it with something so vile it ranks a good deal lower than the common dog turd? If you really must put me in a box of your convenience, I prefer to be referred to as an ‘Apostrophian.’”
“A what now?!” asked Raw Concrete, the young metaverse builder who sat to my left and the only diner who didn’t show any sign of diminished appetite for their food at the introduction of dog turds into the conversation.
“An Apostrophian. The term was invented by my good friend Tobias during a lively debate on punctuation at a DJ event in Buzz. I loved it the instant I heard it.”
“Remind me not to attend any of your parties,” Indigo commented.
“An Apostrophian,” Fowler continued, “cares as deeply for our beautiful language as one might care for a lover or a child. He or she wishes only to protect it from harm, to nourish it so that it thrives. Is that such a bad thing?”
Edward had introduced the man as a fellow role-player within the virtual world, and had reminded him of the club rule that we remain in our metaverse identity at all times. Fowler, it appeared, was taking this a rule little too literally.
“Apostrophes confuse me,” said Raw, already on his final slice of pizza (he had paused to actually look at this slice before commencing upon its destruction). “I can’t work them out for the life of me.”
“And yet they are so simple,” Fowler told him. “You use them to denote possession and you use them to denote two words brought together. The one exception to that rule is the word ‘its.’ That’s it! That’s all you need to know!”
“What about ‘your’?” the young builder asked him.
“What about it?” he replied.
“Why do you sometimes have to add an e on the end?”
“Because it’s two words, doofus,” said Indigo. “Even I know that. Y O U apostrophe R E is short for ‘you’ and ‘are.’”
“But that doesn’t make sense!” Raw cried. “Why would I say, ‘Indigo, you haven’t eaten you are pizza?”
Edward said hurriedly, cutting off Indigo’s retort, “Roger, if I might make an observation, is this not one of those many areas of knowledge where those who know underestimate the complexity of what they know? I’m sure there are many things that Raw knows about building and coding that he finds it equally perplexing we don’t understand.”
“But Edward,” Fowler replied, “these are skills which once upon a time were commonplace.”
“Actually,” I said, “I don’t see that there’s any evidence for that at all. Illiteracy is as old as the printed word. In the late nineteenth century the works of authors such as Dickens were accessed by the uneducated working class through ‘penny readings,’ where these stories would be read aloud to a gathered crowd. They were very popular.”
“Yes yes yes,” said Fowler, impatiently. “In the days before compulsory education. I’m not blaming the person who never had the opportunity of schooling of anything.”
“And since then,” I continued, determined not to concede, “difficulties in literacy have only really become more visible as reading and writing have become ever more important to daily life. Fifty years ago you didn’t have to be a skilled writer to fix someone’s plumbing or mend their car – nowadays reading and writing skills are required by the vast majority of jobs.”
“And even if you don’t have to read and write in your job all that much,” Indigo put in, “you might still be pulled into social media, where your reading and writing skills get put on display for everyone to comment on.”
Fowler countered, “If I accept for the moment the point you’re making – that writing difficulties have remained the same over the years but have become more visible over time due to the increased presence in our lives of the written word – then that only reinforces my main point! If the written word is more important today than it used to be then it follows logically that it is also more important today than it used to be that people be taught to manipulate it correctly!”
“Never mind people writing correctly,” Rainy September said suddenly from her corner of the table. “I just wish they’d tell the truth.”
She had been uncharacteristically quiet all evening, her main contribution to our social intercourse a remark made as we all sat down that Deadly Number, the most recent addition to our club – and also her current boyfriend (and also one of my oldest friends in real life) – would not be able to make it that evening. When asked why he couldn’t come she had just shrugged and replied, “Something came up, I guess.” Her subsequent quietness had been the uncomfortable elephant in the room that Fowler’s loud flamboyance became the welcome distraction from.
(Though, as a quiet and private admirer of Rainy in recent meetings, I must confess I’d been rather hoping the silence might eventually be broken on this issue. I was well aware, however, that my own personal skillset didn’t include the ability to do this sort of breaking without damaging plenty of other stuff along the way.)
Indigo responded to the outburst as though this was the opening she had been waiting for. “What’s up, Rainy?” she asked. “You’ve been pretty much silent all night. Is there something wrong between you and Deadly?”
“Honestly?” Rainy replied, “I have no idea.” Mary-Anne leaned across the table and put a hand over hers. “Did you have a fight?” she asked.
“Not really. I don’t know. One or two disagreements. I just made a few suggestions a couple of weeks back about how he might market those board games he makes. That’s all I can think of.” Ordinarily not one to miss an opportunity to talk at length about her virtual life, Rainy fell suddenly silent, creating an unexpected conversational vacuum around the table.
Indigo asked me, “Did you hear anything, Leonard? He’s your friend too.” I felt faintly irritated by the assumption implicit that I’d betray a long-term friend’s confidence in front of a group of people I’d known now over just ten meals, but in fact I’d heard nothing whatsoever about any of this from my old school buddy, and there didn’t seem to be much point in protesting my right to hold silence over absolutely no information. So I simply said, “No.”
Raw was confused. “I’m not following this,” he said. “Have you two broken up or haven’t you?”
“Up until a couple of days ago I’d have said it was starting to look that way,” said Rainy. “Deadly was communicating less and less, and he kept on coming up with all these lame excuses as to why he couldn’t spend time with me. When he told me a couple of nights back that he wouldn’t be coming today, I decided to have it out with him. I was fully expecting to get dumped, but when I put him on the spot and asked him if I had his heart he just suddenly apologised for all the grief he’d been causing me and told me he was mine for all time. It was such a beautiful moment, I didn’t know what to say. I mean something like that is just a hair’s breadth from a proposition of marriage, right? But then – just like that – he logged off! I waited for him to come back on for maybe an hour, thinking he’d maybe crashed or his internet had gone down or he’d had a power cut or something, but no – he was gone. And since then, he’s ignored all my messages. I know we’ve met in real life, but I don’t have his phone number or email yet, so I’ve no other way to contact him. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”
Jennifer asked her, “Might he simply be ill?”
“Oh, he’s been back online since then,” Rainy replied, “just not online and talking to me. If he’s well enough to be online then he’s well enough to send me a message. It’s almost as though he’s muted me. In fact, I actually think that’s exactly what he’s done.”
“And there’s really nothing you can think of to explain this?” Indigo asked.
“Nothing that’s happened between us, no. I mean, I was starting to suspect he might have met someone else – it seemed like the most likely explanation for him hardly talking to me. There’s an old friend he started hanging out with not long after our last meeting, someone who’d just broken up with her long-term boyfriend. He said she needed his support.”
“Was it Juniper?” Mary-Anne asked. Juniper had been Deadly’s guest at our previous meal.
“No, not her. Someone else. I can’t remember her name. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, though I started to wonder as he became less and less communicative. But anyway, then there was that declaration of love. I’m so confused.”
“You don’t think he’s just some gutless guy who doesn’t actually have the courage to say he wants to break up with you?” Indigo wondered.
Rainy sighed. “I don’t think he is. But then, what do I know? None of the relationships I’ve entered into online have ever lasted for more than a few weeks. I’m clearly a terrible judge of character.”
Indigo told her firmly, “You mustn’t think like that. If it’s time to move on then it’s time to move on. The right guy will come along eventually.” She looked momentarily in my direction and winked at me and I, appalled that anyone around the table had even the merest inkling of my secret crush on Rainy, pretended desperately not to notice, and covered up my fierce blush with an impromptu study of the deserts menu.
“That’s the thing, though,” Rainy told us. “I thought Deadly was the right guy. I’ve never liked anyone as much as I like him. We went out on dates together in real life and everything. I thought he was The One.” Unlike Fowler – despite his earlier assertions – there really were tears welling in Rainy’s eyes, and now one escaped and ran down her cheek, taking with it a thin, black streak of mascara.
“Leonard,” Indigo said to me, “for God’s sake, ring Deadly now and find out what’s going on.”
It seemed like a fair enough request – Deadly could always tell me he didn’t want to talk to me at that moment (after all, he knew full well where I would be). I started to pull out my phone but Edward held up his hand to stop me. “Please wait a moment, dear fellow,” he said. “I do understand why this is important, but I’m afraid I must insist that this happens outside of our meeting. You all know how strongly I feel about our rule that we remain in virtual world character at all times when we’re together.”
“But Edward,” said Jennifer, “this is Deadly. He’s sat around this table with all of us. It was in his virtual world identity that he met Rainy in the first place.”
Edward replied, firmly, “But Leonard has a very long-standing relationship with him in real life – a piece of information which, incidentally, I rather wish I did not know – and a conversation of this nature is likely to draw upon that. I’m sorry to be so insistent, but if it really is necessary that this phone call take place now – and I will understand completely if it is judged to be so – then I must ask that we first of all draw the meeting to a close.”
The table fell silent for a moment at this ultimatum. Ordinarily, we would have continued our conversation for at least another hour past this point in time. “It’s ok, Edward,” said Rainy, dabbing delicately at her eyes with a tissue handed to her by Mary-Anne, “this can keep for a while.”
But it was difficult to see how we could now return to a normal conversation with this hanging awkwardly in the air. Another difficult silence followed, and then we each seemed to realise at the same moment that we had neglected our virtual guest for some time now. All eyes turned to him, hopeful for some sort of entertaining distraction.
On the laptop screen, The Apostrophian paused mid chew as he sensed our attention return to him. He hurriedly finished his mouthful and said, “I do apologise for my quietness, but it felt inappropriate for me to put forward my views on such a personal matter.”
“You have views?” Indigo asked him.
“Only that – in my experience – such issues usually arise through a miscommunication.”
“Are you going to tell us Deadly used an apostrophe inappropriately?” Jennifer asked him, rather sourly.
Fowler bristled. “I of course have no idea what the specific nature of the particular miscommunication was. But I have known many people in broken relationships in the metaverse, and I’ve observed that many of their disputes often come down to something very simple, once it can be seen.”
Edward rubbed his chin, thoughtfully at this. “There is something in what you say, Roger,” he said. “Perhaps you might be right.”
“What do you mean, Edward?” Rainy asked him.
Our host closed his eyes for a moment to think, and we all waited for him to speak. Raw took advantage of the moment to call over Enrico, our tireless waiter, and order a large helping of sticky toffee pudding.
And then Edward’s eyes snapped back open. “My dear,” he said, “perhaps it might be easier if I spoke to you alone in the foyer?”
“It’s ok,” Rainy said, calmly. “My story with Deadly began with this group: if it has to end here also then so be it.”
“Very well,” he said gently. “Then let me ask you something: you mentioned earlier that Deadly had been spending time with an old friend, whose name you couldn’t remember. By any chance might that name have been, ‘Ever’?”
Rainy sat up straight. “Yes!” she said. “It was! I remember now – it was ‘Ever Moore’. How can you have possibly known that?”
Our host looked at her sadly. “You told us you asked him if you had his heart. I imagine you said it something like this: ‘Is your heart mine?’”
“Yes,” she replied, “I asked him just like that. And then he apologised for all the grief he’d caused me and told me his heart was mine for all time.”
“That is how you’ve remembered the conversation,” Edward said softly, “but I don’t think he actually said it quite like that. I think perhaps what he actually said was, ‘I’m sorry – it is forever.”
“Yes,” she whispered, her eyes welling up again. “That’s exactly what he said.”
“Do you see now, my dear? It’s just as Roger suggested. A hurried, emotional reply, clumsily mistyped. What he was actually apologising for was what he was about to tell you about his heart: ‘It is for Ever.”
There was a collection of unhappy sighs from around the table as we realised. Even Raw sounded genuinely sad. On the laptop screen, Fowler raised his finger in the air as though about to declare that he had been right all along, but then seemed to think better of it.
Rainy just said, “Oh.”
“I’m so sorry, my dear,” said Edward.
I felt bad for Rainy. At the same time, though, it wasn’t as though this was the first relationship of hers to have both started and ended during the nine months which had passed since our first meeting. A serial monogamist by nature, I felt certain she would bounce back once the right opportunity presented itself to her – and I very much intended to be that opportunity. On my drive home that night I resolved to contrive a reason to ‘accidentally’ bump into her in the virtual world before a week had passed.
But a couple of days later she sent an email to us all telling us she had deleted her metaverse account. “Since I no longer have a virtual world identity to remain in at our meetings,” she added, “I will no longer be attending the Avatar Dining Club.”
Wait?! What?! A shock ending?! Want to know what happens next?! The next two Avatar Dining Club stories will only be released in The Avatar Dining Club Mysteries, a new book collecting the first ten stories plus two written exclusively for it. It will be launched inworld this Friday, 28 June at 3pm SLT. Stay tuned for details of the launch party – all attendees will be able to claim a free PDF version of the book!