The Thank You Sweets

So, in November I find myself running a stall at the Winter Warmer Festival. To be specific, I’m in charge of a dodgy folding table with a white paper tablecloth taped onto it. If I didn’t know its red stains were left over from the Strawberry Fair in June, I’d be phoning the police. I’ve been volunteering at our local community centre between jobs, and the manager, Erica, has decided she can trust me to recruit people for her new Over Fifties Club. Not being far off the big five-oh myself, I think Erica has marked me down as a founder member. But that’s not going to happen. I’m far too cool for that crochet and custard creams malarkey.

‘Here you are, lovey,’ says Erica, slapping down two piles of A5 in front of me, along with a plastic bowl overflowing with Roses chocolates in shiny wrappings. ‘All you have to do is hand out the leaflets and ask people to fill in a form. Once we’ve got their details, thank them with a sweet.’

The doors swing open and the punters shuffle in. Most of them look about eighty and almost all of them are women. They rock a wide range of styles: long bleached hair and patterned leggings; flowing robes with flowery headscarves; church hats and fur-lined bootees. All of them head for the opposite side of the hall from me. I haven’t been paying much attention to what’s going on over there, so I take a look. A bunch of chirpy twenty-somethings from the council are distributing goody bags full of freebies: fleece gloves, wool scarves, thick socks.

While I’m wondering whether I qualify for some free socks, a woman – apparently dressed as a 1930s missionary – breaks away from the herd and heads for my stall. Without a glance at the paperwork I’ve arranged in an inviting fan shape, she takes a handful of Roses and drops them into her handbag. She moves on to the sports centre display, where they’re giving away free water bottles. Then I watch her hobble over to the foot therapists in the corner.

Good luck playing footsie with them, you sweet thief. They’re giving away nothing but advice.

Who does Mrs Missionary think she is, helping herself to chocolates without writing down her contact details in return? I’m annoyed, but I cheer up when a crowd descends on my stall. Within a few minutes the sweet bowl is half empty but not a single form has been filled in, and I’m so furious that I’m about ready to blow my top.

The woman who stops at my stall to read a leaflet is not much older than I am. That’s where the similarity ends. She’s a stone heavier and her hair is dragged up into a scraggy bun, exposing an inch of grey regrowth. I’m no spring chicken, but I haven’t let myself go. I can’t resist patting my own sleek hairdo.

Mrs Scraggy Bun reaches for the sweets. In slow motion I watch her pudgy fingers move nearer and nearer to the shining prize. Automatically, I stretch out my own bejewelled hand and, before I have time to realise what I’m doing, I’m clutching the Roses to my chest.

She doesn’t blink when she says, ‘I’ll have some of them sweeties for my grand-kids, if you don’t mind.’

It looks like I’m dealing with a hardened negotiator. I know it’s childish, but my hands just won’t unclench themselves from the bowl of chocolates. ‘If you want sweets, you’ll have to register for the new Over Fifties Club. Erica said so.’

‘What if I don’t want to join?’

‘Then you don’t get any sweets.’ Even to me, it sounds pathetic.

She laughs and waves the leaflet in my face. ‘Have you read this?’

I haven’t.

The woman reads aloud, slowly. ‘Cooking. Gardening. Sewing. Guided walks. Sing-songs. Are you going to sign up for this stuff?’

‘I’d love to, but I’m not quite fifty yet, and-’

‘You’ve got a life. So have I. Who can afford to retire at fifty these days? And if I could, I wouldn’t want to do the same things I’ve been doing for the last thirty years, cooking and sweeping up and mending and trailing along after people. And I can’t sing a note.’

‘If you’d like to suggest some different activities, I’m sure that Erica-’

‘In two years I’ll be sixty. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a carpenter, like my Dad, but they said girls couldn’t do that. I used to play football with the boys but, when I asked if I could go professional, I was told girls weren’t allowed to do that either. So I gave up and did all the things girls were supposed to do. Now my kids are grown up and I want to play football again. I want to learn to make furniture, and study for a degree like my daughter did. I want to skydive. And, come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind learning to sing.’

‘Umm,’ I say, ‘I’m not sure how Erica will feel about the sky-diving.’

‘My mate done it, and she’s eighty-five. She says they strap you to a nice young man and he looks after you, because he doesn’t want to die either. Sounds good to me.’

She replaces the leaflet neatly before she says, ‘You can stuff your chocolates, love. I’ve got better things to do.’

My heart pounds with excitement, because Mrs. Scraggy Bun has managed to put into words something I’ve been feeling but couldn’t express. I look around for Erica. She’s nowhere to be seen.

‘Open your bag, please,’ I say.

Mrs Scraggy Bun clamps chubby fists around her shopper and says, ‘I ain’t stolen nothing.’

‘I know,’ I say. ‘Just open it.’ I empty what’s left of the sweets into her bag.

Erica calls me a few days later and says, ‘Whatever did you get up to at the Festival, lovey?’

I say, ‘I’m so sorry I didn’t get any forms filled in.’

‘No problem,’ says Erica. ‘You must have done something right. Twelve people turned up for the first meeting, and believe it or not, three of them were men. They had lots of suggestions for activities. Can you take on some paid work? It’s going to be easy for me to set up the choir and a few games of Walking Football, whatever that is, but you’ll have to arrange the sky diving.’

Loarn is currently trying to place her first crime novel and working on a range of short stories she aims to self-publish this year. Her day job is supporting hearing-impaired university students, she also volunteers and has recently passed British Sign Language Level 2.

Twitter: @PatersonLoarn

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