The platinum jubilee is almost upon us. All kinds of high jinks have been planned at the community centre but with a pandemic in its third year, the cost of living sky-high and grim news from abroad on the airwaves, we’re in no mood to bring out the bunting. One afternoon our manager, Erica, summons everyone who happens to be on the premises to what she calls a ‘motivational meeting’.
I’m there to plant celebratory flowers in the yard, so I get roped into Erica’s communal pep talk. I drop my trowel and rush to the office in time to bag the only guest chair. Marlon, the youth leader, sits down on one arm of it and Yogi Tony perches on the other. So many people cram into the room that eventually I can only glimpse Erica between two stout ladies from the Book Club. At the last minute, Bub elbows her way through the crowd. ‘You don’t mind, do you Lovey?’ she says, plumping herself down on my lap. Now all I can see is her scraggy blonde bun.
The agenda is a list of existential threats. Wisely Erica goes straight to the heart of the matter. ‘Times are hard,’ she says, ‘and it’s up to us to raise everyone’s spirits.’
‘Try raising our wages,’ someone calls out. A murmur of agreement runs around the room.
Erica sighs deeply. ‘Unfortunately, that’s out of my hands.’
‘You lot who work for the council will be all right. You’ve got contracts and regular incomes,’ says Tony. ‘Nobody’s going to pay for a hobby class if they can’t afford to put food on the table or heat their houses.’
‘Si, eso es verdad. Ain’t that the truth?’ says the teacher of conversational Spanish.
Then Bub pipes up. ‘Don’t forget us volunteers. We’re as worried as the rest of you.’
‘What have you got to worry about, Bub? Your boyfriend has a very big….pension.’ Myrtle is so close behind me her breath makes me nostalgic for social distancing. ‘Try volunteering at the food bank like I do. It makes me happy to help others.’
Bub snaps, ‘I hear you’ve been helping yourself.’
‘Say that to my face!’
Myrtle leans over my shoulder and prods Bub with a forefinger. Bub swivels around on my knees to retaliate. I’m squashed between them. If this kicks off, I’ll be toast, so I can’t help squealing. Fortunately, Marlon is trained in conflict resolution. He puts an arm around each of the women and whispers, ‘Leave it out, Bub. That crate of tinned pears will soon turn up, won’t it Myrtle?’
Erica can’t see what’s going on, but she hears my squeal of protest. ‘Who made that noise?’
The Book Club ladies are shocking tell-tales. ‘Lovage!’ they chorus. They’ve dropped me in it, but at least they got my name right.
‘Do you want to say something, Lovey?’ Without waiting for an answer Erica goes on, ‘You’re a long-standing volunteer. Will you tell us how you keep up your enthusiasm?’
‘Yes of course, Erica.’ What else can I say? But she’s asking the wrong person.
When I signed up as a volunteer, I told Erica I wanted to give something back to society. I was lying. The truth is, I’d just become self-employed, my clients were few and far between and I wanted a place to hang out where I didn’t pay the heating bills. Later on, a few hours of paid work Erica found for me helped to keep the wolf from the door. Since then I’ve been motivated by having fun, making friends, and eating my weight in custard creams.
I can’t tell my boss and colleagues this, so I’m going to have to improvise. I’m not sure where to start, but the beginning seems like as good a place as any. I wriggle out from under Bub, who swiftly claims my seat, and make my way to the front of the room.
‘You want to know how I keep up my motivation? Let me take you back to the first event I ever supported here at the community centre. Back then there was money in the system, and we’d just won funding to run a series of new activities. All the centre’s users were invited to a meeting where they voted to decide what to do first. Ballroom dancing came out on top.’
Erica says, ‘I remember booking the tutor. Her name was Ramona. She had superb credentials. I couldn’t be there on the day, but I was very excited about the project.’
‘You can’t have been as excited as I was. As a new volunteer on my first gig, I was anxious to get it right, so I arrived early to organise the refreshments. Free tea and cake had been advertised and I wanted to make sure everything looked nice. I even decorated the cake plates with left-over paper doilies I found in the kitchen. Ramona showed up bang on time, looking glamorous in a pink sequined track suit and court shoes with sparkling two-inch heels. When she saw thirty or forty punters milling around in the function room, her face lit up like a glitter ball. She plugged her iPad into the sound system and began to glide up and down the floor, demonstrating both the male and female steps of a waltz. Everyone stood around with cups of tea, admiring her performance. It looked as though the session was going to be a great success.’
‘But it was a success, wasn’t it?’
‘Yes, Erica, it was successful, up to a point. The crowd enjoyed watching Ramona dance, but when it was time to join in and have a go themselves, they were a tad reluctant.’
‘You mean there was a stampede for the exit.’
It’s Myrtle’s voice. I add this remark to my mental list of grudges against her.
‘I wouldn’t call it a stampede. It was more like a drift. And it was my fault, because I’d made a basic rookie error. Can anyone tell me what it was?’
Cries of ‘Don’t let them eat cake!’ vibrate around the packed room.
‘That’s right. I’d brewed the tea, spooned out the instant coffee, cut the Victoria sponges and sliced the swiss rolls far too early. People who had no intention of taking part showed up for the freebies. By the time Ramona was ready to start her session, they’d gobbled up the lot. That’s how I learned the hard way that it’s essential to hide the treats until you’ve got the punters where you want them.’
‘It’s the first step in obedience training,’ the therapy dog’s owner agrees.
‘I suffered for my mistake. Only ten people stayed to learn ballroom dancing, but afterwards I had to wash up forty cups and saucers.’
‘Serves you right,’ says Myrtle.
A few sniggers are heard from the back of the room, but Marlon stands up for me. ‘Ten is plenty to keep your eye on when they’re moving. And it’s an even number, so they can work in pairs.’
‘You can have too many in a class,’ Yogi Tony agrees. ‘Back in the seventies I once tried to teach the sun salutation to fifty hippies. It took ages to prise them apart. I expect it was the same with the tango.’
‘When we were sure no-one else was going to walk out,’ I continue, ‘Ramona asked whose idea it had been to try ballroom dancing. An elegant old woman in a red dress put her hand up. She’d once won a cha-cha competition at a holiday camp and was hoping to relive the moment, so Ramona played cha-cha music and invited the lady in red and her dapper husband to show us how it was done. They did their best, but it was obvious they hadn’t tried to move fast for a very long time. After the music ended the pair remembered a bad back (hers) and a dodgy knee (his) and retired to the sidelines. Somebody joked that it must have been the knobbly knees competition they had won.
‘We were down to eight participants, but Ramona didn’t give up. She asked what dances other members of the group would like to learn. Immediately two wiry middle-aged women wearing leather gilets leapt to their feet and announced that they’d come along in the hope of finding new recruits to their line dancing club. The others agreed to give it a go.
‘At this point Ramona’s sequins lost some of their sparkle, but she’d committed herself and there was no way out. While she was searching without enthusiasm for country music, the leather-clad pair lined up the rest of us and showed us how to do the grapevine. To her credit, Ramona joined in, easily imitating the step. The same could not be said for the rest of us. After we’d been stepping cautiously from side to side for several minutes, our leaders became over-confident and began rotating on the spot. It was several minutes before they noticed that the rest of us had retreated in confusion.
‘Ramona, being a true professional, was bowed but not beaten. She had one weapon left in her armoury and she was not afraid to use it: nostalgia. Did anyone remember a dance they’d done with their family, she asked. Was there any special music? Were there set steps?
‘Right away the lady in red’s dapper old husband stood up, limped over to Ramona’s iPad and found the music for the Lambeth Walk. Nowadays the house prices in Lambeth are astronomical, but a long time ago it was a working-class stronghold. Our community centre is on the outskirts of London, and many residents are descended from ancestors who moved east in the hope of bettering themselves. They brought with them their traditions. One of them was a dance. For the rest of the session the twelve of us bowled up and down the function room, doing the Lambeth Walk. Bad backs and aching knees were forgotten. Style and pace were irrelevant. We just had fun.
‘And that, Erica, is why I told you the ballroom dancing session was a great success.’
‘Thank you for your insight, Lovey,’ says Erica. ‘But what do you suggest we take from it?’
Everyone laughs when Myrtle says, ‘Yes, Lovey! What’s your point?’
I open my mouth and close it again without speaking. I have no idea.
Bub nudges the book club ladies out of her way and joins me by Erica’s desk. Seeing her combative expression, everyone falls silent, because you don’t mess with the local matriarch.
‘Lovey is saying that when times are hard you have to keep going, like Ramona did. You try different things until you find out what works. And sometimes you have to go back to the old ways of doing things because trying to be too flash can get you into trouble. Ain’t that right, Lovey?’
Erica nods. ‘It makes sense to me. Do you agree with Bub’s assessment, Lovey?’
‘Absolutely,’ I say. ‘I couldn’t have put it better myself.’
My colleagues give me a grudging round of applause and file out. Later that afternoon I see Marlon, Tony and Myrtle walking around with armfuls of multicoloured bunting. It isn’t on display yet, but at least it’s out of the closet.
Loarn has self-published the first ten stories from ‘Up the Community Centre’ as a novella, ‘The Thank You Sweets’, available on Amazon. Her next adventure is her crime novel, ‘Accounting for Loss’. Loarn blogs about books and her self-publishing journey on her website, www.patersonloarn.co.uk She has Level 2 BSL skills, and her day job is supporting hearing-impaired university students. Loarn is also a conservation volunteer.