A sense of choral duty compelled me to go along to a chorister’s house the other day to help make bunting. Choir No.2 (as opposed to the other one, where I’ve sentenced myself to singing a solo) also has an upcoming summer concert (where the bunting will feature) and our leader wants this to be her best one ever, because she’ll retire from her teaching job a month later. She is currently riddled with anticipatory anxiety as to how to fill her post-retirement days. This particularly worry is completely alien to me, being I’ve quite happily done absolutely nothing of any use to anybody for years.
Quite a few disappointed voices could be heard at practice, when they realised that bunting-making day was a Friday and, therefore, they couldn’t go. ‘I’ve got work,’ my neighbour wailed miserably, ‘so have I,’ another neighbour bemoaned, ‘I’d much rather make bunting.’ So me, a couple of retired women, a nurse and our leader rolled up at the house of the lady who was hosting the bunting session.
I arrived first, after parking my tiny car very carefully, and very thoughtfully, alongside a bit of kerb in the middle of two driveways. There was nowhere else to park. I noted a car parked in one of the driveways and reckoned that both sets of homeowners would be able to get in or out. On entering our hostess’s house I forced her to allow me to snoop around a new kitchen she’d had installed a few months ago, and she obliged, opening all the drawers to show me her wonderful, maximising storage space, but of most interest to me was the solid wood worktop.
I’m getting a new kitchen in a couple of weeks and decided on a wooden worktop. The friend had immediately bombarded me with wooden worktop horror stories, via facebook messaging, admonishing me severely for such a misguided choice of kitchen work surface. When I replied that I’m not the sort of person to view water stains, on any kind of worktop surface, as life threatening, or that coffee cup marks did not in the least alarm me, I was further criticised for being an absolute idiot, who ignores well-intentioned advice, and did I not realise that I was entering worktop Armageddon. Sensing a second ending coming on, to a long-standing friendship (a failed attempt had occurred some months ago) I’d ended the overwrought and slightly mad conversation. Not that I’m the kind of person to routinely end any kind of relationship, being I count myself lucky to know anyone at all.
Our hostess and I were in simpatico where worktops were concerned, as she had been subject to the same warnings that wooden worktops were, in fact, the work of the Devil. She shot down the friend’s vision of a kitchen apocalypse by pointing out that her worktop had been in use for 5 months and there was not a water stain on it, or any dreaded black mould, or any crockery marks. And all I had to do to maintain this pristine condition was polish my worktop with a special oil every 3 months, which she got out and proceeded to polish bits of her worktop with, to prove the point.
The rest of the bunting makers then appeared and we sat round a large dining table, a giant column of plastic tubs, full of swatches of material perched at one end. There followed the distribution of pinking (where on earth did ‘pinking’ come from) shears, only two of which worked; a pencil each for drawing round a bunting template (we cut out our own triangle template) and bags for putting left over material in.
I immediately got going; head down, working feverishly away with a pencil, in an attempt to be invisible, being that group chat around a table with people I barely know is anathema to stammering me. I chose pretty, pastel, floral materials (that’s so me, avoiding the garish oranges, yellows and greens (or anything polka dot) like the plague.) I drew round my template, and nicked one of the working pinking shears, and a pile of bunting slowly appeared. Whilst all around me the nattering began.
Nitter, natter, chitter chatter, it went. Weren’t there a lot of colds about? Had anyone had the flu? What about all that snow? Meanwhile, the piles of bunting, like topsy, grew. Somebody mentioned their 99 year old mother-in-law had died a week ago, and whilst taking care of her had sometimes felt like a pain she and her husband now felt a mother-in-law shaped hole in their lives. The bunting paused. At the mention of taking care of relatives, our hostess mentioned that her husband had dementia (early onset at 59) and was asleep upstairs. He slept through the days and was, therefore, awake every night (an understandable trial) – if you could apply the state of being ‘awake’ to someone so drugged he was more a zombie in suburbia. I’d met her husband once, fleetingly, and it’s why I don’t believe in the Christian concept of the soul. She’d introduced him and there was nobody there, just a living automaton with dead eyes. Our sense of self, of being unique (what religion calls the soul) is so dependent on the biology of the brain, that when dementia eats away at that brain then, puff, we and our ‘souls’ simply disappear.
This ran through my mind, as I imagined him asleep in a room a floor above, until I began to think of him as a sort of ghost, haunting us all.
The bunting-making continued, as we collectively pondered the ancient, dead mother-in-law and the husband upstairs. Suddenly our hostess produced a sewing machine from thin air. I swear I have no idea how it got there. One minute I’d glanced at her cutting up her bunting, the next she was fiddling about with a cotton reel on top of a massive sewing machine. It was like Mary Poppins suddenly producing a settee from her handbag.
She explained that the bunting would be machine stitched onto a white strip of something or other, which was wound tightly into a spiral shape. I don’t know what that’s called in sewing circles, being I don’t sew, but everyone else there knew exactly what she was talking about, being ardent seamstresses, and launched into dress making tales from the distant past to the present.
The common thread in these tales was the nightmare treatment they’d all received from needlework teachers at school. This was of great interest to me, being I’d previously thought I was the only child in existence to be publicly told that they were absolutely crap at needlework (and other crafty skills) during every needlework lesson. But it turns out that the now defunct position of ‘Needlework Teacher,’ in mainstream schools, appeared to have attracted absolute harridans to the role, who’d left their pupils with lasting PTSD (post traumatic sewing disorder.)
Our hostess meanwhile got going with her sewing machine but it wasn’t long before she hit all kinds of snags, thread-wise and otherwise. Something went wrong with the bobbin. Something went wrong with the foot thing. Something went wrong with the pedal. While she got redder and redder in the face, letting out exasperated gasps, the rest of us continued penciling and cutting. All was relatively quiet until the nurse began a monologue about her son.
He was 19. He was shy. He’d taken A levels in physics, maths and something else impossibly hard and failed them all. He was a sort of a recluse. For a year, he’d posed such an immense problem to her that she deemed it the worst year of her life. Inwardly I sympathised, whilst all around me was the comforting sound of many ‘aahhs’ and ‘oh dears’ and ‘oh bless him’s.’ ‘He recently got a temporary job,’ she continued, ‘which I’m hoping will force him to interact, but I also try not to pressure him, because one of my neighbours came home to find her 21 year old son hanging from a beam in her loft.’
The aahhs and the oohhs stopped. The bunting fell from our fingers and the pinking shears were dropped. This was no longer about bunting and this was serious, for we were all mothers of sons. And the whole thing became about the heavy, and mostly unseen, burden of societal pressure that some young men find themselves carrying upon their shoulders. A pressure they’re maybe too scared or embarrassed to admit to; and embarrassment, like smoking, can kill.
This invisible 21 year old, whose back story I knew nothing about, began to haunt the room, like the sleeping man upstairs. ‘Terrible,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it?’ said the nurse. Our leader began to talk about her two twenty-something sons, how both had suffered from shyness, how one had yet to find his way in the world. There was much sharing of motherly (and grandmotherly) worries. Sympathy filled the room. Empathy filled the room. The now disregarded piles of bunting filled the room. The hanging boy in the loft looked down at me and suddenly all I could irrationally think about was feminism and war.
There’s a pop song from the 80’s called ‘19’, about the Vietnam war, where the recurring hook is that the average age of an American soldier conscripted to that war was 19. N-N-N-N-Nineteen, it goes, over and over again, just to get the message across. Those poor, scared CHILDREN (not men) were nothing more than political ‘cannon fodder.’
And I thought how that intensely shy, reclusive 19 year old, worrying about A level failure and social interaction would, in a previous life and a different country, have been deemed a ‘man’ and called up to fight an utterly pointless war, in which he’d have most certainly died. I thought about the 21 year old, fighting his own inner war, who’d felt that his life was worthless, to himself and to others. How many similarly afflicted anxious and shy young men had to go through both world wars and conflicts in foreign lands? And then I thought about strident Feminism. The feminists will only really appeal to me when they fight for the conscription of young women, and send their own daughters to a certain death.
Desperate measures were required to change the depressing subject. ‘Anyone for tea and cake!’ our hostess practically screamed at us from over the top of her sewing machine. ‘Oh, yes please,’ everyone chorused and the bunting making resumed. ‘Tea or coffee,’ she asked us, in turn. ‘T…T…T,’ I attempted from behind a chair, where I was picking up a piece of fallen bunting. ‘TEA!’ they all chorused and laughed, breaking the spells cast by the boy in the loft and the lonely n-n-n-nineteen year old. A cup of tea and a slice of fruit cake later, I then had to leave.
On returning to my car I found a note under a windscreen wiper:
Please do not obstruct our driveway. You’re making it very difficult for people to get their cars out. In future have more consideration.
Kind regards from No….
This was the first note I’d ever had placed on my car, and also the first car-related complaint I’d ever had in my oh so careful, anxiety filled life. I glanced at their drive, to find that the car previously parked there had disappeared……so, not so difficult to get the car out was it? I toyed with the idea of writing a reply on the back of the note, and posting it back through their letterbox, but feared the Blocking Driveways Police, and went on my way.
I messaged this bunting-making turn of events to our hostess, who couldn’t believe that her oh so tolerant neighbours had done such an uncharacteristic thing. ‘They’ve been under a lot of stress this week,’ she replied, ‘that must explain it. Don’t let it put you off coming to the next bunting session.
So much unseen stress about, thought I. All the world’s a stage, and most of its mere players have stage fright.
Yes, I’ll go to the next bunting session, but let’s be honest and call it free therapy instead.