It’s not enough to speak from the heart, to have strength of opinion, even to be right. Although, of course, who was right and who was wrong and the shades of grey in between in this instance were still open to question, or rather – open to public persuasion, should I say.
You see it’s not always what you say but how you say it. We are a nation of film-goers, TV watchers, air-punching sports fans. We like catchphrases, anthemic music, rollercoasters, and we get far too drunk far too often, sunburn ourselves dangerously, drive too fast. We don’t care what’s good for us and what’s bad for us so long as it socks us between the eyes roaring, ‘CUH’M-O-N!’ then has meaningless sex with us, throws us from an aeroplane and plays Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive at full volume as we fall screaming for a new kitchen (with stylish backspla-a-a-sh!…)
We are spoilt, over-stimulated, lazy, demanding and impatient. So when Ten-Tonne-Terry with his Braveheart-style rabble-rousing cliché and face like a beefsteak tomato got going, everyone sat up, shut-the-hell up and listened for three minutes. Three minutes. Never a second longer. He knew their limitations… or was it his limitations? There’s only so much received phrasing one can fit into a speech about the drawbacks of putting floral displays on a council estate after all.
I come to the town every year to mumble my well-worn little spiel, promoting the benefits of beautifying public spaces for the good of all, bow thanks for their time and duck out.
Terry’s always assumed – because I am a quiet bachelor – that I am gay. I’m not. Not that I was going to put him right. It made no difference to my job, my impact at these meetings. They weren’t interested anyway. It did mean, however, that how the evening eventually panned out stunned him somewhat. And I couldn’t help quietly enjoying that feeling.
I took my specs off, realised I needed them, put them back on again, fiddled with my papers, scratched my well-shaved chin, coughed, and took a deep breath.
‘Figures show communities benefit from developing a sense of pride in their area, children benefit from being allowed to participate with projects in their local area, the unemployed are better motivated when they can see how working on a skill can be based in and beneficial to their neighbourhood. Vandalism on such projects is in fact relatively low and the actual number of youths that attack community displays is very low – it tends to be the same one or two people and on the whole the vast majority of the community are ashamed and quite often make attempts to repair. Where projects such as these have been going on for a number of years, sense of community, feelings of well-being and contentedness have risen and other beneficial projects have been inspired.’
There was more but I paused. It was the same old, same old every year. It made sense. But it never convinced the committee. They knew what I was going to say and they had stopped listening years ago. Two people left the room before I had finished talking.
These were good points, good facts. Why weren’t they convinced?
Terry started a conversation with the man behind him.
I’m not one for sayings, clichés, well-worn phrases – I find them a bit limiting and prefer to chose my own words but I have to say the words ‘straw’ and ‘camel’ come to mind.
Years of giving up my evenings to travel to village and town halls across the region, years of being ignored, interrupted, shouted down, and never ever thanked for my time, well… I had a point to make and it seems I had never made it. I was angry with myself as much as anyone.
It was a new word and I was standing up this time. I looked too. I looked into the room, demanding their attention for the first time. Oh dear, politicians start their argument with the word ‘look’ I thought.
‘You see…’ I substituted, stumbling. ‘…It’s all very well beautifying the town centre and handsome avenues around the South, but you’re alienating a whole section of the community here. What sort of message are you giving out?’
I was trembling slightly and probably sounding a bit confrontational but … well, shall we just say ‘bee’ and ‘bonnet’?
‘Some people deserve better than others? Is that it?’
And then I saw her.
Second row from the back. Three seats in from the aisle. Light brown hair. Medium build. Pale green fleece top. Rosy, outdoors cheeks. Sat in between two men but, for some reason, quite clearly and obviously alone. Her head was tilted slightly to the right – my right, her left. She was listening. She was interested.
‘It’s all very well Terry spouting, “Throwing good money after bad” and “Leopards can’t change their spots” But what exactly is he saying? Where are the leopards? What is this good money and bad money? And another favourite of his: “What goes around comes around”? What exactly is it that has gone around?
One night an unknown number of unidentified people kicked over some flower displays and trod on some dahlias. And therefore everyone in and around the Mullaton estate is deprived of being part of the Communities in Bloom scheme. Who exactly have we punished here? Onwards and upwards, I say!’
‘Too right,’ came a man’s voice from the back.
‘Get out there and ask people on the estate to join in again. Bring the community back together. Get everyone on side. Forgive and forget. You’re all in this together. There is no them and us at the end of … ’ No I drew the line at that one.
That’s when she stood up. She clapped. She smiled. She nodded wisely.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, her eyes said.
It was love at first sight.
Second sight, actually.