Embracing the silver sisterhood: Del Hughes spends an evening with the WI
My hair’s brushed, I’ve got lippy on and I’m wearing a bra for the first time since Covid. Tim (hubby) says, ‘You look nice, but stop fussing.’
Thanks Tim, but you try not fidgeting when you’re having a full-on menopausal flush and your nipples are chafing!
And no, I can’t just ‘not wear it!’ because, Calendar Girls aside, it would be most improper to attend a WI meeting with my tits under my armpits!
So, remember those adverts of the 70s & 80s, where two children follow an aromatic, vapour trail, finally exhaling with a satisfied, ‘Ah, Bisto’?
Well, this is similar, except I’m exhaling with series of violent sneezes and, ‘Ah, Lily of the Valley and camphor!’
It’s a heady mix and, just like the Bisto kids, if I’d needed help locating the meeting room, I could simply have followed my nose. So I do.
As I tackle the stairs, I can hear hoots of laughter and the hum of convivial conversation.
Hmm . . . I was doubtful about coming but maybe it’ll be alright after all.
Uh oh, spoke too soon.
I’m initially denied entry by two women on sentry duty, jealously guarding a simmering urn, and the door. They ensure that:
If your name’s not down, you’re not getting in! (Luckily, mine is.)
No one gets a cuppa before the allocated time – ‘After the talk, not before!’ Okay then . . .
And suddenly, I’m snow blind. I’ve never seen so many senior females gathered in one place (unless you count funerals), and it’s a walking, talking Dulux colour chart. Pewter and Battleship ombré through the full spectrum, ending with Scotch Mist and Frost.
Not that I can talk – I joined the ‘Silver Sisterhood’ two years ago, so my hair feels at home here, even if the rest of me, currently, doesn’t.
I’d imagined ladies in vintage tea dresses, sipping from fine china and daintily disposing of Victoria Sponge with dessert forks.
But there’s not a cake or porcelain cup in sight, and I feel a bit off balance – and it’s not just because my stick keeps slipping on the parquet.
I’m considering pushing off when Liz (Deputy Chair) hails me, bustles over and gives me a hug.
We met yesterday; I was sitting on a log in the woods, with Barney (our elderly lurcher), when the peace was ruptured by two mercurial dachshunds, and a plodding Labrador called Snail.
Once Liz restrained ‘Bangers and Mash! Ha!’, we got talking, she mentioned this, and now, here I am.
She ushers me off to meet, ‘Delia and Glenys, our Treasures.’
Her tone implies they’re a female version of the Krays and she laughs and says, ‘The Krays were probably nicer. Ha!’
Delia and Glenys are of an age, sporting matching shampoo and sets.
They’re the treasurers (Ah, I see what you did there Liz), they collect the subs and they’re scrutinising me suspiciously.
I give my reassuring ‘I’m-not-going-to-make-off-with-your-eight-pound-coins’ smile, but Delia slides the cash box closer to her because, clearly, I’m a shady character.
At Liz’s prompting, Glenys grudgingly hands me a raffle ticket, even though I’m, ‘. . . not a member so you shouldn’t get one, by rights.’
I ask what you win and they exchange glances before Glenys answers, ‘Eggs, a sewing lesson or money.’
‘Ooh! I hope I get the eggs.’
Bollocks do I? I’ll take cash please.
My ‘joke’ doesn’t appear to warm them up and, as one, they return to their surveillance of the assembled ne’er-do-wells; at least it’s not just me who looks shifty.
Boys in blue
If you’ve read my other articles, you’ll know that I’ve recently embarked on a life-improvement regime, trying out different activities and meeting new people. And that’s why I’m here, at my very first WI meeting, waiting for a talk on fraud.
Everyone’s overexcited about the imminent arrival of policemen, especially Janice, a spirited nonagenarian, whose knot of friends are teasing her mercilessly and causing much merriment.
‘Well, we all knows you likes a man in uniform!’ Janice blushes, and Liz whispers over my shoulder, ‘Married twice. Army, RAF. Outlived them both.’
Uh, good for Janice?
When the boys in blue do arrive, both men are somewhat alarmed at their reception; one sparky lady shouts out ‘Strippergrams!’ and the resultant wave of raucous laughter causes them to hover, nervously, in the doorway.
Maxine (Assistant Chair), shoots us all a reproachful look and goes to collect them, while Liz plonks herself down next to me so we can have a ‘little chat before it gets going.’
No, this is not a chat, this is a WI chat . . .
Yes, I have a bad back. Yes, several operations. Yes, it’s permanent. Yes, I’m local. Yes, Tim. No, no children. Two step-kids. Yes, four grandchildren. All boys. Yorkshire. No, not often enough. No, I don’t work now. Yes, retired. Disability. A teacher. Computing and English. Yes, I do miss it. Newent. Yes, a lovely part of the country. No, I don’t bake. No, I’m not green-fingered. No, I don’t knit. Or crochet. No, I’ve never been to the WI before.
Wow! Sod ‘Jam and Jerusalem’, this woman should be working for Mossad. In fairness though, she shares some details of her own; ‘Lost my husband . . . can’t find him anywhere! And the worst thing about him dying? He didn’t leave me a rich widow! Ha!’
Intelligence gathering complete, she heads off to meet PCs Justin and Pete, who are uneasily handing out pamphlets, and I begin chatting to Emily, who’s also a newbie.
Emily’s in her early eighties, with smiley eyes and proudly tells me she’s still has all her ‘own teeth, apart from the top plate.’
She’s just moved to the area and, like me, is looking for friends and fun.
So far, she’s not convinced.
‘Everyone seems a bit. . . old, don’t you think?’
Whoa! If an octogenarian thinks that, I might be in the wrong place.
Then the clock hits 7:00pm, Glenys and Delia start forceful shushing, and the presentation gets underway.
The coppers tried to explain various fraud schemes, but I think they were beaten before they began.
There was a lot of tutting, ‘Oohing’ and ‘Well, I go to Neath’s’, along with synchronised head shaking, and thrilled gasps when Justin talked about ‘Romance Scams’.
The anecdotes were interesting and the ladies engaged, but maybe Pete should have lead with the safety advice because you could barely hear him over hearty hilarity and the, ‘Ooh, I wouldn’t mind a bit of romance, scam or no.’ Et cetera, ad infinitum.
Then they opened the floor for questions and, initially, it went well.
‘How do fraudsters know your passwords?’
‘What should I do if I’m scammed?’
‘Should I hang up or keep them on the line?’
This last one was asked by Sheila, who hopefully explained she could record calls on her dictaphone and then ‘. . . pass them onto the relevant authorities?’
Justin shook his head, said that wouldn’t be necessary, and to, ‘Just follow the advice in the booklet.’
Sheila was clearly disappointed; she told me later that she loved Agatha Christie and Hamish Macbeth, which somewhat explained her dismay.
But then, conversation turned to the fraudsters, and where they probably came from, and I shifted, uncomfortably, in my seat.
However, Liz, clearly au fait with certain archaic opinions of a very tiny percentage of her patrons, masterfully reined them in, and gently rebuked Mary for her short diatribe on call-centre employees.
Phew! (Afterwards, Liz rolled her eyes when I mentioned it – ‘With a membership like ours, unfortunately, you will encounter the odd dinosaur – ‘Antiqueasaurs’ I call them. Ha!’)
Knit and natter
And then the sentries/tea ladies signalled the end of the talk, circulating with trays of steaming mugs, and wreathed in smiles.
The police made their excuses and left – prompting a disappointed sigh from Janice. Emily and I were allowed a mug but ‘just the one biscuit mind ‘cause you haven’t paid no subs yet.’
Fair enough. . . though I deliberately took the only chocolate Hob Nob and, as Liz would say – Ha!
The interlude was great.
I chatted with nearby ladies and it was sociable and sorority-esque.
Pauline told me about ‘Knit and Natter’, where I could come to just play darts. Darts? ‘See, we’re not really meant to, but we do. Pam was in a team down the Spinning Wheel.’
She pointed out Pam who was indeed wistfully eyeing up the dartboard, I applauded their subtle rebellion and have put ‘Knit and Natter’ down as a definite maybe.
And they’ve been yarn bombing.
Postbox toppers in honour of the jubilee now blanket our locale, with crowns, union jacks and, surprisingly accurate, depictions of a woolly HRH.
They look incredible and certainly raise a smile.
But, though I admire the skill, I don’t have a yearning to learn how to crochet a corgi. . . as yet.
All too soon, the mugs were collected and we were into proper WI business.
Jubilee Afternoon Tea and the Summer Dinner both sounded like excellent socialising opportunities but, unfortunately, Emily and I weren’t eligible as we – can you guess? – hadn’t paid any subs. Sigh.
Liz said that didn’t matter and to come along anyway, but Glenys thinned her lips and shook her head, emphatically.
Ah well, maybe another time?
Just as Emily and I were considering making a getaway, something very unexpected occurred which put all thoughts of sneaking off to the pub out of my mind.
Charades! CHARADES!! Random yes, but bloody fantastic!
Just before I continue, I should mention:
- If I had a ‘bucket list’, #1 would be to appear on Richard Osman’s ‘House of Games’.
- I love parlour games.
- I’m very competitive.
- I’m amazing at charades.
- Did I mention that I’m competitive? And it’s pointless attempting to stifle this innate passion, which exhibits as falsetto shrieking, enthusiastic applause and sporadic whooping.
Dottie (Deputy Games Mistress) appeared, shaking a bag of folded squares of paper whilst Jennifer, (Games Mistress), informed us that all charades were police-themed. Nice tie-in ladies.
We whipped through Midsomer Murders, Death on the Nile and Juliet Bravo before I drowned out the rest with a strident Starsky & Hutch!
To be frank, I’m more for the guessing than the doing, but I wanted to show I’m a good sport, so I lurched up, propped myself (and walking stick) against the table so I both hands were free and away I went.
Three words. TV. First word . . . I begin driving, turning an imaginary wheel as they shout out, numerous, answers:
Lorry? No Dottie, smaller word.
Car? Nope Liz.
Driving? Nope, shorter.
Car (again)? No Janice, we’ve just covered that.
Right, Plan B. Sounds like. . . Shit. . . the clue’s in the name – Women’s Institute = No Men.
Think Del, think. Aha! Sounds like. . . I jiggle my breasts, all the while shaking my head and looking expectantly at my audience.
Just blank faces, and pursed lips.
I keep going for a few more seconds but I’m starting to panic and can feel another flush blooming – this one anxiety-driven, not waning HRT.
I’m stumped, but then inspiration strikes.
I point to my groin and mime. . . a man, holding his d*** and having a pee.
What the hell am I thinking?
This isn’t a drunken Christmas sesh with the family – it’s the WI!
But I’m out of ideas so I compound matters by repeating it, interspersed with more head shaking and breast cupping until finally – FINALLY – a saviour in the guise of Beryl shouts out ‘MAN?’
And from there, it’s a quick hop to ‘Van de Valk.’
Praise be to Beryl!
Look, I know it wasn’t the best but, in fairness, I think you’d get stage fright when faced with a sea of, increasingly affronted, elderly women.
Companionship and camaraderie
Later, I apologised to Liz, said sorry if I’d offended anyone, but she brushed it off with a giggle. ‘Oh, they’re not as uptight as they seem, believe you me! Ha!’
Then Janice, et al, waved me over and I learned a lot about their families (or lack of), pets, crafts and how they cope with loneliness.
How, for many, these fortnightly meetings, ‘. . . keep us going,’ and one lady, Fran, said she often ‘goes days without speaking to a soul’ so this was her lifeline.
It was genuinely moving, and I felt real admiration for these women who come together to make the world a nicer place . . . one postbox at a time.
Yes, in some respects, today’s WI still fits the age-old stereotype, but it’s not simply crafts, cakes and competitions.
They’ve run numerous campaigns over the years – some scarily prophetic – which clearly show that the organisation has always kept one foot firmly rooted in modernity.
Plus, it’s where the Frans, (and Dels) of this world can convene for companionship and camaraderie.
I enjoyed the evening and came away thinking that its motto – Inspiring Women – certainly felt appropriate.
But before I left, I’d had a quick word with Jennifer and discovered that, ‘Some weeks, we just play games, or have a quiz or whatnot.’
OMG! I’ve definitely found my tribe!
I just need to remember to wait for tea to be proffered and to never, ever cup my breasts (or anyone’s for that matter) during WI proceedings.
Oh, and penises are most definitely off the table too!
Lessons learned, ladies! See you in a fortnight.
To find your nearest WI group, head to their website: www.thewi.org.uk. Also, check Facebook, as many branches have dedicated local pages.
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