Ian McMillan: It looks like a napkin that’s had fight and lost

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I’m the speaker for a big group of ladies in a big multi-purpose hall on the outskirts of Sheffield and as usual I’ve arrived far too early. I spot a couple of people who I suspect to be part of my audience going into the hall and I ask them which room the meeting is in. “I’ve no idea,” one of them replies, “I’ve just come for lunch with Doreen,” and because she’s Posh Yorkshire she pronounces it Lench to rhyme with Clench.

I wander around until I find the room I’m meant to be in and I’m so early that I’ve got there before the organisers. The room is vast and there are tables set for over a hundred people; we’re not having Lench but after my talk we’re going to have tea and cakes. A young woman at the far end of the room is expertly folding napkins into a pretty fan-design. It strikes me that she’s only done about three and she has many, many more to do before the gig begins.

Now all the napkins are folded and all the ladies are arriving. The organiser reiterates to me that I’ll speak for a while and then they’ll bring the buns and scones out.

The two organisers arrive and once we’ve sorted out how long I’m spouting for and who’s going to introduce me and who’s going to thank me, I turn their attention to the young woman folding up the napkins. I suggest maybe we should help. The organisers leap into the folding fray with gusto and table after table gets filled, beautifully. I keep expressing willingness to help but I know that I would be no good at it.

Someone else arrives, a committee member of the ladies group, with her friend who isn’t a regular. Soon, in an origami version of the Blitz spirit, they’re commandeered for folding. One of them, after folding half a dozen, shows me how to do it and I have a go. I do my best, I really do, but after all my efforts it looks like a napkin that’s been in a fight and lost. A lady comes who hasn’t been to the group before comes into the room, and for a joke I tell her that because she’s a newcomer she has to fold napkins. I must sound convincing because she sets to, willingly. I wonder how Doreen’s enjoying her Lench; she can’t be having as good a time as me.

Now all the napkins are folded and all the ladies are arriving. The organiser reiterates to me that I’ll speak for a while and then they’ll bring the buns and scones out. I stand there, about to open my mouth and deliver my carefully-crafted anecdotes, when suddenly a small army of waitresses burst from the swinging doors of the kitchen like cowboys rushing a saloon, carrying cream scones and fancy three-tier cake stands full of cakes. The organiser is aghast; this wasn’t meant to happen. She tries, through a series of elaborate gestures, to indicate to the staff that we don’t need the food yet. She is ignored and the tables are loaded with sugary delights, one after the other.

The ladies look longingly at them and I see a furtive hand or two stretching towards the food, but nobody takes any because deep in their hearts they know that there’s been a mistake and they’ll have to go back and, after a whispered conversation in the kitchen, they do. Never mind, they’ll taste better later. They hope. Enjoy your Lench, Doreen; I’m certainly enjoying my afternoon with the Ladies!

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