THE NEWBIE (1002 words)
It hadn’t been an easy decision, this move to be closer to my daughter. I had left the house that I had lived in when I was married, said goodbye to good neighbours, close friends and familiar shops. But despite my daughter’s assurances that I would soon make new friends, I sensed I was not welcome. The locals appeared clannish, their carapaces as hard to crack as walnuts. Generations of families had lived in this northern town, forging a tight-knit community. I felt like a dandelion clock blowing directionless in the wind. And what a wind it was; vicious, gritty, relentless; horsewhipping me for the audacity of wanting to belong. These moorland communities bared their bodies and souls to the elements, just like the sheep on the barren hillsides. The tenebrous granite terraces which peppered the bleak and hostile landscape reminded me of tombstones. And of the colour of my skin.
At one time this place was the lifeblood of the woollen industry, the soft, pure water flowing from the hills being perfect for producing the finest quality cloth which was so much in demand. Entire families worked in the mills, had done for generations, but since the decline of the woollen industry in these parts, incomers had been regarded with suspicion. When I passed them on the pavement, they gave me a wide berth and wouldn’t make eye contact, despite my making an effort to smile and say a cheery ‘Good Morning!’. I knew people were gossiping about me from the way conversations faded when I entered a shop, or else furtive glances betrayed their discomfort at my presence.
‘You’ll soon get to know them, Mummy, give it time,’ said my daughter breezily. But what did she know? She worked full time, and had neither the need nor time to integrate.
As I saw it, I had several barriers to overcome before being socially accepted:
1. My daughter and son-in-law were commuters, that loathsome group which boosted house prices way beyond the means of local people.
2. My grandchildren attended a private school rather than the local state school. In other words the family was regarded as ‘too posh for these parts’.
3. My unfamiliar accent and skin colour.
Unsurmountable issues, all of them. Nonetheless, I determined to immerse myself in local activities and hope to win over some of the movers and shakers of the village.
The mystery coach trip had been organised by the library supporters’ group. No one came to sit next to me. I had bought bags of sweets - perennial favourites – to share on the coach trip. Despite handing them round, the bags were handed back almost as full as when I handed them out. Did the rejection of the sweets signify a rejection of me, I wondered?
I had to make do with eavesdropping on snatches of gossip instead.
‘…having another one – her fourth, and still no man on the scene, her mam would be turning in her grave …thinking of taking the bastards to court for negligence, and I don’t blame him …yes, he’s still on the waiting list … it’s her 80th, you wouldn’t know it … working in Tenerife, bet the taxman would be interested…’.
And so it went on, soporific soundbites of life’s petty minutiae.
Suddenly I was jerked rudely awake, sweets scattering as the coach veered off the road and lurched violently into a ditch. Handbags slid down the centre aisle, contents scattering; sounds of distress and panic, like animals going to the slaughter, flooded my ears. I managed to undo my seatbelt, dragged myself upright and looked back at the chaos. Heaps of passengers were lying like skittles amongst a tangle of shoes and specs, their meticulously coiffed grey hair in disarray, while those still in seatbelts were dangling at a unlikely angles, like suspended circus acrobats.
Driver OK? Check.
Engine off? Check.
Fire exit accessible? Check.
I dialled 999, gave the Google map location, number of casualties, estimate of injuries, noted ambulance ETA.
I divided the scrum into wounded, walking wounded and shaken but otherwise unharmed. The driver found the first-aid kit and limped towards the fire exit, passengers in tow. I attempted to triage the less lucky individuals. One suspected heart attack, several hyperventilating, some broken bones and a possible concussion or two. Most of the injuries had been incurred by people toppling over each other – elderly people are as fragile as a tower of cards – and some had careered into the unforgiving backs of seats. There would be a lot of bruises and black eyes tomorrow, I figured, as I administered CPR.
Then the sky inked over as snow began to fall, creating hills of soft white pillows from feathers of ice. Birds had stopped singing, preserving their energy for the overnight chill while muffled whimpers from those standing outside punctuated the silence as they bandaged their scarves ever more tightly around their faces. A good time to hand out sweets again. This time there were plenty of takers - ‘sugar for shock,’ I heard them murmuring to each other, as they pounced gratefully on mints, jelly babies and toffee eclairs.
The ambulance arrived and the paramedics took over. What the passengers didn’t know was that I had been a paramedic all my working life, and I had been acting on autopilot. It felt good to be able to help.
From that point on, my status in the community changed. The crash made headlines in the local rag, my mugshot appearing alongside a photo of the upturned coach and a lengthy account of the accident. I became a local hero, and everyone wanted to be my friend. Strangers stopped me in the street with words of gratitude and handshakes. As the word spread, cups of tea and cosy chats replaced previously frosty frowns and glares. Recipes were exchanged, ailments discussed, local gossip shared. This little town has finally become my home.
All it needed was a helping of time and a pinch of providence.